Getting Quakers Out to Vote in 2004

Our House of Democracy is falling down. It’s not too late to build it up again. We should not saddle our future generations with the problems of deferred maintenance on our House of Democracy. We owe it to our children and to generations beyond to exercise our responsibilities as citizens to take care of our democracy now.
— Joe Volk, FCNL Executive Secretary

With the election nearing, we hear much talk about war, democracy, and freedom. As we seek peaceful ways to prevent war, model democracy, and exercise our freedom, we must not overlook voting. Many of us are so accustomed to elections that we perhaps forget that the ballot—imperfect as it may be—is a nonviolent alternative to other, more violent ways of settling political conflicts.

Free and fair elections are a key part of rebuilding nations after violent conflict and a prerequisite for avoiding it. They represent the triumph of democracy and the rule of law over the rule of force. They ensure the ability of citizens to hold elected leaders accountable.

Voting is so powerful that people in the United States and around the world have risked—and sometimes lost—their lives for the right to do it. Quakers have been part of the long struggle for universal suffrage and respect for voting rights. What would these Friends and other suffrage advocates say if they knew many of us do not vote? We cannot take this nonviolent democratic institution for granted.

At Friends Committee on National Legislation, we are in the midst of our nonpartisan VOTE 2004 campaign. We have been working with churches and meetings across the country to register voters and get them to the polls on Election Day, starting with Friends and then branching out to local communities.

Some Friends have asked why we are working to register Quakers. Many assume that all Friends are voters. FCNL’s colleague organizations have been finding, surprisingly, that voter registration rates among their members and supporters are not much higher than they are for the general population—somewhere between 50 and 70 percent. So we cannot assume that all Quakers, or all interested and active people, have registered to vote. And, of those people who are registered, undoubtedly there are many more who do not actually vote.

From Maine to Hawaii, Friends have taken up this challenge, registering Friends at their meetings and churches, as well as neighbors at grocery stores and county fairs. They have distributed VOTE 2004 stickers and buttons by the thousands. FCNL has been airing public service announcements on radio stations. Now we are preparing for the final Get Out the Vote efforts just before the election.

Through this process, we have had the opportunity to work with potential voters who are often overlooked or whose voices are undervalued. Friends have been registering immigrants to vote as new U.S. citizens, many of whom may be intimidated by the election process, particularly if their home country’s elections had problems of fraud or violence. Young voters are being registered for the first time, providing an important opportunity for them to talk to experienced voters about why the process matters. Other Friends are working in minority communities where registration rates are low because of bad experiences with unjust voting practices or pessimism about the democratic process.

Calls for this kind of involvement have a long history among Friends. In 1659, Edward Burrough wrote:

We are not for names, or men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other . . . but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness, righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with God, and with one another, that these things may abound.

Indeed, Friends testimonies provide a special perspective during elections. Quaker steadfastness and deep commitment can help counter the deep cynicism and disappointment many citizens have with the democratic process. At a time when our nation faces so many pressing questions, this election gives people of faith an opportunity to promote reflection, hope, and action for our nation’s future.

Many people outside Quaker circles have joined in. Requests for information on voting have come from as far away as Morocco and Germany, where U.S. citizens living overseas want to vote for the first time.

A Dallas community organization called FCNL about their summer camp for kids in low income areas. Their summer campers, children from kindergarten to sixth grade, are out with teenaged counselors registering voters on the streets of Dallas. The kids have been distributing VOTE 2004 buttons and stickers as they rap and chant to get potential voters to stop and talk. Some adults respond positively and some do not, but the children are dedicated and keep on trying.

Those kids and the rest of us working to boost voting face quite a challenge. Continuing a decades-long trend, in the last presidential campaign only 51.3 percent of the voting age population cast ballots.

What is keeping people away from the polls? Many political commentators cite alienation from the election process. That may be the case, though a 1996 League of Women Voters survey found otherwise. Their research showed that it is not alienation that separates voters from nonvoters. Both groups demonstrate mistrust of the government.

Instead, potential voters are put off by a number of factors. For one, nonvoters are less likely to see the impact of elections or government on their lives. As voting advocates, we need to demonstrate the many ways our lives are influenced by government, both positively and negatively, including health matters, job availability, road building, school funding, and whether or not our nation goes to war.

The survey also found that many nonvoters see little difference between the major parties. It can be easy for people to fall victim to loose rhetoric or hazy impressions fostered by sound-bite-oriented media or politicians. Making decisions about voting, or how to vote, should be based on information, not conjecture, about elected officials’ actions, including how members of Congress vote. Resources like FCNL’s annual Congressional Voting Record, its Legislative Action Message, and other materials, can help inform and motivate citizen action.

The League also found that those who vote think their vote makes a difference in an election’s outcome. This issue has become even tougher with the problems in the 2000 presidential election. However, even with some problems, which are being addressed through legislation and citizen action, voting still works, and those of us who believe in it must talk with those who feel discouraged

There is no shortage of close elections where a few or even one vote made a difference. If one more person in ten Cook County (Illinois) precincts had voted for Richard Nixon in 1960, John F. Kennedy would not have been elected president. Thomas Jefferson won the U.S. presidency over Aaron Burr when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives.

On the local level, it is easy to see how bread-and-butter issues are affected by even one vote. In 1989, a Lansing, Michigan School District proposition failed when the final recount produced a tie vote 5,147 for, and 5,147 against. The school district had to reduce its budget by $2.5 million.

The League of Women Voters also found that some people do not vote because they feel underinformed, or they feel intimidated by voting. These are cases where experienced voters can ease nervousness by explaining how simple the process is, and by educating potential voters about the assistance available at each polling station, or even by offering to accompany them on Election Day.

These cases also present an opportunity to encourage people to speak out through the ballot box, particularly those whose voices are not frequently heard. Unless they participate in the democratic process, their perspectives will not be reflected in laws that get made.

For voters who want to become better informed, the FCNL website has easy-to-use tools. Users put in their Zip Code to find out about federal and state-level races, candidates’ positions, incumbent voting records, and logistical matters like how to find polling stations, which machines each state uses, and how to get an absentee ballot.

As the election nears, we need to get to the polls ourselves, but also encourage friends and neighbors to vote. In 2000, 76 percent of the voting population was registered, but only 67 percent of those people voted. So our work is not done once someone has registered.
Within our churches and meetings, we need to make sure that everyone knows how and where to vote. In our communities, we need to see if our neighbors need help on Election Day, like a ride to the polls or foreign language assistance. Do students know where to go and what identification may be required? Do the people you know feel sufficiently informed, or would they find some resource guidance from you helpful?

The League of Women Voters has found that people are far more likely to vote if they have had personal contact with someone who encouraged them to vote, whether it is a political candidate or party, a political advocacy organization, or simply a friend or neighbor. A quick round of phone calls, a letter to the editor, or a call to a radio call-in show can boost civic engagement. In the midst of all the electioneering sound bites and talk show analysis, voter-to-voter voices are particularly powerful.

Tracy Moavero

Tracy Moavero, national coordinator of VOTE 2004 for Friends Committee on National Legislation, has been a full-time peace and justice advocate for 11 years. She got her start in this work in the Brethren Volunteer Service, coordinated by the Church of the Brethren.