Thursday, June 16, 2016

We Shall Not Be Moved: Advocacy in the New Age of Voter Suppression

Find a Link to the Full Resource HERE 

Using this Resource

In this election year, it is more critical than ever to understand the mechanics of our democracy,  to reclaim the values and the promise of our electoral process. The right to vote is being restricted in many places, which raises questions for U.S. Reformed Christians about the meaning of our democracy. At the direction of the General Assembly, we at the Office of Public Witness have compiled resources to aid individual church members and congregations to look at these questions. We hope this discussion guide will prove a helpful template in your process of reflection and action.
This resource can be used individually, with a church study group or class, or as a source of sermon starters and ideas. We intend this guide to explore the links between our call to public witness as Presbyterians and our responsibility as Americans to demand free and fair elections. Unlike voting guides that simply list things to support or oppose, we summarize history and practice to show systemic patterns that need change.
We draw on U.S. history, Presbyterian Social Witness Policy, Scripture, and other resources to focus on the gradual and uneven recognition of members of minority groups as full voting members of society. While some of these matters can be challenging or frustrating, we have sought new ways to encourage real dialogue in our congregations and communities about the lasting impacts of segregation, and the ongoing struggles for equity for women, people of color, working people and those unable to work. In a polarized environment, we still affirm  the promise of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—for all the people!

The Theme: Voter Suppression in the United States

In the 2008 PC (U.S.A.) Social Witness Policy Lift Every Voice, the Presbyterian Church called on this country to enforce the Voting Rights Act and to protect people and communities of color, women, the young, people with disabilities and the elderly from targeted purges of voting lists and other forms of disenfranchisement[1]. This policy equipped us with much needed prophetic language and practical ideas, yet in 2013, our country entered a new era of voter suppression marked by different tactics than in years past but yielding the same dangerous outcomes. The Supreme Court decision of Shelby vs. Holder in 2013 reinterpreted the Voting Rights Act, limiting the ability of the federal government to review new voting laws put in place by the states that jeopardize minority voters. Since that decision suspending “pre-clearance” review by the Justice Department, states have passed voting laws that have the practical effect of discriminating against minority communities.[2] In an already partisan political climate, voting rights themselves should not be a partisan issue. Rather, they are the very foundation of democracy, and if free and fair elections are under threat, then so too is our national identity. Recognizing this, the 2014 General Assembly called for the 2008 policy to be updated and for the Office of Public Witness to provide a resource for study and action.
Respect for the conscience of the individual anchors Presbyterian reverence for the right to vote for everyone. Public service is seen by us as a high calling, and government itself a servant and agent of the people, accountable to all citizens. Politics as public decision-making has an ethical purpose and benefits from laws that prevent corruption by special interests against the common good. Weakening the rights of citizenship for some and unfairly enhancing the power of others distort the practices and legitimacy of democracy. As a Reformed Christian church, understanding God’s covenant to have been opened by Jesus Christ even to “the least of these,” the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seeks to live out and witness to its values of love and justice in the public sphere.[3]
The systemic approach of denying minorities the right to vote has long been against our expressed ideals as Presbyterians. Beginning its post-war civil rights commitment in 1947, the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (PCUS) Assembly opposed all organizations and individuals who aim to hinder any minorities on the basis of creed, class or color. In 1956, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (the more national, “Northern” church) called upon Christians to work to eliminate the poll tax “and other restrictions which prevent many citizens from exercising their legal rights at the polls” (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1956, Part I, p.235; see also Minutes, PCUS, 1957, Part I, p.194). In 1965, the PCUS affirmed the historic Voting Rights Act saying, “The basic purpose of the civil rights movement should be to obtain for the Negro—and of course, for all minority groups—justice in affairs of daily life and the right to respect as human being under the redemptive concern of God. Jesus, by His words and life, calls us, as his followers, to support him in the struggle…” (Minutes, PCUS, 1965, Part I, p.159). These and other statements were not easy to make and are worth remembering as that struggle continues in new forms.
Because the issue of voting rights is so deeply tied to the history of racism in the US, this course of study is intrinsically connected to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s vision of becoming an antiracist community. This provides us with the theological, cultural and political framework for resisting oppression and working to overcome racism within our own life as well as in the broader society. It means combining social analysis, institutional reconstruction, and individual healing with discernment, prayer, and worship-based action. This resource does not address all of the dynamics that restrict electoral reform, including partisan redistricting (gerrymandering) and distortions caused by the electoral college and inaction by the Federal Election Commission. But it does look at shorter term remedies and potential legislation that could restore voter protections intended in the original Voting Rights Act of 1965.  We encourage readers to formulate your own ways of engaging this topic based on the realities of your congregations and communities, and to reach out to the Office of Public Witness if we can be of further assistance.

Find a Link to the Full Resource HERE 

[1] “Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights, and Electoral Reform”
[3] Here and elsewhere, this resource draws on language from the report to the 2016 General Assembly, “Election Protection and Integrity in Campaign Finance.”