What are Christians, Jews and Muslims doing to get out the vote?
Faith-based initiatives to get out the vote are rooted in Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions and range from phone calls, handwritten letters, and online educational events to knocking on doors
But a pandemic means the “new normal.” So the Rev. Sapienza and church members have had to innovate in 2020.
Serving the small, rural population of Douglas, Michigan, the Rev. Sapienza’s congregation is made up mostly of retirees who are at risk of dying from COVID-19. His older congregants need to vote by mail and still “want to feel secure in knowing that their ballot has been delivered,” he says.
So the church is coordinating volunteers who will shuttle voters — with their mail-in ballots in hand — to the county clerk’s office to submit them in person.
As in past election seasons, nonpartisan, faith-based initiatives are encouraging Americans — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — to not only get informed about the candidates and issues but to vote. A global pandemic, however, has forced religious organizations to rethink their methods and come up with creative ways to reach voters.
While volunteers from the Rev. Sapienza’s congregation are shuttling his flock to the clerk’s office, other groups around the country are holding remote voter information meetings or writing personal letters and using their phones to achieve ambitious goals of encouraging as many as one million would-be voters to submit their ballots.
“Calling 100 people four times can feel like a big ask,” says the Rev. JaNaé Bates, who is participating in the Faith in Minnesota initiative that has challenged congregants all over the state to make that many calls. “But in this particular year people need to realize that they need to pull out all the stops.”
A religious tradition
Initiatives to get out the vote are rooted in Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions.
The Rev. Bates reflects, “Our democratic process — as flawed as it may be — is one of the tools we can use to help manifest the beloved kingdom here on Earth.”
“I can understand some folks’ inclination to shy away from (political engagement),” she adds, “but the reality for folks of faith is that this is the moment that we were created for. God is not a god of accidents and coincidences. We were placed in this time and place for a reason. On the day of judgment, part of the reviewing of our life will be: ‘What did you do in this time? What did you do in this moment?’”
“It is a Christian obligation to vote, and more than that, it is the church’s responsibility to help get souls to the polls,” says Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in the Episcopal Church’s Vote Faithfully Election Engagement Toolkit. “Cast your vote, not on a partisan basis, not based on your biases, but vote your values. Vote the values of human dignity and equality.”
Black Christian churches have long been a place of political engagement among their members. The pandemic and the summer’s protests over racial inequality have both hampered and energized the churches’ efforts.
“We must vote like our life depends on it,” the Rev. Jimmy Gates Sr., pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Cleveland, told The Associated Press. “Yes, we know God takes care of us and is the supplier of all our needs. But God has given us a will to do the right thing. You didn’t listen to us in 2016. So my thing is, do you hear me now?”
In the Jewish tradition, getting out the vote is a social justice initiative that falls under the umbrella of “tikkun olam,” or world repair. Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, sees voting as a mitzvah, or good deed, and that casting a ballot for the first time should be considered a rite of passage, on par with the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony that Jewish youth participate in at age 13 to mark their formal entry into the Jewish community.
To that end, when she was a vice president at Hillel International, a Jewish college student organization, Katz spearheaded the Mitzvote campaign. First-time voters were celebrated after they cast their first ballots and were boosted into the air on chairs, like at a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah.
For Muslims, Mohamed Gula, executive director of Emgage, a Muslim American organization, says “the importance of being engaged citizens” is rooted in the Islamic values of “caring for one another, protecting one another, uplifting one another — and especially protecting and uplifting and honoring the most vulnerable.”
And those heading up efforts to the faithful involved in the political process have a receptive audience. Research has shown that those who attend church regularly are more likely to vote.
Writing letters, making calls
In California, as part of the National Council of Jewish Women’s “Promote the Vote, Protect the Vote 2020” initiative, volunteers have already sent out 10,000 handwritten letters “to people who they think are unlikely voters,” says Katz, pointing to anecdotal evidence that suggests receiving personal notes can nudge someone into voting.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is taking a similar approach for its “Every Voice, Every Vote” civic engagement campaign, according to Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who estimates that congregations under RAC’s umbrella have sent out over 100,000 handwritten postcards.
In Seattle, Washington, a letter-writing campaign is helping members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral strengthen relationships with each other while simultaneously reaching out to potential voters.
The Rev. Emily Austin explains that she and members of her congregation are handwriting personalized letters to registered voters all over the country who have been identified as “infrequent voters.” They gather online every other Wednesday night so that they can be together — albeit virtually — as congregants writing to potential voters listed on Vote Forward.
In Minnesota, ISAIAH — ”a multi-racial, statewide, nonpartisan coalition of faith communities fighting for racial and economic justice,” according to its website — is employing the phone to get out the vote.
Every ISAIAH member has been asked to call 10 people to talk to them about voting. These shouldn’t be loved ones or those that are already committed to voting but, rather, people that, when you imagine calling them you feel “a little tension in your belly,” says the Rev. Bates, the organization’s communications director.
Faith in Minnesota, an offshoot of ISAIAH, has “about 3,000 people we call voter captains,” the Rev. Bates explains, “and what they have been doing is calling 100 Minnesotans four times.” Their conversations include discussions of the recipient’s voting plan, something that has been statistically proven to increase turnout.
“We’re essentially talking to 300,000 Minnesotans,” says Rev. Bates. “We’re targeting people in rural areas ... as well as Black and Latinx and Muslims. We’re really focused on building this multiracial democracy that we’ve been promised.”
Much of the organizing this year is digital, according to Mohamed Gula, executive director of Emgage. “We’ve already sent out 1.4 million text messages,” Gula says, “As of today we’ve made 500,000 calls” to Muslim Americans.
“In some states, we are even knocking on doors,” he adds, emphasizing that they are mostly doing “literature drops” in a “safe way.”
“A lot of the battleground states have large Muslim populations,” Gula says, pointing to Michigan, Ohio and Florida as examples. “If we increase Muslim turnout, we could potentially sway the election.”
Building bridges around voting
Unlike the Million Muslim Votes, the National Council of Jewish Women’s efforts aren’t aimed exclusively at Jews, a group that has historically registered in higher than average numbers and has strong voter turnout on election day anyway.
The group is “of Jewish women and not for Jewish women,” Katz explains. As such, much of their work revolves around reaching out to vulnerable populations that might be underrepresented at the polls.
To that end, the council was one of a number of Jewish groups that were instrumental in helping Florida’s Amendment 4 pass in 2018. The legislation allows convicted felons to regain their right to vote after they have served their time. But obstacles to participating in this year’s election arose last month when a court upheld a requirement that Florida’s ex-felons pay fines and fees associated with their incarceration before registering to vote.
Elderly Jewish volunteers in South Florida have reached out to former inmates “to help them navigate the system to see if they’ve paid fines,” Pesner says. Looking beyond the elections, Pesner points out that such work puts communities who ordinarily have little to no contact with one another in close touch.
“It’s an amazing relationship-building opportunity,” he reflects.
Getting out the vote has also led one United Church of Christ congregation to connect with the local NAACP chapter. In Middleton, Connecticut, Vickey Allen — a lay leader in the local congregation — has coordinated with the Middlesex County NAACP to go door-to-door in public housing to make sure residents were registered. Thanks to a church grant, they were equipped with rented iPads, enabling them to register voters on the spot or help those who are registered confirm their polling locations so that they don’t show up at the wrong place on election day.
Allen and others also took down contact information to follow-up with these potential voters. Though their work began in public housing, they plan to go door-to-door in other neighborhoods, as well.
Eye to the future
The Episcopal Church’s Vote Faithfully campaign is just one aspect of its ongoing efforts to encourage civic and political engagement among its members. It also offers a “Civil Discourse Curriculum” — a five-week course it launched in 2018 with the intention of facilitating small group discussions among the faithful about “politics, policy and legislation.”
Materials can be downloaded from the website and are designed not only to “help people engage in conversation,” says Alan Yarborough, church relations officer, but also to help people understand the difference between information and disinformation so they can combat the latter.
In Michigan, the National Council of Jewish Women is spearheading an intergenerational initiative that asks elderly people to talk to their grandchildren about voting. Even if those grandkids are way too young to do so, Katz explains, “having a conversation like that with a grandparent sets people up to vote later on.” One of RAC’s initiatives has 16- and 17-year-olds reaching out to potential first time voters to say, “I can’t vote — you need to vote,” according to Pesner.
As in past election seasons, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged its members this month to inform themselves on the candidates and issues and vote. The church’s governing First Presidency noted that “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.”
The letter to American congregations came after President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, counseled members listening in to the church’s general conference to “peacefully accept the results of elections. We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome. In a democratic society we always have the opportunity and the duty to persist peacefully until the next election.”
Part of the United Church of Christ’s broader, national educational efforts have involved informing voters about what will likely happen after Nov. 3, says Sandy Sorensen, director of the church’s Washington office. Church leaders don’t want voters to give up on the democratic process, should the results not turn out as they want or cause a protracted legal battle.
No matter what happens, Sorensen wants voters to keep the faith so they go to the polls again.