UUs mobilize for voting rights, criminal justice reform

UUs mobilize for voting rights, criminal justice reform

As elections approach, Unitarian Universalists work to register voters, promote criminal justice reform, and re-enfranchise 1.5 million people in Florida.

Elaine McArdle
Spouses Linda Wright (left) and the Rev. Robin Gray volunteer at the UU Tallahassee Second Chances Phone Banking event September 22, 2018, in Florida.

Spouses Linda Wright (left) and the Rev. Robin Gray volunteer at the UU Tallahassee Second Chances Phone Banking event September 22, 2018, in Florida. (© 2018 Anna Bethea)

© 2018 Anna Bethea


As the November 2018 elections loom, Unitarian Universalists are engaged in broad-based efforts to support the democratic process through voter registration, voter education, and voter mobilization efforts.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is emphasizing working in coalitions and partnering with local organizations, especially those led by people of color and other marginalized groups, including the Poor People’s Campaign. The UUA has published a guide to resources and opportunities to get involved at UUA.org/votingrights.

UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray is traveling to Florida and Ohio in coming weeks to support UU congregations working in those states for the passage of new laws related to re-enfranchising felons and reforming criminal laws. All twenty-two UU state action networks are deeply involved in voter rights work, said Susan Leslie, the UUA’s congregational advocacy and witness director.

Many UUs feel deeply called to support voting rights work as critical to the democratic process, which itself is one of the core principles of the faith.

“I think this work is at the center of our values. The foundational concepts of American democracy are in many ways the foundational concepts of our faith,” said the Rev. Rob Keithan, social justice minister at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., whose Reeb Voting Rights Project is currently focused on ending voter suppression aimed at people of color, young adults, and naturalized citizens. More than 250 members are canvassing and phone banking in North Carolina and Virginia, he said.

In Florida, UUs are focused on garnering support for a proposed amendment to the state constitution, Amendment 4, which seeks to restore voting rights to 1.5 million people currently disenfranchised because of felony convictions. The current prohibition on felons voting means that one in five black people in Florida can’t vote. Nationally, more than 6 million people can’t vote because of their criminal records, according to the New York Times. Florida is one of thirteen states that do not restore voting rights to felons upon completing their sentence and/or probation, and one of just four that permanently restricts voting rights unless the governor intervenes.

UU Justice Florida, a statewide justice ministry of UUs and UU congregations that partners with multi-faith and other organizations, has been instrumental in the effort to get the required signatures to put Amendment 4 onto the ballot.

In partnership with organizations led by people of color, including Second Chances and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, UUs in Florida are working for passage of Amendment 4 with help from UUs in other states. “UUs are now coming in to get the win,” said Leslie. For example, working with Second Chances, the UU Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, has held two phone banks to support Florida’s Amendment 4, said Silver Spring member Doneby Smith.

To support Amendment 4, UUs nationwide are invited to participate with the UUA, UU Justice Florida, and other faith groups for a Faith Day Phone Bank on Tuesday, October 9, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. EDT.

On October 20, Frederick-Gray will participate in a program at the UU Church of Sarasota, Florida, that is expected to draw UUs from around the region. It will be livestreamed on her Facebook page. She will then participate in canvassing in local neighborhoods.

Desmond Meade, a formerly incarcerated man who got his law degree after being released from prison, is executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which has been key in the Amendment 4 effort. He preached at the Sarasota church on September 30.

On October 21, Frederick-Gray will preach at UUs of Clearwater, and then speak on Facebook Live before participating in phone banking, said the Rev. Patrice Curtis. In the weeks leading up to the election, the Clearwater congregation is doing phone banks both on its own and in conjunction with UU Justice Florida, Curtis said.

Elsewhere in Florida, the UU Fellowship of St. Augustine has been significantly involved in supporting Amendment 4, including collecting signatures to get it on the ballot, said member JoAnne Engelbert. The UU Church of Tallahassee did a phone bank on September 22 in which about a dozen members participated, said member Anna Bethea, outreach specialist for the UUA, and also worked to get the amendment on the ballot.

In Ohio, UUs are working to support Issue 1, a criminal justice reform initiative on the November ballot that would reduce penalties for drug possession, among other things. The Ohio initiative is led by black organizers, Leslie said, and UUs are following their leadership. DaMareo Cooper, a formerly incarcerated person, is organizing director at the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, with which UU Justice Ohio has been working to organize UU congregations, said Leslie, including collecting signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

On Sunday, November 4, Frederick-Gray will be in Ohio to support the efforts and will preach at the West Shore UU Church in Rocky River, Leslie said.

The UU Church of Akron has been deeply involved, including collecting signatures to get Issue 1 on the ballot. Akron UUs participated in National Voter Registration Day on September 25 by registering voters, and is following the leadership of the Akron Organizing Collaborative to support what is needed, said Deb Lemire, co-chair of the Akron congregation’s Racial Justice Task Force. One important need was transportation for voters to the polls in November, and members of the congregation will be driving people in rented vans, Lemire said. First UU Church of Columbus has also been involved, including verifying the validity of collected signatures, Leslie said.

Elsewhere around the country, UUs have been active in a wide variety of efforts supporting the democratic process. For example:

More than 150 UUs participated in a voting rights webinar in July co-sponsored by the UUA and UUs for Social Justice (UUSJ), based in Washington, D.C., Leslie said.

With partial assistance from a grant from the UU Funding Program, UUSJ has been working with the state action networks in Iowa, Florida, and Virginia to provide technical assistance. UUSJ has also been working with congregations in the Maryland/Virginia area, including the Reeb Voting Rights Project at All Souls. UUSJ connected the UU Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, with the Florida Second Chances organizers, and the church has been phone banking monthly since July. As of August 21 they had made more than 5,000 calls, according to Lavona Grow, Advocacy Oversight Committee chair for UUSJ.

UUs nationally are welcome to use UUSJ resources, including a Get Out the Vote Toolkit and a “how-to” web page about mobilizing for the midterm elections. UUSJ is preparing a “Questions for Candidates Guide” to identify key questions that UU congregations can ask candidates, with UU values–based responses for congregational discernment.

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