We must Stand for Voting Rights
May 2014. Sandy Sorensen, Director of the UCC Washington Office, reflects on the importance of protecting voting rights, recent legal and legislative attacks which restrict access to the vote, and what we can do as advocates to ensure that all voices are heard.
Voting is one of the most fundamental forms of civic engagement and participation in the common life of our country. It is the basic access point for individuals, and allows us all to have a voice in the public policy decision-making process, which shapes the future of our local, regional, national and global collective life. Yet as memories fade from the struggles to achieve voting rights for communities of color, women and young people, the right to cast a vote, and have that vote counted, is often taken for granted.
Growing threats to voting rights in recent years have generated a renewed sense of urgency on the part of advocates to call attention to the right to vote as an essential civil right. In the last several election cycles there have been increased efforts by state legislatures to suppress the vote, including rollbacks on early voting periods, attempts to block same-day registration, and the implementation of more restrictive voter identification requirements. These restrictions have been coupled with a rise in incidents of voter intimidation at the polls.
An additional setback for voting rights came last June, when the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act, in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling, weakening important protections against racial discrimination in the voting process.
Further undermining the voices of ordinary citizens in the political process is the growing influence of big money in elections and public policy decision-making, made more pronounced by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and, more recently, in the Court’s McCutcheon ruling on campaign financing. As a consequence, more and more people are withdrawing from engagement in the political process out of a growing sense of cynicism and mistrust.
Despite these significant challenges we must work together to restore and protect the right to vote, and reclaim our voice in the democratic process. What is at stake in the fight to restore voter rights is too great for us to succumb to indifference and apathy. As Doris Haddock (Granny D) declared in her walk across the country in support of campaign finance reform,
“If we allow the greedy and inhuman elements to steal away from us our self-government because we didn’t have the courage to fight for it and use it as a tool for our love and wisdom, how shall we answer for that?”
The UCC General Synod has long supported voting rights and addressing obstacles to participation in the electoral process within the broader context of the civil rights struggle. The General Synod witness around voting rights is grounded in the understanding that justice cannot be achieved unless the rules for governing the democratic process are fair to all.
The following are some concrete ways we can act to restore and protect our vote and our voice.
Advocate for passage of the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act:
In light of the Shelby decision, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation offering modern, flexible and forward-looking protections against racial discrimination in voting in every part of the country. The Voting Rights Amendment Act (HR 3899/S 1945) provides commonsense fixes to gaps in voter rights protections created by the Supreme Court decision, while also addressing the Court’s concern about the need to modernize existing law. You can take action by sending a letter to congress in support of the VRAA now.
Support the Voter Empowerment Act and Democracy Restoration Act:
The Voter Empowerment Act seeks to modernize the election process through online voter registration, same day voter registration, and establishing portability of state databases. The Democracy Restoration Act restores voting rights in states where those who have served felony convictions and return to their communities continue to be denied the right to vote.
Several key victories for voting rights on the state level underscore the need to continue state-focused efforts to restore and protect voting rights. In Wisconsin, Arkansas and Pennsylvania, judges halted restrictive voter identification laws. In Hawaii and Minnesota, bills to expand registration access passed the state legislatures. Many restrictions still remain in place and require continuing advocacy.
Response to Citizens United:
There are several bills currently before Congress calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse the impact of the Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon by restoring the ability of Congress and the states to regulate election fundraising and spending. The Government by the People Act (S.J. Res 19), proposes changes to the IRS code that would amplify the impact of small donors to political campaigns currently drowned out by huge corporate contributions.
Sixteen states and more than 500 cities and municipalities around the country have passed resolutions in support of a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United.
UCC Our Faith Our Vote:
Visit the UCC Our Faith Our Vote website for nonpartisan resources and guidance on organizing voter registration efforts, engaging in education and dialogue on key issues in local, state and federal campaigns, and ways to help voters get to the polls on Election Day. Information on webinars and additional resources will be posted periodically between now and November, so check the site regularly.