SALT LAKE CITY — Only around 4 in 10 eligible voters cast a ballot in a typical midterm election, according to the United States Elections Project. That's 15 to 20 percentage points lower than turnout during presidential elections, which is already low compared to data from other countries.
Candidates aren't the only ones looking to increase participation in this year's election, which could shift the balance of Congress. In the final six weeks before election day on Nov. 6, faith leaders are also working to get out the vote in their congregations and beyond.
Ahead of National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25, around 150 congregations across the country are taking part in a Voter Sabbath this weekend, encouraging members to register to vote and discussing election-related issues. Other faith groups have launched new community organizations and awareness campaigns, presenting casting a ballot as an important religious or spiritual act.
These efforts are a natural extension of the typical work of faith communities, said Megan Black, national clergy organizer for Faith in Action, the interfaith social justice organization behind Voter Sabbath. Electing smart and ethical leaders is a way to serve members in need, like food or clothing drives.
"A lot of our congregations are deeply rooted in communities that are profoundly affected by decisions politicians make on a day-to-day basis," she said.
Political engagement programs are also a way for faith groups to become more visible and educate nonmembers about their core values, said Avais Ahmed, chair of the board of directors for the recently formed Utah Muslim Civic League, which aims to increase political participation among Utah Muslims.
"We want to make sure people see us as part of the community," he said.
However, voter awareness efforts do come with some risks for faith groups that want to increase political engagement, not partisanship. Voter registration drives and election-related sermons shouldn't make members of a particular political party feel unwelcome in their house of worship, experts said.
Faith and elections
Faith-based voter engagement efforts are not a new phenomenon. In the run-up to election day, faith leaders regularly speak about the value of voting or discuss their tradition's teachings on campaign issues like the death penalty or abortion.
These practices help explain why religious groups often punch above their weight during election season. For example, 23 percent of actual voters in the 2016 presidential election identified as Catholic, compared to 20 percent of registered voters, according to Pew Research Center and national exit polls.
In 2018, voter engagement efforts have taken on new significance for many religious Americans, who feel a more urgent desire to get involved and more pressure to avoid partisanship, Black said.
"The politics of today are deeply moral and ethical and represent deeply moral and ethical conundrums," she said. "We have a voice and perspective on that."
Issues like immigration, gun violence and health care have been in the news repeatedly over the past two years. So have the white evangelical Christians who influence President Donald Trump's policy priorities. These religious leaders have been criticized for actively supporting a president whose personal life conflicted with traditionally religious values.
Joseph G. Fleming, director of Catholic organizing for Faith in Action, said participants in Voter Sabbath are instructed to take care to avoid being partisan. They register people from all political backgrounds to vote and focus on the importance of voting in general, not the importance of voting for a specific candidate or party.
"We are encouraging faith leaders and their members to be political," not partisan, he said. They want to avoid "deepening polarization."
Ahmed, who serves on the executive committee of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, noted that organizers of the Utah Muslim Civic League have been careful to gather input and volunteers from multiple mosques in the state. They're focused on unifying the Muslim community in Utah, not exacerbating political tensions.
"We're a nonpartisan organization. What we're going to do is educate Muslims on different views" and different candidates, he said. The League will also register voters.
In the face of potential pushback, clergy members draw inspiration and courage from the conviction that voting is a way to turn religious beliefs into action, Black said. They can emphasize the moral stakes of election season.
"Our congregations and (faith-based) organizations have a role to play in the political landscape of this country and insights to offer," she said.
This year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which does not endorse political candidates, has been vocal about the moral implications of Proposition 2 in Utah, a ballot initiative seeking to legalize medical marijuana use. The church is not opposed to medical marijuana use, but is concerned that Proposition 2 lacks the control and safeguards that protect youth and the community.
At the end of August, Elder Craig C. Christensen, Area President of the Utah Areas in the church's Quorums of the Seventy, sent an email to church members in the state urging them to vote "no" on the initiative in November, the Deseret News reported.
Voter Sabbath, the national event led by Black's organization, takes different forms in different congregations. The overarching goal is to get more people engaged with election season.
"It's an opportunity for congregations and organizations to really dive into the election and what voting means for (them) right now," Black said.
Clergy members offer prayers or sermons on the importance of voting and provide voter registration resources to congregation members and non-members.
Voter registration helps create a bridge between congregations and their surrounding community, Fleming said. It's an opportunity to start conversations about desired policy changes and show that living a life of faith is about more than private prayers and rituals.
"Faith is not just about your relationship to God. It's also about your relationship to the whole community," said Fleming, who is Catholic. "It's always been really natural to me to integrate faith and civic participation."
Leaders in the secular movement, from organizations like American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, have offered similar assessments of their get-out-the-vote campaign, called Secular America Votes.
A conversation about how to fill out a voter registration form can turn into a discussion of what issues matter most to the secular community in 2018 and beyond, as Sarah Levin, director of grassroots and community programs at the Secular Coalition for America, told the Deseret News earlier this year.
"We want to have a conversation about what our values are and what we're looking for in our candidates across the political spectrum," she said.
One-on-one connections can help change voter turnout trends, Fleming said, noting that Faith in Action wants to be in touch with at least 1 million potential voters before Nov. 6.
"Relationships really drive participation" in elections, he said. "It's people knowing people and talking about the issues they care about most that will ultimately animate them to get to the polls."