Everywhere they look, organizers of a new national campaign focused on the 2020 U.S. elections see fundamental Unitarian Universalist values in danger. In rising incidents of hate crimes, hostility to refugees and immigrants, official efforts to suppress voting, and government indifference to climate change, they see cause for alarm—and they hear a call to action.
“Things are dire,” says the Rev. Ashley Horan, UUA Organizing Strategy director, who is leading the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “UU the Vote” campaign, a nonpartisan effort designed to build on past mobilization work, forge partnerships with local organizations, and tap UU resources to an unprecedented degree. “This is no time to sit on the sidelines,” she says, paraphrasing UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray. “This is no time for casual faith.”
Frederick-Gray has called the 2020 elections “the most critical in our lifetimes.” Basic UU values are “on the line,” she said in announcing UU the Vote last November and called on UUs to work to see that those values are supported at the polls. “No matter who you are, and what your skills and passions are,” Frederick-Gray said, “everyone has a role to play.”
This is an “all-hands-on-deck moment” for the UUA, says B. Loewe, a political organizer who is helping to run the campaign. The activism of UU the Vote is “not a departure,” he says. “It’s a deepening and expansion” of social justice and voter mobilization efforts UUs have pursued in the past.
In January, organizers unveiled plans not only to recruit UU volunteers, but also to form alliances with community and state organizations. Congregations are encouraged to pursue an “open door” policy supporting voter mobilization, sharing an array of UU resources: space in congregation buildings, vehicles, copy machines. Horan urges UUs to hold gatherings with people outside their congregations to talk about public issues. “I might host a dinner party with people in my neighborhood,” says Horan, who lives in Minneapolis. “I might talk about climate, why I’m concerned, why my faith compels me” to that concern—and to do something about it, including voting for candidates who back policies such as the Green New Deal.
Organizers stress that the campaign is nonpartisan, in keeping with the status of the UUA and its congregations as religious, nonprofit organizations. If that seems a fine line to walk when talking with voters, the Rev. Rob Keithan, who is minister of social justice at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., offers this advice: Focus on UU values and how they might inform voting.
“Stick to issues and values, avoid candidates and political parties, and you’re good to go,” Keithan says.
All Souls has been promoting voting rights through its James Reeb Project since 2013. Mattie Feder, who serves as the Reeb Project’s unofficial chairperson, says UU the Vote will boost the work All Souls has done with groups in Virginia and North Carolina, and she hopes to form new partnerships this year with organizations in Pennsylvania.
The campaign will concentrate on talking with voters in get-out-the-vote activities in the weeks before Election Day. Before that, UU the Vote will register voters and challenge voter suppression, working with groups that track voters removed from official voter lists and helping them re-register. Resources are available at uuthevote.org.
Voter suppression challenges are unfolding in several states, including Wisconsin and Georgia. Decisions in those states in December by a judge and the secretary of state, respectively, led to more than 500,000 registered voters being wiped off the rolls.
UU the Vote is putting particular emphasis on Wisconsin, often a swing state in national elections. In 2018, the UU Fellowship of La Crosse, Wisconsin, focused on voter mobilization. The Rev. Krista Taves, consulting minister, says she expects to build on those efforts as part of UU the Vote in 2020. “We’ll be offering our facility as a hub and our people as worker bees,” Taves says.
Taves says she believes the fellowship’s 2018 efforts helped boost voter turnout in the La Crosse area. According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, 2018 turnout in La Crosse County—including the city of La Crosse and seventeen smaller municipalities—was 85 percent. That was a jump from 68 percent in the 2014 midterm election and from 82 percent in the 2016 presidential election.
The La Crosse turnout in 2018 contributed to a slim margin of victory in the gubernatorial race for the Democratic challenger Tony Evers, who ousted the two-term incumbent, conservative Republican Scott Walker, by about 1 percent of the vote. Walker had taken positions against organized labor, abortion rights, and the Obama administration’s efforts to cut carbon emissions.
That outcome has been encouraging for the congregation, which Taves says has “a desire to be part of the solution.”
Updated February 6, 2020: An earlier version of this story and the Spring 2020 print edition included a quote that has been modified for clarity here. The Rev. Rob Keithan clarified that “avoid people and parties,” when it comes to nonpartisan political activities, means “avoid candidates and political parties.”