California and Minnesota secretaries of state to receive Wilton Prize at UUA General Assembly.
Both secretaries, Debra Bowen in California, and Mark Ritchie in Minnesota, are Unitarian Universalists. In addition to receiving the prize at a plenary session Friday afternoon, they will present a workshop at 6:45 p.m. on Friday called “Strengthening Democracy Now,” discussing how to extend democracy to marginalized communities, standardize elections, and increase citizen participation.
The secretary of state is usually responsible for election-related issues although they may have several other areas of responsibility. In recent interviews Bowen and Ritchie shared their visions of how a secretary of state can strengthen democracy.
Bowen, a member of the UU Community Church of Santa Monica, strives for fair elections. “I want election rules to be such that the system handles situations correctly, regardless of who is in office,” she said. “The system of democracy needs to work independently of who runs it. The rules need to be applied fairly.”
Other secretaries of state view their roles differently, she said. “Some think they don’t have any role in voter education and outreach and that theirs is just a ministerial role to process voter applications and make things work in a mechanical way,” she said. “I have a more expansive view.”
She’s in favor of universal voter registration, registering people automatically when they use government services such as obtaining a driver’s license or applying for welfare benefits. “We have the ability now to include 90 percent of our citizens in that manner,” she said. “Doing that would also allow us to focus on the 10 percent, primarily in urban areas, who we are least likely to come into contact with.”
She also supports electronic voting, with a paper trail. “In California we use the optical scan method (with a paper ballot retained inside the machine). It’s old, boring, and reliable.”
Unitarian Universalists have long been active in the cause of democracy, she noted. “The range of things people can do to ensure good democracy is so broad. I encourage people to find an issue they have passion about and work to break down the barriers.”
Bowen has been secretary of state since 2006. Before that, she served three terms in the State Assembly and two terms in the State Senate.
“As secretary I focus on three points: addressing cynicism about voting, tearing down actual barriers, and making people feel welcome,” said Mark Ritchie of Minnesota, a member of First Universalist Church in Minneapolis.
He added, “Secretaries of state can do a lot, using the pulpit of the public media, and churches, etc., to help people understand how to vote. People who have never voted need direct information.”
He said that helping young people have a good first experience with voting is key to their continued participation. “If that first experience is positive,” he said, “they’ll often become lifelong voters because they feel like they made a difference.”
He supports election-day registration, noting that it raises participation by 10 percent. “There are conscious attempts by some to block people from voting by imposing barriers of taxes, expenses, and identification,” he said. “The constitutional guarantee of voting has been repeatedly abridged. But overall we have a great system.”
Besides encouraging people to vote, he invites them to become election judges, to actively support initiatives and candidates they believe in, and to run for office. “Every town has many citizen advisory groups and boards, from school boards to the regulation of nursing homes,” he said.
Congregations can offer their buildings as voting sites and can also support initiatives, but not candidates, he noted.
Being Unitarian Universalist has given him a broad nonpartisan perspective, he said. “If you believe in democracy, then you believe that everyone should participate. There are many people who want some voters to vote and who actively oppose efforts to get others to vote. That’s contrary to the values displayed in my church.”
Ritchie was elected secretary of state in 2006. In 2008 he was named the Most Valuable State Official in the United States by The Nation magazine, for his advocacy of free and fair elections and his impartial monitoring of the Minnesota vote recount in the 2008 U.S. Senate race.
The Wilton Peace Prize was established by Henry and Irene Wilton in 1984. Past recipients have included Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.