Statement on Guaranteeing Suffrage, the Right to Vote
Approved December 10, 2013 by the Governing Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches
The ability of those who have traditionally been unheard or unheeded to have a voice is a core concern of Christianity. The North Carolina Council of Churches has long supported equal legal rights for all. Nowhere is this more important than in suffrage, the right to vote.
The right to vote of every citizen is fundamental to democracy, rooted in the principle of consent of the governed, a core concern of Christian ethics as it is of American political history. It is a primary means in a republic to allow the dispossessed, the poor, and racial and ethnic minority groups a voice in the public square. Indeed it is what guarantees that there is a public square for all citizens.
Reviewing the Council’s History
For a full century after the Civil War, Southern states continued to deny access to the ballot box, this most basic right in a democracy, to African Americans, using the poll tax, literacy tests, and outright intimidation. In February 1961, half a decade before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the assembled body of the North Carolina Council of Churches spoke clearly to the issue of access to the ballot box in the broader context of racial separation and discrimination. Recognizing that broader context in schools, housing, and employment, the Council noted the complete absence of African Americans in statewide elected office. The Council addressed the issue of full access to the ballot box, eloquently and succinctly. “Let us remove any intimidation or artful barriers and welcome all citizens to full participation in citizenship, particularly at the ballot boxes during election.”
Two decades later, in 1981, the Council in “Statement on Christians, Churches and Politics” recognized that “[o]ne of the persistent and pervasive themes of the Bible, and most of the church’s tradition, is God’s care for the weak and the vulnerable.” The statement continues: “Christians, who are faithful to the Bible, will be strongly influenced by this theme. Politicians, policies, programs, and platforms will be evaluated with this question near or at the top of the list: How will this impact the marginal people….?”
In 2006, the Executive Board further declared in a resolution entitled “Good Government” that “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.”
The Council then put forth a comprehensive set of recommendations to encourage good and open government. Prominent among these recommendations was same-day voter registration at early voting sites. That document concludes with words that continue to represent our broader position as a Council: “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.”
But the basic principle of unimpeded access to the ballot box is now being challenged by a new state law which will make access to the polls more difficult for all people, and especially those who are poor, the elderly, young first-time voters, and people who work for low hourly pay. These recent measures represent a giant step backward from a commitment to truly representative and open government and move our state toward a past we had thought was behind us. This new law passed in the closing days of the 2013 session of the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory, would, in part:
- Require voters beginning in 2016 to present government-issued photo identification at the polls, with numerous restrictions as to eligible identification.
- Allow poll workers to question voters about photo ID beginning in 2014 primary elections as a form of “outreach,” potentially confusing voters about current requirements.
- Substantially reduce early voting days, including the elimination of at least one Sunday for voting.
- End pre-registration of eligible sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.
- End same-day voter registration during early voting.
- Allow more poll “observers” to be named by local political parties, and allow challenges to a voter (as being improperly registered or otherwise unqualified to vote) to be made by any other voter in that county, not just in the challenged voter’s precinct.
Reaffirming the Council’s Commitment to Suffrage
Today the Governing Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches reaffirms our historic, principled and unapologetic commitment to the fundamental right of suffrage. Our goal as a society should be to increase voting, not reduce it by making it more difficult. We have struggled too long and hard as a society to guarantee access to the ballot box for all citizens to take such backward steps. To this end, we take the following actions:
- We reiterate our opposition to all parts of the new state law which will make it harder for some people to vote, and we call on the legislature and governor to repeal all provisions which will serve to discourage voting.
- We also call for the removal from current North Carolina law of those provisions allowing literacy tests for voting, something long ago made illegal by federal law.
- We call upon the leaders of our member judicatories and member congregations to address the importance and right of suffrage both from the pulpit and with public statements and actions which echo the prophets’ concerns for those who are poor and otherwise marginalized.
- We call upon all people of faith to work to have these laws changed, in order to remove impediments to the full and unfettered exercise of the vote.
- Until such time as these recent changes to voting laws are repealed, we call upon all people of faith, and especially those within the member bodies of the North Carolina Council of Churches, to work to alleviate the impact of these recently adopted regressive measures, particularly with those populations which are most affected. Specifically this means making sure that we, our neighbors, fellow church members, family, and all in our community are able to exercise the right to vote by:
- Disseminating accurate information about changes in the law and their impact on when and how people can vote.
- Assisting those who need to obtain photo IDs. This may include helping them get the documentation required for the IDs.
- Taking part in nonpartisan voter registration drives.
- Volunteering on election days to serve as poll workers and poll monitors in order to reduce or eliminate voter intimidation.
- Taking initiative to create neighborhood, local and statewide partnerships across partisan political lines, as well as across the interfaith and secular community, making common cause in the right of all citizens to full participation in politics.
Removing “Artful Barriers”
It has been more than half a century since the North Carolina Council of Churches first spoke clearly to the importance of the right of suffrage in our state. It has been a half century of both struggle and success; the struggle for suffrage was in retrospect barely beginning in 1961. In the intervening years, the Council of Churches, along with many of our fellow North Carolinians, has had to speak out again and again to continue to protect and advance the cause of unimpeded access to the ballot box. The notion that this has ever stopped being a concern is a convenient and unjustified myth, quickly evaporated by honesty about our history. There are those who would have us believe that the circumstances of that history have somehow magically become irrelevant to the present. Gradual progress and continued struggle alike, however, testify to the importance of standing firm on the side of those left most vulnerable, when access to voting is reduced or eliminated.
Today more than ever it is important that clear and conscientious voices be raised. Today we repeat the invitation and challenge first issued by church leaders who went before us, some of whom paid dearly for their convictions. We say again:
“Let us remove any intimidation or artful barriers and welcome all citizens to full participation in citizenship, particularly at the ballot boxes during election.”