The Ministers Column — July 2020

What has me worried today? A number of things (climate crisis, pandemic, law enforcement)), but let’s look at democracy – the state of democracy in the United States — the imperfections, the threats, the future prospects.

When I started working for the Office of General Counsel of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, upon law school graduation in 1967, I was assigned to work on a report on the implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, then not yet two years old. With a few interruptions, voting rights was the focus of my legal career, which officially ended on February 29, 2000, when I reached 30 years of federal service and retired in order to prepare for Unitarian Universalist ministry. In 1982, the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which were originally given a five year life, were extended for an additional 25 years, and thus would expire in 2007, unless extended further. I thought at the time that we should be able to wipe out what remained of discrimination in voting in that amount of time. I would turn 65 in 2007 and could retire, feeling satisfied with the job well done. How naive.

In 2006 Congress extended the Voting Rights Act again – its protections were still needed; the job was not yet done. But in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court declared that the Voting Rights Act had been a complete success, and that therefore it wasn’t needed any more, with reference especially to Section 5, which required covered jurisdictions to gain federal approval before making any changes in voting standards, practices, or procedures (the provision which, by the way, was the primary focus of my career).

The result – one among many – was the recent fiasco in Georgia, a chaotic primary election. Thus we must ask, will we have a free and fair presidential election this November? Will voters who choose to vote by mail have the opportunity to do so, and will their votes be fairly and accurately counted? Will voters who choose to vote in person have a reasonably accessible polling place, with voting available on several days prior to election day and open at least 13 hours on election day, staffed and equipped so that no one has to wait more than a few minutes, with votes accurately counted, with no one turned away because of their race, with no foreign interference? Can voter suppression become something we read about in the history books, not on the front page of the morning paper?

Back in the last century, it didn’t matter which party held the White House, the Department of Justice enforced voting rights law. Can we have the same confidence today? Our fifth UU principle commits us to “the use of the democratic process . . . in society at large.” Let us remain vigilant and active: may democracy flourish among us!

Love, Dave

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