Voting is an essential element of a vibrant democracy. Voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election was the highest in several decades, where nearly two-thirds of estimated eligible voters participated in the process.
Factors influencing the turnout included the perceived importance of the election and the expanded options for absentee, mail-in voting and early voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some states had nearly 100% of their votes cast through mail. Half of younger Americans (ages 18-29) voted, representing at one of the highest rates in recent history.
Evidence indicates a correlation between higher youth voting rates and states with more policies such as automatic registration, same-day registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and other measures that streamline registration and voting processes.
As the results of the 2020 presidential election were being certified by local officials, there were increasing attempts to delegitimize those results based on allegations of widespread voter fraud.
Numerous legal attempts failed to demonstrate such fraud and state and federal judges and Supreme Court justices dismissed case after case based on lack of demonstrable evidence and unconvincing legal arguments.
Fraud was not a factor in the election results. Nevertheless, despite such determinations, unproved allegations about fraud have continued to be claimed by various sources and precipitated an unprecedented wave of violence and insurrection.
Concerns about the integrity of the voting process have also driven states to develop and implement new voting procedures and requirements. The state of Georgia, for example, passed voting “reforms” designed to ensure security of elections and to restore voters’ confidence, but the overall effect is one that suppresses voting rights.
Provisions of the bill include using voter identification, reducing the deadline for mail-in ballots, and decreasing the number of drop boxes for absentee ballots. Furthermore, the bill bans people from providing food and drink to a voter and restricts buses and other readily moveable facilities to emergency use only. These measures will likely have disproportionate impacts on the elderly, persons with disabilities and communities of color.
Other states such as Florida recently passed similar constraints, and more than 50 restrictive bills are progressing at various stages through legislatures in 24 states.
Many politicians, civil rights activists, and corporations have reacted to these legislative actions with concerns and moral outage. Companies such Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola (global corporations that are headquartered in Georgia) publicly criticized the Georgia bill and Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Colorado.
These new voting procedures must be interpreted in a wider context of historic voter suppression. The United States is often viewed as the model of democratic freedom, deliberation and responsibility. Voting rights have been enshrined in the 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments.
Yet, American history is a complex and contested one: systemic racism, discrimination based on sex, class, ability, religion and other forms of social sin have compromised and denied individuals, groups and communities the right to vote. Bulwarks of voting rights have been challenged in recent years, including the Supreme Court’s dismantling of key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision (2013).
Catholics are called to confront injustices, to uphold dignity and to promote the common good. Forms of voter suppression deny the full humanity of person, break down the solidarity among persons and communities and subvert individuals’ rights and responsibilities to contribute to and benefit from the common good.
Voter suppression laws often weaken the authority of local officials and communities, which violates the principle of subsidiarity. Equally pernicious, voter suppression laws deny voters the ability to exercise their consciences in faithful citizenship.
Pope Francis affirms the centrality of the themes of love, mercy, justice, community, and the common good in Catholic theology and ministry.
In “The Name of God is Mercy,” Pope Francis shares the story of Jesus and a leper. Jesus encounters a leper who has been deemed an unclean pariah and unwelcome in the community. Pope Francis writes: “Jesus moves according to a different kind of logic.
At his own risk and danger, he goes up to the leper (and) he restores him, he heals him.” Jesus restored the leper and “brought him back into the community.” Jesus’ compassion and sense of justice were not exhausted by considerations of fairness; they are animated by a deep commitment to meeting the neighbor and restoring him to the community.
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” focuses on community and challenges Christians to work towards recognizing humanity in all its diversity as one human family. He speaks of the virtue of fraternity, what Jesuit Father Greg Boyle calls “kinship,” but it means that we are all related.
Pope Francis describes the single human family that is rooted in the dignity of each human person. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., similarly describes the intersection of the local and universal in the “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail.
Fraternity or social friendship has political implications that relate to forms of political and social charity and solidarity that promote the common good. Charity and solidarity are not simply close, interpersonal relationships, but rather social, economic and political relationships that transcend individualism, build healthy communities and just institutions, and meet the needs of the neighbors.
Pope Francis exhorts us to be vigilant against discrimination, disenfranchisement and covert forms of racism: “Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting” he says in “Fratelli Tutti.” Framing voting suppression laws as racially neutral preservations of voting integrity embodies this racism in waiting.
It is in this moment where Catholics and persons of goodwill, regardless of their political preferences informed by their consciences, should rise up and defend voting rights through dialogue, action and expressions of solidarity.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a special role to play with Congress in Washington, promoting our principles of justice, mercy, and the common good. In cooperation with the administration, the national conference must participate in all legislative hearings and sessions to create federal legislation to limit the further erosion of voter rights, especially in harmony with our justice and equality partners.
State Catholic Conferences must mobilize all their legislative efforts across their respective states to involve Catholic voices in decrying the purposeful destruction of ample voting possibilities in all elections. The conferences need to activate their Legislative Action Networks.
At the federal and state level, the church must participate in legal challenges to unjust laws enacted precisely to lessen the voting power of fellow citizens.
Dioceses and archdioceses need to inform all their members of these insidious threats which fly in the face of Gospel values and the consistent social and justice teachings, beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1891 (“Rerum Novarum”) through the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of all succeeding popes and bodies of the Holy See.
Local justice and peace groups have a vital role to play in informing parishioners of these threats, mobilizing them to contact their legislators and emphasizing the voting turnout of 2020 and the need to safeguard all those voting opportunities.
Church organizations need to use their powerful voice in solidarity with local partners to shine the light of truth on these efforts to silence our minority communities and to limit drastically their role in our democracy. Companies and organizations need to consider which states and communities deserve their presence for gatherings and their financial purchasing power and give them preference.
Time is of the essence. Every day that we delay as a Catholic Community to participate in this national and state debate on voting rights, we are empowering negative forces to attack the God-given dignity of each single person and all of the rights which flow from their divine creation.
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Cardinal Mahony is retired archbishop of Los Angeles. The views or positions presented in this or any guest editorial do not necessarily represent the views of Catholic News Service or of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.