On Election Day 2022, hundreds of residents arriving at the recreation center in Philadelphia’s 11th ward—the voting location they’d used for decades—were stunned to learn the city had closed the polling site.
While canvassing the area for Positive Women’s Network USA, community organizer Samm Pheiffer learned that most residents of the predominantly Black community said they received no notice of the change. Pheiffer had recently met with UU the Vote (UUtV) leaders, and the groups pooled volunteers for both phone banking and door-to-door conversations in Philadelphia. They spread the word of the site closure as best they could and recruited volunteers with UUtV and other allies to greet people arriving at the closed polling location. They informed residents of their new voting sites—a sign placed by the city gave the wrong address for one of the two—and provided free rides to at least several dozen people who otherwise may not have had the time or mobility to vote.
Grassroots organizers’ success in stopping potential disenfranchisement and driving turnout in key states exemplifies the importance of UUtV’s on-the-ground presence and collaboration with local groups. It also shows the speed with which UUtV—a faith-based nonpartisan initiative educating voters on ways to promote justice on key electoral issues—evolved to execute essential in-person work after its mostly remote debut campaign in 2020. The 2022 campaign included thousands of front-door conversations, public events with UUtV national staff in key states, and events organized by UU state network leaders.
Nicole Pressley led UUtV in 2020 and now serves as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Field and Programs director. She recalls first learning of plans for UU the Vote at General Assembly in 2019, in a speech by UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray. “As a UU who was inspired by us showing up to support Black Lives Matter and other causes while organizing in Georgia,” Pressley recalls, “I was excited to see the idea become reality months later.”
Pressley led UUtV through the challenge of launching an entirely new, nonpartisan initiative amidst a global pandemic and intense political conflict. The results of the campaign exceeded all expectations, engaging volunteers and congregations around the country and providing them with specific skill training through webinars.
Working with frontline organizations—many representing Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); youth; and low-income voters—UUtV connects with people who are often neglected in both policy and voter recruitment campaigns. UUtV inspired and empowered UUs to defend democracy and advance justice through civic engagement, generating three million contacts with potential voters in 2020. Many of those were in pivotal states like Georgia, where UUtV partnered with the New Georgia Project to organize in both the general and Senate runoff elections in 2020 and 2022.
JaZahn Hicks, UU the Vote’s 2022 campaign manager, knew the work had to expand last year. “There was a real hunger for personal connections in this election cycle,” said Hicks, explaining the choice to walk neighborhoods to engage thousands of people via door-to-door visits. “We leveraged that hunger and excitement to build power in those communities.” The Good Trouble Congregations program is another innovation added in 2022, and it started powerfully with sixty-four UU congregations participating across thirty-four states. The program challenges congregations to meet multiple benchmarks for reaching and engaging local residents in building democracy.
UUtV also partnered with the UU College of Social Justice, a joint project of the UUA and UU Service Committee, to provide UUtV fellowships to selected UU-affiliated young adults and BIPOC individuals. The fellows received support to develop pro-democracy projects over the latter half of 2022, while helping to build long-term leadership capacity.
In its sophomore season, the UUtV team increased work on informing and turning out voters in states with ballot questions impacting core UU values. Reproductive choice was a major issue, and pro-choice advocates won every one of the six state contests to either stop anti-abortion measures or embed reproductive choice in state constitutions. Well before the November victories, Kansas set the tone by rejecting an anti-abortion referendum placed on the ballot by state legislators. Ash Spears, a Kansas City UU who was deeply engaged in a statewide coalition, reported their keys to success in language that mirrored UUtV philosophy, like forging deeper conversations with potential voters and making more personal connections. “We focused on people, not [political] parties,” said Spears.
UUtV focused heavily on ballot campaigns in Michigan and Kentucky, where Rus Funk of First Unitarian Church of Louisville observed “a real hunger for faith-based voices” in support of reproductive rights. His congregation joined forces with others via the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and played an essential role in preventing an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution.
Hicks visited Michigan in October to partner with the Michigan UU Social Justice Network (MUUSJN) for a week of intensive activity, including phone and text banking, social media workshops, and training specific to ballot issue organizing. In addition to supporting the initiative to constitutionalize reproductive rights, UUtV and MUUSJN boosted Promote the Vote, a ballot initiative proposing multiple provisions to prevent disenfranchisement while ensuring secure elections. Both initiatives triumphed.
Other inspiring results included:
Measures to end involuntary servitude passed in four states.
Both states with pro-immigrant-rights initiatives (Arizona and Massachusetts) passed them. Massachusetts voters also raised taxes on people with over $1 million annual income to fund public transit and education.
Voters in various states voted to expand healthcare, increase voter protections, legalize cannabis, raise minimum wages, reform cash bail, protect personal privacy, and much more.
Among twelve election deniers who sought to become their state’s election chief while simultaneously undermining public faith in elections, four won. But voters in every “battleground state,” including Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan, rejected such candidates. Voters also defeated the most brazenly anti-democracy candidates for governor in Arizona and Pennsylvania, which has clear implications for the 2024 elections.
Activists around the country, including UU clergy, were prepared to deter plans for voter intimidation and election interference in urban precincts. UUtV partnered with Election Defenders, a project of The Frontline, to offer training in poll-watching, de-escalation, and responding to election disruptions. While disruptive events cannot be stopped entirely, the election overall was remarkably free of impactful voter intimidation or sabotage.
“When we connect on our values, people win.”
–JaZahn Hicks, campaign manager
For Hicks, a highlight of UUtV’s 2022 work is its success in building foundations for sustained engagement. “From State Action Networks, to congregations, to individual volunteers, UUs have told us how much UU the Vote means to them and how it makes communicating their values and getting involved in election work easier,” he said.
Hicks praised the generosity of UUs who supported this work, and, referring to proactive grassroots organizations, urged, “Invest in democracy! The fight for our values doesn’t end with election day. Investing in our State Action Networks in 2023 guarantees that they can do the grassroots work necessary to organize communities and congregations.”
Along with UU networks and other groups already mentioned, Hicks noted the Poor People’s Campaign, Black Voters Matter, Healthcare Rising Arizona, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Democracy Project, New Pennsylvania Project, and Red Wine & Blue as key partners.
As for his primary takeaway from the 2022 campaign, Hicks said, “When we connect on our values, people win.”