Presented to the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of the Wyoming Valley
October 8, 2006
As you are doubtless aware, in about 30 days local, state and national elections will be held across the country. Among the races will be the Pennsylvania Gubernatorial election. I have connections to both major candidates; as a boy I had a Lynn Swann Steelers jersey, and more recently, Courtney and I adopted our Golden Retriever from the same place that Ed Rendell got his. Makes for a tough choice…But I am not here to tell you who to vote for (and not just because the IRS could revoke our tax-exempt status if I did). Instead, I would like to talk about the importance of voting , the decline in the number of people who vote , and how we as Unitarian-Universalists can honor our Fifth Principle , and at the same time reverse the trend of low turnout at the polls.
As a teacher of United States history and civics, I spend a good part of my life discussing the democratic process with my students. I never fail to tell them of the powerful feelings of pride I experience whenever I cast a vote in an election. Kids may sometimes have trouble seeing the significance, especially given the prevalence of instant polls on popular websites. But, as I hope you will agree, there is a serious difference between expressing one's view on Paris Hilton's DUI arrest and electing the leaders of a nation.
Most significantly, in a republic such as ours, the system will only work if as many people as possible vote when the opportunity presents itself. If only 30-50% of those eligible vote, and a politician is elected with, say 49-50% of that total pool, it does not create a mandate. Instead, it leads to insecure politicians who would rather appeal to the narrow plurality who voted for them, rather than trying to increase the overall number of actual voters for the following elections.
In Unitarian-Universalism, we recognize the importance of voting in our Fifth Principle, which urges us to “affirm and promote the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.” While many religious denominations are involved in electoral politics, I know of no others which make the act of voting so central to their identity and meaning. We need to RE-affirm our commitment to this Principle, especially in the next month.
On Saturday, November 7th 1992, with Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow still running through my head, I strolled down Newbury Street in Boston with my best friend, and we eagerly speculated about the changes in store for America under its new President, Bill Clinton. We were 10 year-olds when the Reagan-Bush administration began, and it had led the country in a direction we did not like for most of our lives. To think that a new administration, led by people younger than our parents, was going to move in and lead America in a new direction was intoxicating and our optimism for the future was boundless.
In 1992, my friend Rick had enthusiastically voted for Clinton. Rick was captivated by Clinton's style, ease of manner and youth. I had always been suspicious of Clinton, because he and Al Gore had supported the first Gulf War. I cast a write in vote for Jerry Brown, the second of five times (and counting) that I failed to vote for the winner of the Presidential election (Dukakis, Brown, Nader, Nader, and Cobb for those keeping score). While some chided me for “wasting” my vote, many of my friends did not vote at all (along with about 8 million other people between the ages of 20-24).
Eight years later, in 2000, 67% of Americans 18-24 years old and 56% of Americans 25-34 (my age group) didn't show up on Election Day. As much as people can accuse the Supreme Court of stealing the election for President Bush, the 39 million people under age 35 who failed to vote at all must have played a role too. According to the Bureau of the Census, Generation X's voting statistics have been bad for years. 36 million Americans ages 18-34 avoided the polls two years ago. The average voter turnout in the United States (all age groups) since 1980 has been 52% of eligible voters for Presidential election years, and only 37% in midterm elections (like the one we will have this coming November).
Why does my generation so scrupulously avoid voting? Answers from think tanks and experts range from a perceived "inconvenience", busy lifestyles, lack of connection with candidates, and a feeling that one vote doesn't make a difference. While people should probably re-prioritize to make Election Day more important, they may be right that their vote means nothing. As a voter in Massachusetts in 2000, I was free to vote for Ralph Nader, because I knew that the Democrats would carry the Bay State's electoral votes. At the Congressional level, constant Gerrymandering (redrawing of Congressional districts to minimize the success of opposition candidates) has left only about three dozen races for 435 House seats "competitive". If your Representative faces little to no competition for his seat, you may easily fail to see the point of voting
And what if you have been convicted of a crime? 48 states disenfranchise incarcerated felons, 37 states do not allow parolees or those on probation to vote, and 14 states do not let ex-felons vote at all, even after they have “paid their debt” to society. As a result, over 7 million Americans over the age of 18 were ineligible to vote in 2004. Many of these people were African-Americans from economically disadvantaged areas. Over 60% of all prisoners in America are in jail for drug charges, and, according to Human Rights Watch, up to 75% of prisoners in jail for drugs are African-American. Estimates are that over 13% of African-American men are permanently disfranchised due to felony convictions.
Joe Loya, author of the autobiographical The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, told a congressional hearing just how it felt to be forced to live under this 21st century version of the poll tax: "Without a vote, a voice, I am a ghost inhabiting a citizen's space…I want to walk calmly into a polling place with other citizens to carry my placid ballot into the booth, check off my choices, then drop my conscience in the common box."
I believe that Loya should be given back his political voice. But in reality, politicians do not have to court the opinions of anyone other than the people who already vote--to try to attract non-voters would not pass a cost-benefit analysis for most would-be office holders. This is probably why there are so many measures being proposed to make it harder to vote. In Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, Republicans have passed or proposed legislation requiring voters to show identification at the polls or risk casting a vote that will not count. This is problematic for the many voters who lack drivers licenses. While this sounds like it will successfully combat election fraud, it is important to remember that the controversies in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 were not due to unauthorized voters showing up, but because legal votes were not counted. If we want to be serious about respecting the democratic process, we need to find a way to make those votes attractive to politicians who would really need them...
Two years ago, UUA President Rev. William Sinkford wrote:
“I believe that the greatest service our faith community can perform right now is to help Americans reclaim our democracy. We should never again have a president or a legislature elected by only half of the eligible voters…
Unitarian Universalists…have not, as a movement, committed ourselves to increase either voter registration or voter turn out. It is time we did… In our Fifth Principle, Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Too many Americans are not exercising that right, in effect giving away our democracy by eliminating the checks on those in power that regular elections provide. As one letter-writer to The New York Times put it shortly after the 2000 debacle, “low [voter] turnout is precisely what gives the government the mandate to act as if no one cares and no one is looking.”
This is not a partisan issue. UUs cover the entire political spectrum, just as we do the entire theological spectrum. What we can agree on is the need for effective democracy, on the right of all persons and all points of view to be heard and respected. Everybody counts; everybody needs to be counted. This is not about politics; it's about governance. We cannot claim to be a democratic nation if our leaders derive their authority from elections in which too few vote and whose legitimacy is open to such question.
There are over 600,000 adult UU's in America. I suggest that we follow the suggestion of the shampoo commercial from a few years back. If we told two friends about the importance of voting, and they told two friends, and so on, not only would we have healthy, shiny hair, but we would probably increase the number of voters dramatically.
While I am fascinated and deeply interested in it, after eight years of Clinton, and six so far of Bush, I am sapped of any excitement about politics. I know the kind of America that I want to see, but often despair of ever seeing it come about. I follow political news with insatiable interest, but I find myself suffused with a sort of post-modern ennui instead of true enthusiasm for a candidate.
When I read of the lack of accountability and ease of fraud surrounding electronic voting machines, and then read that most of those machines were made by companies whose boards are controlled by Republican politicians, and then see how those machines probably caused President Bush to win Ohio in 2004 in contrast to the will of the electorate, it leads to ennui. When I read of redistricting measures designed to limit the political influence of citizens of districts that are presumed to “lean” Democrat, it causes ennui. And when I consider that if Democrats were in power they would probably support these same measures as a means of solidifying their hold on their offices, yep, you guessed it, it also leads to ennui. As well as dry mouth, and frequent trips to the bathroom.
While I spend my time talking to underage children about how our political system can be exciting (but not in the same way as Congressman Mark Foley), I do little else to encourage voting. I do not volunteer for “get out the vote” drives, or go around collecting signatures on petitions. I don't call in to talk radio, write letters to the editor, or volunteer to be an election worker. Perhaps this is a legacy of a disastrous night spent in East Boston working for Clean Water Action in which my hippie partner and I were almost assaulted by a jealous husband. But I also make it a point to never express my personal opinions on politics to any but my closest friends. In class (as my students could attest) I am usually very neutral on topics of any kind of controversy.
I know that there are some teachers who have no problem being vocal with their political viewpoints. My mentor in college was an anarchist law professor (think that one through) who always let the class know where he stood on a topic. I am not that bold, or that courageous. Perhaps it comes from my upbringing, or from a feeling that my position as a teacher is tenuous, and that I do not need to add to my vulnerability by being tagged as “the lefty history teacher”.
But the simplest thing anyone can do in our republic is to communicate with one's elected representatives. Courtney and I spent four years living in Massachusetts (which practices direct democracy through town meetings) but never attended a single one. At least Courtney writes letters. Sometimes I think Courtney has a direct line to Senators Santorum and Specter, though they rarely return her calls. But despite my interest, I never write to express my viewpoint on a topic of the day. I hereby resolve that my first step in a more direct involvement with politics will be to regularly correspond with my representatives.
On the other hand, I also believe that a problem faced by our country is an unwillingness to look for alternatives. As we've seen, people confronted with "lesser of two evils" candidates often just don't vote, instead of working to convince political parties to represent their interests. How can we encourage my generation to vote? In searching for an optimistic conclusion to this talk, I have wound up where I started…
The best option I have found for myself is Unitarian-Universalism. As a UU, I am affiliated with a large group of people who share my general beliefs. Furthermore, while I am in favor of enlarging the number of voters regardless of their political viewpoints, it is worth considering that almost all of the seven Principles could come to fruition if elected leaders recognized them as priorities among their constituents. As UUs, we have built-in organizations such as the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee which can motivate large numbers of people around issues near to our hearts. We are part of a larger faith which values the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered people through Welcoming Congregations such as ours. Further, the UUA has repeatedly issued resolutions and statements in favor of measures that would make the world safer, fairer, and sustainable for generations to come.
The hundreds of thousands of UU's in this country, while less than 1% of the population, are not an insignificant number . Together, we can work to influence our representatives to more closely reflect our values and Principles. We need to make politicians consider non-voters an untapped market, instead of a toxic area to avoid. We should support alternative candidates who are willing to try to woo alienated voters. I hope that this talk has made you think more about the issues threatening America's democratic ideals. For me, it is a start, toward a step in the direction of participating more. I hope to come back in two years, and talk about all that I have done personally to ensure that more Americans vote. But for now, if America's UUs and their friends worked to solve the problem of why my generation doesn't vote, we in this room would probably be very happy with the results.