Why I Work the Polls

Tuesday morning, my alarm clock went off at 5 AM. The sky was still dark as the sun would not rise for another two hours. I made myself a coffee and an english muffin, then walked through my eerily quiet neighborhood at 5:45.

My neighborhood is called Columbia Heights. It is one of the new, “hot”, neighborhoods in DC. A space that was once known as a really “dangerous part of town.” But recently, it has seen an influx of young, white professionals. Columbia Heights was not always that way. In the 1950’s and ’60’s it was a thriving middle class Black community. But after the riots of 1968 and the recession of the ’70’s, Columbia Heights fell apart. The main shopping area for DC’s Black community burnt down during the civil unrest and many of the middle class residents moved out.

But many stayed as well, raising their children and being active members of the community.

When the polls opened at 7 AM, the line out the door was wrapping around the block. For two solid hours, a constant stream of people came to my table to receive their ballots. There was a good mix of voters. Young professionals, older residents, recent immigrants all lined up to vote. But promptly at 10, the young, white professionals disappeared. Elder members of the Black Community exclusively came to cast their votes. Retired women and men in their 70s, 80s and 90s came in and voted through out the mid-day.

All greeted me with smiles. One older woman told me about how the elementary school gym we were in (now closed and being prepared for condos) was her elementary school in the 40s. An elderly man told me about how he lives in the same house he bought with funds from the GI Bill after WWII. Another woman told me about how sad she was since her husband died a month earlier.

But most of all, all of these residents, my neighbors, seemed proud. These were folks who lived through a segregated DC under Jim Crow Laws. These were people who witnessed Dr. King’s march on Washington and his death. They also survived the riots immediately following. They saw the establishment of DC Home Rule. And now, they were able to vote for the man who would become the nation’s first black Presidential. The energy and excitement were palpable. People hugged each other and laughed. Many older men shook my hand firmly and thanked me.

As the day progressed, and the sun began to set, young people replaced the Elders again. Some were professionals, others were students at nearby Howard University. Many of the young voters were voting for the first time. Every time I saw a blank or confused face, I took the time to explain to them how to cast their vote correctly. I slowly went over the ballot and how one fills it out.

Finally, as the sky darkened and the crowd thinned out to a trickle, a young black man in his late twenties showed up with his four year old daughter. He took the ballot and thanked me. I asked his daughter if she would help her dad vote. She shyly said, “No.” But her dad looked at me and said, “Oh, she will.”

He took her over to the booth and quickly scanned the ballot, voting for all the local offices. I noticed he had not filled in the bubble for President. He then bent down. He grabbed his daughter’s hand and gave the pencil to her. Very carefully, he held her hand and they connected the arrow together. They then walked her over to the ballot box and they fed the paper in together. They both received a little “I Voted” sticker and walked out the door as he whispered something in her ear. She nodded.

I am not sure who they voted for together. But I have a pretty good guess. And typing this makes me choke up just as it did ten minutes before the polls closed Tuesday night.

And that is why I work the polls. I work the polls to honor our elders who worked so hard to make this country free. I work the polls to make sure everyone feels confident that their vote was cast correctly. And I work the polls so that our future is protected.

One Nation, Under God

The staff of the Washington Office, Kat, Lisa, Grace, Alex, Alida, and I, met each other at 10:30 this morning in front of the White House for our weekly theological reflection. We all agreed that the White House looked different this morning. It looked more approachable.

We opened with words from Barack Obama’s Springfield speech when he announced his candidacy. A speech which ended with: “Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth.”

We shared what Sen. Obama’s victory meant for us personally, our communities, our nation, and the world. We were all emotional. Alida shared a snippet she had heard a man say on NPR, “Martin walked so Obama could run so our children could fly.”

We all agreed that progressives, especially spiritual progressives, have much work to do. We committed to working in coalition, to having patience, to being welcoming.

We then took the time to dream. We envisioned what our perfect union would look like. We articulated a vision that included excellence in education, access to health care, marriage equality, just immigration reform, reduction in our military expenditures, an end to the Iraq war, a green economy, no border walls, protection of women’s right to choose, and much more.

Knowing that this future will not be handed to us, we each took responsibility for helping build such a future. With this commitment in the forefront of our minds, we closed our theological reflection by reciting the pledge of allegiance while standing directly in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. All of us recited it loudly and proudly as dozens of tourists milled about us.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I Voted Today, Did You?

Unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I am not out working in an election-related capacity today. I am not volunteering to work in the polls, as is Alex, to make sure that the process runs smoother. I’m a slacker depending on the volunteer time of others. I am not out getting out the vote, or last-minute canvassing, or other activities that would increase my voice by convincing like-minded people to vote. As such, my voice will be but one of an estimated 153 million possible (registered) voters today. All I did was walk over to my neighborhood polling place, wait in line, cast my ballot, and go to work. My part in this great democratic process is small.

But I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face that has not receded yet. First of all, the atmosphere at the polling place (my neighborhood junior high school) was festive. Colorful banners for different candidates decorated the chain link fence leading into the gymnasium from all sides. People, positioned well away from the actual polling place, handed out fliers and chatted with us as we walked up. Cardboard cutouts of candidates of choice, also well away from the polling place, stood on the sidewalk, as if to shake your hand. The impression that I got was that of a party.

Inside the actual polling place, courteous volunteers showed me which line to stand in and where to go next. Everyone was smiling. It was contagious.

As I stood in the booth – just me, my ballot and a number two pencil – the momentousness of the occasion hit me. I don’t mean that regardless of the outcome, this election will have made history. Of course there is that. I don’t mean that the choice between men who want to take this country in very different directions will determine our future. Yes, there is that too. But what I felt in the polling place was simply the awe of getting to make a choice.

Each one of us who is a citizen of this country (and not a felon in some states, but that’s for a different blog post) gets to make this choice. We get to participate in this sacred process of self-determination. On equal footing with each other. Standing in that booth, I felt empowered, and a part of something much bigger than myself.

I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face, and it hasn’t dimmed yet. And so I’m saying to you out there, “I voted today, did you?” I’m not going to lecture you on how it is your duty and responsibility (even though that’s true). I am telling you to get out there and vote, because it will make your day.

Still Undecided?

For five of the past six weekends, I have been going door-to-door for my candidate of choice. When I knock on voters’ doors, the first question I ask is, “Have you decided who you will be supporting on November 4th?” To my surprise, many voters remain undecided. As late as Saturday, two of the 25 voters I spoke with were undecided. For those of us who are out knocking on doors, emptying our wallets, and losing sleep, this may seem unbelievable. But it is real.

Some of you may be wondering, “How can anyone be undecided at this point?” The undecided voters I have spoken with have given many reasons. Here are a few that I have heard multiple times.

  • Cynicism – Some voters see the choice between candidates as the lesser of two evils. These voters often mention how many campaign promises end up being broken. They tend not to trust politicians in general.
  • Political identity is shifting – I have most often seen this among traditionally Republican voters who are upset with the way the Republican Party has been running this country for the past eight years. The economic crisis, two ongoing wars, and record deficit spending are on these voters’ minds. These voters have supported a political party that they are increasingly convinced is undermining our beloved country
  • Legitimate concerns about both candidates – Many voters I have spoken with have expressed misgivings about both candidates that many die-hard supporters conveniently overlook. Whether some people want to admit it or not, all of the candidates running for President are real people with real flaws. These voters are different from the cynical voters because they genuinely believe that their vote matters and that politics can be positive; they just are not satisfied with their choices.

In addition to these perspectives, I have heard undecided voters speak about the limitations of the two party system, issues overlooked by the candidates, and the potential imbalance of power between Congress and the Administration.

In my opinion, all of these concerns are legitimate reasons to deliberate. But in the end, you either vote for someone or you do not vote at all. After patiently listening to undecided voters for the past six weeks, I am relieved that their time is up. By the end of tomorrow there will be no such thing as an undecided voter.

Tomorrow, each of the persons I spoke with, and millions more, will all be using that great equalizer: our one vote. It is a little terrifying, a little exciting, and completely real. I know many of you may have trouble sleeping tonight. Maybe this will help you rest: Of the hundreds of voters I have spoken to, only one said they have not really been following this election. This country is engaged. This country cares. This country is weighing its choices… carefully.

Prevent Voter Fraud on November 4th.

The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. Thomas Paine- 1796

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, affirm and promote the use of the democratic process…The Fifth Principle of the UUA

On November 4, the General Election will be held. With the record turnout for the Presidential Primaries, early voting in states that allow it, and a huge influx of new voter registrations, this could quite possibly be the largest election in the history of the United States.

The botched elections in Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004) have kept people on the lookout for voter fraud. The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), attempted to remedy many these problems by making it easier to register to vote, updating old voting technologies, and making voting practices more secure. While it has solved some of these issues, HAVA still has a lot of issues to work out–mostly due to lack of oversight on the appropriation of funds and unrelaiable voting machines. Today, 27 states — including such large ones as California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio require electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail. There is paper-trail legislation pending in a dozen more states.

There is still a need for Congress to pass a strong federal law requiring electronic voting machines to produce reliable paper records.

And there have been quite a few problems leading up to this election. The controversy surrounding ACORN’s voter registration drive (less than 1% of their registration of 1.3 million new voters have been found to be inaccurate) has created a flashpoint surrounding voting records. This has increased a clampdown in many states and making sure everyone on the rolls is a legitimate voter may have caused legitimate voters to be stricken from the records. Many Sec’s of State and Political Committees have used this opportunity to disenfranchise many voters by striking them from the voting register, a practice used long before the controversy surrounding ACORN.

To ensure your voter registration, please visit www.maps.google.com/vote before November 4th to confirm your registration and find your polling place. Remember, your polling place should be close to your home address. You can also call your local board of elections to confirm your voter registration and polling location.

Please take note of where your polling place is and be sure of how to get to it from your residence or work place.

On November 4th, please be aware of your rights while voting.

Take time off of work. Your employer is legally obligated to give you time off of work to vote. Whether coming in late, taking a long lunch, or leaving early, you are allowed to take time off of work to vote. Do not let work or a boss keep you from casting your vote.

Stay in line. Expect long lines at your polling site. Visiting your site during off-peak hours will help reduce the time you will have to wait in line. Between 10 and 11 AM or 2 and 4 PM will have the least amount of voters. Once you are in line, do not leave. Everyone in line has the right to vote, even after the polls have closed. Anyone who is attempting to intimidate voters in line by threatening to call the police on people waiting is in strict violation of the law.

Many states require proof of identification. This may be required for all voters. Other states may require identification for first time voters or people who registered through the postal service. Please be prepared to bring proper identification.

You have the right to a provisional ballot. If you have confirmed your voter registration with your local board of elections but find that your name is not on the roster or is being challenged by one of the campaigns, do not panic. You have the right to cast a provisional ballot. Please retain any receipt the poll worker gives you (or ask for one). This will give you the appropriate information to confirm that your provisional ballot was counted.

Read any signs on the wall. This will give you clear information on your rights as a voter. Signs may include an example ballot as well as any local laws protecting your rights as a voter. For instance, signs in California, New York State and Washington DC may inform you that it is illegal to wear or display any campaign paraphernalia in the polling site. Signs may also inform you how to contact your local board of elections in order to file a complaint or describe any violations of your rights.

Bring your sample ballot. Many states offer sample ballots either through the mail or online. These sample ballots will often give helpful information on candidates or propositions on the ballot. Feel free to complete your sample ballot at home before you travel to the polls. You have every right to bring your sample ballot with you into the voting booth. You have the right to be an informed voter.

Take your time. You have the right to take as much time as you need to vote. If you have made a mistake, you may “spoil” your ballot and ask for a new one. You have every right to ask for a new ballot. Don’t let anyone rush you or harass you while voting. Many areas may have new voting technologies you may not be familiar with. You should ask for help if you need it. Many states and jurisdictions will also offer ballots in other languages. When in doubt, ask a poll worker.

When in doubt, ask a poll worker. If you have any questions, ask a poll worker. If you have a problem or concern, ask a poll worker. If your ballot is incorrect or incomplete, ask a poll worker. If you are afraid you are at the incorrect polling site, ask a poll worker. If campaign officials are harassing people in line, ask a poll worker. If you feel harassed by a poll worker, ask for a different poll worker or a precinct captain.

Pay Attention. If you find anything suspicious while voting, please keep track of it. If there is anyone intimidating you or other voters, please make note of it. If you are having a difficult time with a poll official, please make note of it. If you find your ballot is incorrect, please make a note of it. If you press the button for one candidate but find the name of another one lights up, please make a note of it. Please file any complaints to your board of elections and the Lawyer’s Committe for Civil Rights Election Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-886-867-8683).

If you have already voted either by absentee ballot or early voting, consider being an election judge or participating with video the vote a grassroots organization that is documenting any irregularities on polling day. (Remember to honor any local laws concerning voter privacy in the jurisdiction while participating in video the vote)

And don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008.

The Real Rules and Faithful Democracy Help Protect Churches

On Sunday, September 28th, thirty-three conservative churches broke IRS regulations by endorsing a specific candidate for president. This action is in direct violation of a 1954 law prohibiting non-profit organizations from endorsing candidates for political office. This has brought up many questions in the media about this rule. The UUA has released several resources to help answer some of them.

The IRS designation for non-profits including churches and religious communities is known as 501 (c)(3). Named after the provision in the IRS Tax Code that protects them, 501 (c)(3)’s are prohibited from making any explicit statements for or against any political candidate. But that does not mean they are barred from participating in political conversations.

The regulations surrounding 501 (c)(3)’s are difficult and complicated. However, the UUA’s Real Rules and Faithful Democracy clearly explain what congregations and their leaders may or may not say. It gives many fine examples of what the IRS does and does not expect a church to do during election cycles.

There you will learn how congregations and its leaders may:

  • support positions and policies, but not candidates;
  • use congregational funds to support voter registration and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns;
  • and/or host a polling site but not a campaign headquarters.

Please look at the Real Rules and Faithful Democracy in order to prepare and protect yourself in this election season.

Five Reasons to Be A Poll Worker

The United States of America is facing a shortage of poll workers. It is in desperate need of people–particularly younger people–to help people vote this year. Working the polls for an election is a concrete way to ensure your local race goes smoothly.

And with the historic turnout in the primary elections this previous spring, working the polls will be more important than ever before.

All of following facts are examples of why you should register to work the polls this November. If you need more reasons for why you need to work the polls, please read my reflections on working the polls last February.

1. A New York Times editorial from two weeks ago read: No One Should Have to Stand in Line for 10 Hours to Vote”. In it, the author writes about the usual complaints we hear about voting lately: long lines, voter intimidation, and confusing or out-of-date voting machines. He looks to the 2004 elections in Ohio and shows how understaffed voting precincts coincided with the largest number of voter irregularities.

2. The Virginia Pilot reports how the state of Virginia–destined to be a battleground this election–is short some 2,000 poll workers this year.

3. Minnesota, also classified as a swing state this year, is scrambling to find enough poll workers.

4. Jackson County, Missouri has a shortage of 500 workers for their 250 polling locations. That is an additional two people per polling place in order to be fully staffed.

5. The progressive news source, AlterNet.org, lists a shortage of poll workers as one of the “Seven Ways Your Vote Might Not Count This November“. Along with voting machine allocations and voter purges, alternet fears that a shortage of poll workers can result in flawed ballots and slow lines.

And don’t forget to get our election preparation resources called Faithful Democracy.

Faithful Democracy and the 2008 Elections

Why Registering People to Vote Matters

It takes a lot of ongoing engagement to keep democracy vibrant and working. Our fifth principle commitment to democracy and our anti-oppression commitment to strengthen the voices of historically marginalized groups provide solid religious grounding for congregational efforts to register people to vote.

Only 64% of voting age citizens in the US voted in the last federal election. However, 89% of registered voters did vote. According to the US Department of the Census Report: Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004 the key to voter turnout is voter registration. Once people are registered they are on the rolls and are contacted by the campaigns, political parties and non-partisan Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts.

There are still 55-60 million unregistered voters in our country. Youth and young adults account for 21 million of them and African Americans, Latinos and low-income women also constitute a large portion of the unregistered.

There is still time to reach out to these disenfranchised communities and get them registered. Most state voter registration deadlines are in early to mid-October. New Hampshire, Wyoming and Idaho have same day registration. See VoteSmart for your state’s deadline.

The UU Funding Panel has Voter Registration/ Get Out the Vote (GOTV) grants — $500 to $1500 grants for congregations now through October 15, 2008!

According to the same report many people didn’t register because they missed the registration deadlines and/or had a conflict with work and school schedules. It was not because they didn’t care.

So, let’s do all we can to increase participation in the democratic process, especially by helping ensure that the voices of our most oppressed communities are heard in this high stakes election.

In 2004, hundreds of UU congregations registered over 80,000 new voters. Our efforts were most successful when we did this in partnership with community group voter registration projects.

One of our partners, ACORN’s Project Vote, registered over 1.15 million new voters in 2004. This year their goal is to register 1.2 million voters in underrepresented communities — African American, Latino and low-income neighborhoods. Additionally, they plan to reach 2.8 million new and infrequent voters in GOTV campaigns.

  • Project Vote is working in 26 states including Colorado, Ohio and PA. For a listing of states and contact information see their website.

In 2004 our voter work led to some lasting partnerships and raised the profile and relevance of our congregations in our communities. Wear you Standing on the Side of Love T-Shirts while registering people and/or bring congregational banners.

The UUA has excellent resources to assist congregations in their voter registration, mobilization, and education efforts.

See our voting page where you will find Faithful Democracy: UUs and the 2008 Elections and The Real Rules for IRS Guidelines.

Registering people to vote lets people know that they matter to us.
It is an act of faith.

Faithful Democracy

This isn’t exactly news, but five months from now, our nation will be choosing a new President and a new Congress. Participation in the electoral process is perhaps the most sacred act of citizenship. It is the most direct involvement each citizen has in determining the future of our country. History will be playing out over the next five months and undoubtedly a lot of you will be getting involved in the elections. We encourage you to get involved by volunteering for your favorite candidate or by becoming a poll worker as our Program Associate for Peacemaking, Alex Winnett, did during the D.C. primaries.

Some congregations may want to get involved in the elections as well. If your congregation wants to play a role in the upcoming elections, please remember there are some things you can do, like voter registration drives, and some things you can’t do, like put yard signs for candidates on your church property. For a more thorough explanation of the electoral restrictions on non-profits, view our enlightening resource, The Real Rules.

We also invite you to discover Faithful Democracy. Faithful Democracy is a living Web-based project that aims to inspire people of faith to participate thoughtfully in the 2008 electoral cycle. The Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the faith partners that founded this project in order to encourage civic participation based on religious beliefs, values, and ethics.

This is an exciting time! Get involved, and bring your faith with you.