Every election cycle, Americans hear about low voter turnout in the United States, where on average only about 50-60 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in presidential elections. International groups like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 26 out of 32 peer democratic nations in terms of voter turnout.
But this year, some faith communities across the U.S. are looking to help further democracy by ensuring that 100 percent of the eligible voters in their congregations turn out for the 2020 election. Local churches across the country, organizers, and denominations have all increased their attention to voter turnout in the election. San Diego Organizing Project and LA Voice, both part of the Faith in Action Network, are working with their nearly 30 member congregations on 100 percent voting initiatives. The AME Zion denomination began their “Voting is DEEP” initiative to achieve 100 percent turnout in July, 100 days before the election.
For Congregation Emanu El, a reform synagogue in Houston, outreach efforts to ensure the entire congregation voted began over the summer, when they turned to Bob Stein, a congregant and professor of public policy at Rice University, to study the voting habits of the congregation.
Stein’s research showed that while 100 percent of Emanu El congregants were registered to vote, only 48 percent voted in the 2018 midterms. That number fell below the 52 percent turnout for Harris County, where most members of Emanu El live, so they shifted their attention to turnout rather than registration.
During their virtual Yom Kippur celebrations, Emanu El hosted breakout groups where each person developed a plan to vote and committed to doing so. They’ve created a EE Votes web page, sent congregation-wide emails, and called 800 of the 1,650 family units in their congregation.
“That's something different, something I applaud and enjoy, but not something I’m used to,” Stein said of encouraging political engagement during a service of the High Holy Days.
Juliana Serrano, who attends All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., said that LA Voice helped All Saints compile a list of congregants whose church records didn’t match the California voter roll. LA Voice found 950 such members, about a quarter of the church. All Saints gathered a team of 50 volunteers to call those 950 members and help them update their information or register to vote.
“We were able to determine … who we needed to call and approach so we could confirm whether or not they were eligible to vote, if they were eligible voters why they weren’t registered voters, or if there was some sort of discrepancy,” Serrano said.
For these congregations, voting isn’t just a civic right or privilege, it’s a theological responsibility. Serrano said that influencing policy was one of the many ways people of faith express their values. Rabbi Joshua R.S. Fixler of Emanu El quoted from the Talmud and told the story of Chazon Ish, who is said to have instructed a fellow Jew to sell their tefillin to pay a poll tax.
Voting is “a religious obligation so deeply held that a person could sell a ritual item that was dear to them to be able to participate,” Fixler said.
Each congregation faces different challenges in their efforts. California’s voter registration deadline was Oct. 19; Texas’ was two weeks earlier. California requires mail-in ballots to be postmarked by Nov. 3, as does Texas. But California set Nov. 20 as the deadline for receiving those ballots; in Texas it’s Nov. 4. Each group had to become experts in their local voting laws and rules.
This was particularly hard in a state like Texas. Texas has been embroiled in legal battles over the number of mail-in ballot drop-off locations each county can have. From week to week, these rules have changed with new ordinances or judge’s rulings. Rabbi Fixler said confusion from those battles has been one of the biggest hurdles in helping congregants vote.
“Unimaginable levels of attempted voter suppression [is] happening in Texas,” Fixler said. “People are very scared to vote, they’re very scared their vote won’t be counted, [and] they have a ton of questions and those questions are very technical.”
Congregations have to keep a watchful eye on their federal, state, and county laws and lawsuits to make sure they’re giving accurate information from week to week. Fixler said that his team had him record a how-to video that explained mail-in ballots for their elder members.
Emanu El’s voter turnout initiative has become a family affair. Around half of their 1,650 family units have received calls from the team at Emanu El and many of those calls have been made by Annie Stein, Bob Stein’s daughter, also a member of Emanu El.
“It’s been a really moving experience [working with my dad], I’m kind of getting to see where he gets his passion for this work,” Annie said. “I feel very inspired by him and his dedication to this.”
Checking on a congregant’s plan for voting has incidental benefits as well. All Saints held a “voting day” where they marched from the church to their ballot drop-off. Fixler said that since Emanu El has been unable to worship physically due to the pandemic, check-ins from fellow parishioners are welcomed. Annie highlighted the last round of calls she made, which were to congregants over the age of 65.
“In speaking to these people, it’s pretty inspiring … the passion they have for voting,” Stein said. “I [spoke with] a man from Argentina … he kind of gave me a mini lecture on what it was like to live in Argentina in his youth … basically he said we take [American freedoms] for granted in America.”