Millions of Americans went to the polls this past Tuesday to cast their ballot for the candidates of their choice. Millions more will do the same a year from now. Many citizens however skipped their opportunity to vote. Others who wanted to vote were denied the right to participate in this important part of the democratic process.
Americans generally regard the United States as the foremost example of a democratic nation in the world. How then do we explain the low percentage of citizens who actually vote? The U.S. has the world’s highest level of campaign spending but among the lowest levels of voter turnout of any democracy. Are we doing all we can to encourage voter turnout? Why do we continue to hold elections on Tuesdays rather than on a weekend when more persons could get to the polls? Or why have we not seriously considered making voting day a holiday? Surely the most important part of democratic government should enable and encourage the greatest possible voter turnout!
We believe that government is “of, for, and by the people” – meaning it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws s/he/they is or are called upon to obey. Is voting a right? …or a privilege? The barriers and challenges faced by many citizens suggests that voting is a privilege of which many citizens are disenfranchised.
Most states restrict voting rights for persons convicted of a felony crime. Felon “disenfranchisement laws” make sense for those sentenced to prison. Taking away a citizen’s right to vote stretches logic however for persons serving time on probation or parole supervision in the community. Nevertheless more than half of the states enforce such restrictions (see National Conference of State Legislatures).
The policy of voter restrictions on offenders goes against our stated goals of offender change, correction, rehabilitation, and successful reintegration back into society.
The Presbyterian Church (PC-USA) approved a study, “Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights and Electoral Reform” in 2008 at its 218th General Assembly. The study highlights the limitations imposed on African Americans, other persons of color, and poorer working class citizens of all races in regard to voting rights. Such limitations are unacceptable for a nation founded on freedom and democracy.
The “Lift Every Voice” study declares that what we do for the least powerful among us politically benefits us all. Opening our political system’s access to the voices and choices of all citizens benefits the nation. Encouraging voter participation among young first-time voters, the poor, and aging voters with fewer economic resources to meet growing needs is a way of engaging more positive citizen involvement.
Recommendations of the “Lift Every Voice“ study include:
- Amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee citizens the right to vote.
- Provide universal voter registration.
- Remove obstacles to voter participation.
- Re-enfranchise felons who have paid their debt to society.
- Reject expensive voter ID requirements.
- Transition to nonpartisan legislative districting.
Members of the Presbyterian Church have been politically active since our nation’s founding that included several signers of the Declaration of Independence. The “Lift Every Voice” study concludes:
“We thus advocate a Presbyterian democratic or electoral ethic of individual discipline, multicultural awareness and communal responsibility. …. We are Christians first and Americans second, understanding God’s sovereignty above every nation, including our own.”