Adopted by the Executive Board of the N.C. Council of Churches, December 5, 2006
Over 10 years ago, on April 18, 1996, the Executive Board of the NC Council of Churches adopted “A Statement on Christians, Churches, and Politics.” It explained: As Christians we believe in a God who works in and through the world to bring justice, peace, and reconciliation. God’s salvation includes the whole creation of social and economic orders….If we are faithful to this God, we will engage political issues and enter political struggles in pursuit of compassion and justice.
Since our founding in 1935, we have taken seriously the biblical ethic of jubilee. The jubilee traditions called for concrete social mechanisms to mitigate the wealth and power disparities that left some too rich, some in debt slavery, and the community thereby unwhole. At his first public teaching in Nazareth, Jesus claimed this ethic to define God’s Spirit at work in the world. Recalling Isaiah, he announced:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
The poor, the oppressed, the captives and the blind—those our tradition deems worthy– are increasingly invisible and unheard in our state and national political systems. Signs abound that our republic is not democratic. “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord,” according to the book of James, but those cries often are muffled in the halls of our North Carolina General Assembly.
Special interest dollars fuel elections and prop up privilege. Those who donate the most money have the most influence in shaping political priorities. The high cost of elections keeps incumbents in and discourages qualified persons from running. Parties draw district lines to keep their own in power. Rules for becoming a third party on the North Carolina ballot are far more restrictive than those in most states. Our ethics regulations leave loopholes for corporate lobbyists and political action committees (PACs) that expect favors. These hindrances to legitimate democracy elicit cries of protest from the majority around health care for all, sound education, affordable homes, treatment for the mentally ill, fair wages, and other equity concerns. And the cries seem to fall on deaf ears.
According to Democracy North Carolina, here are some of the indicators that the political voice of common people is squelched in our state, and recommendations for change:
Low voter turnout – A sign of discouragement
- Voter turnout in North Carolina is below the national average. Only half of our eligible voting population participates in elections. North Carolina ranks 38th nationally in terms of turnout.
- Over 1 million eligible North Carolina citizens are not even registered to vote; 400,000 of these are young people, ages 18-34.
RECOMMENDATION: Same-Day Voter Registration (SDR) at Early Voting Sites could engage voters disproportionately affected by the 25-day deadline (young people, seniors, low-income voters, and people of color). In states that have SDR, voter turnout rates are 8-15% points higher than the national average.
Costly election campaigns - A game few can play
- Ninety percent of all campaign contributions in North Carolina come from only 1% of the population.
- Candidates for the General Assembly spent over $25 million to run for office in 2004, a 400% increase since 1992. The single most costly expense for candidates is the purchase of electronic media time. The costs continue to rise; some North Carolina 2006 races are expected to reach $1 million.
RECOMMENDATION: Public financing is the best alternative to the current system. It gives candidates tired of “pay-to-play” politics a way out of the money chase so they can spend less time dealing with special interest donors and more time considering policies and laws that are best for the public good–not corporations, lobbyists, media outlets and wealthy contributors. It gives more candidates the opportunity to run and gives voters more choice at the polls.
- Special interests and lobbyists spend millions to lobby state officials, but most of this is unreported.
RECOMMENDATION: Lobbying and ethics reform laws in North Carolina still need strengthening, despite reforms passed by the NC General Assembly in 2006. Ethics standards should be tightened and committee hearings on election complaints should be open to the public. The new ban on lobbyists making campaign donations to state candidates fails to address the larger issue of special interests supplying millions through PACs. More comprehensive reform is needed.
- This election, half of the members of the General Assembly — 86 of 170 legislators — are already elected because their seats are uncontested. Most of our Congressional races are also uncompetitive.
RECOMMENDATION: North Carolina needs an independent redistricting commission to cut down on partisan power-plays and give voters more choice. Campaign costs and gerrymandering discourage qualified candidates from running for office.
Restrictive ballot access rules - Limit choices of representation
- At 69,734 verified signatures, North Carolina’s ballot access requirement for political parties is the third most restrictive in the nation.
- After each 4-year election cycle, if a third party does not receive 10% of the vote for governor or president, the party is decertified and has to start all over again. This is costly and time consuming.
RECOMMENDATION: Reduce requirements that bar third parties access to the ballot to be in line with the national average. Fair and equal access to the ballot allows ordinary citizens to participate in the electoral process. More choice on the ballot increases citizen interest and voter turnout.
A hallmark of our Christian faith is the open table of hospitality, the wide circle, the inclusiveness that marks each person as God’s creature graced with worth. Working for honest, fair, open, and accessible government is a critical component of this Christian witness. Therefore, we seek ethics and lobbying reform, independent bodies for electoral redistricting, increased public financing of elections, paper accountability of electronic voting, same-day voter registration, easier ballot access, and all similar initiatives for public accountability and more inclusive representation. We urge the appropriate bodies within our denominations and congregations to take part in shaping these government processes that so powerfully shape our communities.