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Monday, October 6, 2014

Local Elections: Vote!

Voting deadlines are looming across the country.
Are you registered? Do you know your polling place?

I've always made it a point to vote in all elections,local and national, that were available to me, just on basic stubborn principle. But this summer emphasized to me how truly important local elections are, even as a matter of life and death.

In Ferguson, Police Chief Thomas Jackson was appointed by the elected  mayor (via city manager). The St. Louis County Chief of Police, Jon Belmar, was also appointed by elected officials (county executive and city council).  In Beavercreek, the city where John Crawford was shot, the elected city council members, city manager, and city mayor were the ones to appoint the Chief of Police Dennis Evers and the ones who determine police budgeting allocations. These are the folks overseeing the police force chains-of-command that establish protocols, that train their officers, that give the orders, that the lead internal investigations, and that buy military equipment for their departments.

And state-level elections matter too. The special prosecutor for the Crawford shooting, Mark Piepmeier, was appointed by State Attorney General Mike DeWine. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey was elected to office in 2008 before famously failing to convict George Zimmerman of murder, even while prosecuting Marissa Alexander to the fullest extent of the law. And it was Florida Governor Rick Scott who first assigned Corey to the Zimmerman case.

County executive? Attorney General? City Council? County Sheriff? State Attorney? When is the last time you paid close attention to who was elected to these offices? But these are the elected positions that had direct influence on the most prominent racial cases of recent history.

Though the narrative is sometimes convoluted, it's the local ballot elections that are at the center of most racial justice issues today. They determine who will be prosecuted under New Jim Crow laws, which legislatures might propose a new Kill-At-Will bill or a mandatory sentencing law. It's the county commissioners, governors, and state officials that determine how your local taxes are spent, whether on police militarization or on public transportation. It's the school board members that decide whether to feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline or to actively reverse systemic educational disparity. It's also these local elections that regulate housing affordabilityenvironmental justice, and discrimination laws--all decisions made at the local level, and with immediate consequences for racial justice.

But as important as off-year voting is, it's not always made easy. Municipal elections are often held during odd-numbered years (as is the case in Ferguson and Beavercreek), those without major national elections, and thus with lower expected voter turnout. States may enact restrictive laws that reduce voter participation (see post: The Trouble with Voter ID Laws). While Ohio, like most states, allows for early voting, the law is getting more prohibitive, the Supreme Court having recently eliminated all evening voting hours and reduced weekend voting from 24 to 16 hours.

Clearly, laws such as these disproportionately affect working-class folk who hold one or more jobs to make ends meet. Of note, it is also elected local officials, like Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who regulate the elections themselves.

Shouldn't we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn't we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?

Perhaps there is a fear of allowing more people to vote in a democratic society. But if a political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.

Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 94 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.

Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all of our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.

This year, make plans to ensure that you cast your ballot for local elections. Most states allow no-excuse absentee ballot voting, which means you can vote in your pajamas from the comfort of your couch (allowing you to research each of the names and issues that appear on your ballot as you go). As mentioned above, most states also allow for early in-person voting, which means you can find a time to vote that is convenient for your schedule. No excuses this year.

So, check yourself: are you registered? Is your registered address current? Do you know the ID requirements in your state? If you're all set personally, help ensure that your friends and neighbors also understand their voting rights and the importance of local elections. Organize a trip with your church to go vote together, or volunteer to help shuttle voters to the polls on election day.

As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). We tend to pay attention to the Office of the President more than any other elected official. But our voices have the most influence on our own lives, and the lives of our neighbors, when we make sure to vote locally.


  1. I have to say I've become stingy in my voting. I haven't completely abandoned participation in our governmental processes yet, but there are two things that give me pause these days:

    1) Choosing the "lesser of two evils" is still a choice for evil. I'm more and more having a hard time compromising when I vote for a candidate because what I see, more and more, is that while I may like some things about that candidate, frequently the candidate gets caught up in the politics of government and that "good" thing I voted for gets set aside for the most expedient thing.

    2) More often than not, while candidates may state a "good" stance on an issue, the politics of power usually win the day. Not only do they compromise for expediency, but they compromise for the simple purpose of remaining in office. It becomes more about making sure that they can assure the most votes in the next election than it is about maintaining principles. Voters are there to be "consumed" by the powers that be in order for them to maintain their current position.

    So, I do a LOT of research before I vote... I look at the candidates positions, their voting records (if they've held previous public office), their particular behavior when in office (how often did they compromise principles to either get something done quickly or maintain power), and how they handle themselves in their own personal lives (issues of integrity, faithfulness, etc). Many times, this means that I cannot find a candidate worth voting for so I end up writing in "No Confidence" or something like that.

    Furthermore, as an Anabaptist, while I see that the governmental systems and structures do some good, my hope is not in the local, state, or national governments but in the Church (not the instituion) to achieve true shalom. So, even when I do vote, it is not with any particular hope that it will have lasting good. All it takes is another election cycle to undo any good done this time around. "Victory" in politics is so fleeting... and this nation will pass away and what will come afterwards may be worse, may be better... Voting has such a low priority for me that missing a vote is not devasting, so long as I'm doing may part in being salt and light within my context.

    YMMV, but that's my take. :-)

  2. I agree the at we should continue to work as individuals and as churches for justice and peace. But I can't in good conscious, speak up for John Crawford and those like him and then not hold the city councils, mayors, AGs accountable in November (or whatever the specific issue may be for my area). I see the direct effects of an election in my neighborhood. Depending on who gets voted in, daily life for my neighbors gets harder or easier. I can't ignore that on election day.

    I've not always held felt it was so important. Unfortunately, when we live in communities that are so segregated racially and economically, we don't see the direct effects that voting (or not) have on our sisters and brothers, and we may begin to think that the exercise is futile or that it makes little difference either way.

  3. I guess the challenge would be that holding those officials accountable in the next election, would the replacements you bring in necessarily be an improvement? Would you be compromising other ideals in order to stand for the very laudable justice ideals concerning John Crawford and Michael Brown? And would those compromises cause other justice issues in other areas that may not come out immediately?

    Personally, I do not expect our government to act Christian... if they do, great... but I don't hold hope for it. Instead, what if we spent the energy that we exert on politics and actually started transforming lives so that when the next election comes around there might actually be people worth voting for rather than "same stuff, different day" as it usually is?

    Now... let me say that I'm not saying it's non-Christian to vote... nor that it is necessarily a Christian thing to do... just that I have come to a conviction (several years ago, actually) that extremely deprioritizes electoral politics in favor of the polis of the church. *shrug* but that's my conviction and I understand if you don't share it.

  4. I can only speak from what I observed, and that is that in our neighborhood we can tell a difference one election to another, and thus the new guy does bring tangible improvement (or conversely, hardship). And yes, it is always about balancing pros and cons. I do that in all aspects of my life, from the purchase I make, to the friends I associate with, to how I spend my free time. Rarely is there a perfect decision in life. That doesn't mean I abstain.

    I too strongly believe that it will take the work of the Church to change hearts and minds. We can't expect government to do that. That's why I don't just vote and then wash my hands or the daily work. As you mention, it will take transformed live, which requires work from the Body of Christ. But in the meantime, laws are important to protect lives and livelihoods (even if hearts don't want to yet). Anti-segregation laws did not change people's attitudes (we see that in churches that continue to be segregated...hearts have not changed). But they have ensured a certain amount of protection that is essential for folks living in a world reticent to change.


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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