Unitarian Universalists monitored polls, practiced de-escalation, and offered water, masks, and music to people waiting to vote.
Unitarian Universalist leaders joined “Count Every Vote” rallies the day after Election Day. Here, the Rev. Abbey Tennis, lead minister of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, and UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray march in Philadelphia on November 4. (© 2020 Caroline Gutman)
In what many believe was the most important national election in generations, 5,000 Unitarian Universalists from at least forty-eight states participated in UU the Vote through phone banking, text banking, and other efforts, partnering with local organizations led by Black and Indigenous people and people of color and reaching more than 3 million potential voters. Many also volunteered on Election Day, November 3, 2020, to keep voting safe, accessible, and fair.
UU the Vote is now focusing on the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia and is inviting UUs to join in ongoing phonebanks, postcard opportunities, and other actions to encourage Georgia voters to cast their ballots by January 5. (To join the work text VoteLove to 51555 or sign up at uuthevote.org.)
On Election Day itself, UU the Vote was engaged in Get Out the Vote (GOTV) phonebanks, while more than 300 UUs were involved around the country in Election Defenders, a program of The Frontline, to support folks at the polls, said Nicole Pressley, national organizer for UU the Vote. Among the volunteers was Unitarian Universalist Association President Susan Frederick-Gray, who traveled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to spend Election Day outside the UU Church of Lancaster, one of a number of UU meetinghouses around the country that served as polling places. There, UUs and their community partners created a joyous, music-filled atmosphere. They supported voters by supplying them with water, candy, and masks; getting translators for voters who needed them; and cheering when people finished voting.
When the atmosphere began to get heated at a different polling place, UUs persuaded an antagonist to dance with them and the situation de-escalated, said the Rev. Cathy Rion Starr, UU the Vote coordinator for Pennsylvania. Over fifty UUs volunteered at polling places around Pennsylvania in conjunction with community partner CASA, which advocates for expanded opportunities for Latinx and immigrant people in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
“I have been really inspired by our local partner group CASA and all the UUs in Pennsylvania working with UU the Vote. It was such a beautiful experience to celebrate with people who are voting and celebrating democracy,” said Frederick-Gray, who on the day after the election traveled to Philadelphia with Rion Starr to support the fair and accurate counting of ballots in the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania. “What’s so exciting to me, and what’s so important, is how many people voted,” she said.
UUs were in “abundance” in Wisconsin doing election defense work in conjunction with Election Defenders and other partners, with the Bradford UU Community Church in Kenosha serving as a staging ground, according to Nora Rasman, UU the Vote Wisconsin lead organizer.
In Miami, Florida, a majority of the eighty members of the UU Congregation of Miami were involved in poll watching around the city, said the Rev. Tom Capo, developmental minister. Many congregants also volunteered for “ballot curing” by helping voters fix problems to ensure their mail-in ballots are counted.
UUs in North Carolina volunteered for poll monitoring, answering voter questions at polling sites, and creating safe voting sites across the state, especially in areas traditionally more vulnerable to voter intimidation, said the Rev. Lisa Garcia-Sampson, executive director of the UU Justice Ministry of North Carolina. UUs, including UU clergy trained in conflict de-escalation, worked in a coalition with such partners as You Can Vote and Democracy North Carolina. A number of UU churches were polling sites, and, overall, there were very few problems on Election Day, Garcia-Sampson said.
UU Justice Ohio (UUJO) was part of the Election Protection coalition, as UUs and others worked as poll monitors and in other roles supporting fair and accessible voting, said the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, UUJO executive director. The coalition included over one hundred clergy and social workers from various denominations who were trained in conflict de-escalation and positioned across the state “with the purpose of creating a calm and peaceful voting experience for the people of Ohio,” said Van Becelaere. There were very few problems on Election Day, in part because so many people did early voting, Van Becelaere said.
In Detroit, Jennifer Teed, justice projects coordinator with Michigan UU Social Justice Network, rode in a six-car caravan led by the Wisdom Institute of Detroit. Teed played a Get Out the Vote soundtrack through a large speaker and used a megaphone to quote a message from the late Rep. John Lewis: "’The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.’ Use your power, vote today!" The caravan rode through Detroit neighborhoods and among five polling locations, distributing snacks and water to voters and poll workers.
At least six UU clergy were part of election defender teams that traveled to polling places around the Atlanta area, offering a calm, nonpartisan presence, said the Rev. Misha Sanders, senior minister at Northwest UU Congregation in Sandy Springs, Georgia. There was no evidence of voter intimidation and the only claims of such proved to be false, Sanders said.
In Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, many UUs did “voter care” work through Election Defenders, a program of The Frontline, said Janine Gelsinger, executive director of UU Justice Arizona Network. UUs and others created a welcoming environment at polling places by offering water, granola bars, sunscreen, and extra face masks; and ordering pizza for voters at several places where lines were long. The Frontline is a new initiative from the Working Families Party and the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project, with which the UUA partnered on a national level, Gelsinger said.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.