Our time to choose
North Carolina’s 2014 general election will be held on Tuesday, November 4. Although this is an “off-year” election, without contests for president or governor, many important races will be decided.
The state’s voters will choose one of their two U.S. senators and all 13 of their representatives in Congress. Several seats on the state’s two highest courts will be filled, as will every seat in the General Assembly – 50 in the Senate and 120 in the House. Counties will choose commissioners who make decisions about taxes, school spending and other local priorities.
If the outcome is truly to reflect the people’s will and further the public trust, broad voter participation is vital.
Justice in the balance
The NC Council of Churches believes strongly that voting is one of our paramount duties as citizens. The Council also recognizes that in North Carolina, election laws have been changed in ways that may hinder some citizens from voting and thus make it harder for them to choose leaders who will look out for their interests.
Those interests include adequate investment in our schools and universities.
In health programs that meet the needs of rich and poor alike.
In a fair, efficient court system.
In programs to fight pollution of our air and water.
They include adequate investment, we can say, in the entire scope of public efforts to make North Carolina a place where decent opportunities to live prosperous, healthy, fulfilling lives are available to each and every one of us, no matter where we live or our social standing.
This is the core principle of social justice that lies at the heart of the Christian tradition and that drives our involvement in the public arena. The Council now calls on those people of faith who belong to its member organizations and on all people of goodwill to act in response to new voting rules that could make social justice more elusive.
Lift every voice
The General Assembly and governor in 2013 took several steps that threaten to quiet the voices of people who need to be heard if this state is to reach its full potential. Most significantly:
- The early voting period has been cut from 17 to 10 days, including only one Sunday.
- Voters must register at least 25 days before an election. It no longer is possible to register and vote on the same day during early voting. For the Nov. 4 election, the deadline to register with a county elections board or to mail a registration form is Oct. 10.
- Beginning in 2016, no one will be allowed to vote without presenting an acceptable form of photo identification such as a drivers license, U.S. passport or military ID card. College student IDs will not count.
- Poll workers will ask voters this fall whether they have a photo ID entitling them to vote in 2016. However, no ID must be shown. While voters should prepare to comply with the ID rule, the rule does not prevent anyone from casting a ballot this year. That’s a possible source of confusion that church groups can help to address.
The non-partisan election reform group Democracy N.C. offers a summary of the new voting law, including changes in the rules for absentee ballots and campaign contributions as well as details on acceptable IDs.
Whatever the reasons for these changes in voting laws, it’s clear that tightening the rules on registration, prohibiting same-day voting, and reducing the number of days for early voting could deter some otherwise eligible people from voting. Churches and other faith communities can help offset that impact.
The Council’s view, affirmed in a statement of principle adopted in 2013 by its Governing Board, is that our democracy works best when elected leaders are chosen by a broad cross-section of well-informed citizens.
Of course there must be rules keeping elections orderly and honest. But the aim should be to increase voter participation, not to limit it. That is how more members of society, including the poor and powerless, can have a say in picking their elected officials and thus in shaping the policies by which their community, their state and their nation will be run.
With election season upon us, now is the time for churches to reckon with what they can and should do to encourage voting. By helping people to register and to understand the changed voting rules, churches can better serve both their members – no matter their political preferences — and our state as a whole.
Many churches already conduct non-partisan “Souls to the Polls” campaigns, offering both encouragement and transportation. These efforts to get eligible voters to the polls will become even more important.
But that’s not all a congregation can do. Consider these recommendations from Democracy N.C., drawn from its “Election Activity Guide for Faith-Based Communities” :
- Conduct a voter registration drive, obtaining registration forms from the local board of elections. Forms may be inserted into church bulletins or handed out at events.
- Distribute information about people’s voting rights, including the recent changes that could make it less convenient for some citizens to vote. Two bulletin inserts are available: The Council has a faith-based insert available online that congregations can print and use. Democracy N.C. has one based on the courage of Fannie Lou Hamer, and multiple copies are available. Click here to see a copy and place an order.
- Hold candidate forums, making sure all candidates for an office are invited.
- Join a non-partisan coalition of groups working to enhance voter turnout.
“Religious leaders may not promote a candidate or political party from the pulpit,” Democracy N.C. says, “but they may use church resources – including buses and bulletins – in a non-partisan way that helps people vote.” Faith organizations should make sure that members understand the new voting rules, that they have the right documents and that they have rides to the polls.
Let voters decide
An election system properly mindful of citizens’ rights, including the rights of people on the social margins that are all too easy to disregard, will make voting both convenient and credible.
The NC Council of Churches favors public policies that give every North Carolinian a fair chance to realize his or her dreams. As to which candidates are best suited to develop and pursue those policies, that’s for the voters to decide. The Council’s article of faith is that the more voters taking part in those decisions, the better public interests are served.
That includes the interests of people who typically have little voice in public affairs other than the one they raise when they cast their ballots. Churches must do all within their power to make sure those voices ring loud and true.