Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Empowerment, not Suppression
distributed 10/21/16 - ©2016

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Gladys Gifford of Buffalo, New York. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

In the ongoing story of the most bizarre election in US history, Donald Trump won't say if he will accept the voting outcome. Among other things, he claims that the election is "rigged" -- an assertion rejected by virtually all election experts.

For those of us in the US, this is a frightening indicator of a political crisis and a divided population that will have repercussions far beyond November 8. But electoral integrity and support for voter expression are not new or passing concerns. They are matters of long-standing and deep-seated ethical importance.

Looking at the core affirmations of eco-justice ethics gives us a different slant on political participation than we're seeing in the headlines. The ethical norms point us toward laws and policies that will be essential in coming years.

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Several decades ago, the thinking and the phrasing of several prominent eco-justice ethicists coalesced around four norms that are essential to this ethical perspective: solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and democracy (or participation).

An article describing the four norms makes clear that democracy is a far bigger thing than voting.

Economic arrangements, development decisions, and environmental policies, therefore, should be shaped by and provide for effective participation by those most affected. Special efforts must also be made to give voice in decision-making to the larger community of living beings and to low-power groups of humans. If the goal is to serve the good of the ecological commons as well as the common social good in each place, then a democratic process must give explicit attention to currents residents of affected places -- the people now present, other species, and future generations.

Active, engaged and effective participation in community processes is essential for a just society. All the stakeholders must be empowered (or carefully represented when they can have no direct voice). There are many ways that this participation is threatened.

That participation is cut off, of course, when some people are killed for their views. Death squads that slaughter opposition voices, and the assassination of activists fighting for environmental and human rights are tragic and flagrant violations of participation. Fortunately -- at this time -- such intentional violence is not common in the US.

People can be silenced, though, in far less violent ways. In a set of lawsuits now working through US courts, several youth are arguing for their right and the right of coming generations to be heard in a system that does not give youngsters legal standing. Other species are excluded categorically from legal action or any voice in voting processes.

People are silenced when the only way to testify on proposed legislation is to appear at the far-away capitol during work hours. People are silenced when a city council allows for "speak out" comments only on topics that are already on the council's agenda (as was the case in Denver until recently). People are silenced when translation services are not provided.

In voting processes, the great risk is not that a few fraudulent ballots will be cast, but that millions of eligible voters will be prevented from registering or voting. An article by People for the American Way, "The New Face of Jim Crow: Voter Suppression in America", begins: "There are two ways to win an election. One is to get a majority of voters to support you. The other is to prevent voters who oppose you from casting their votes." Their report describes six well-known and widely-used strategies for voter suppression. These tactics are most often used against "low-income families, minorities, senior citizens and citizens for whom English is a second language."

The US Voting Rights Act had provided important protections against many of the voter suppression tactics, as well as redistricting which divided populations to reduce their political power, but key provisions of the act have been overturned by the Supreme Court. The 2016 election will be the first presidential contest in decades without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, and far too many legislatures are establishing procedures that will exclude and suppress communities.

I believe that our communities are stronger, more just, and more resilient when all members and all stakeholders are given voice. The ethical norms of solidarity (that we're all in it together) and democracy validate the need to include everyone even our political opponents.

Those of us who hold these beliefs need to exercise our voice and our power for the sake of inclusion, and against voter suppression. We need to be vocal in the weeks leading up to this year's election, and we need to be persistent in working for justice in the years ahead.

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In my home state of Colorado, the matter of political suppression is a hotly contested theme on the fall ballot. A proposed constitutional amendment is seen by a remarkably diverse coalition as an excessive measure that would virtually eliminate one form of grassroots political action.

Colorado is one of a fairly small number of states with provisions for citizen initiatives to amend statutes and the constitution. It is a beloved way for passionate people to act when the legislature won't. Here in Colorado, the same requirements are in place to get legislative and constitutional changes onto the ballot. That does mean that some things have been put into our cluttered constitution that might have been done more appropriately through a change of laws.

Proposed Amendment 71 is designed, in its own words, "to make it harder to amend this constitution". But it does so in such far-reaching ways that most constituencies will find it impossible to reach the new thresholds.

Currently, citizen initiatives need to have close to 100,000 certified signatures to qualify for the ballot. Amendment 71 would "raise the bar" by requiring that a significant percentage of those signatures would have to be spread among the state's 35 senate districts. Functionally, this dramatically raises the costs of gathering signatures, and requires such an extensive network of state-wide advocates that only proposals with deep financial pockets could hope to qualify.

Yes, it is appropriate to make constitutional changes more difficult than legislative ones, including some requirement for state-wide support. But the requirements of Amendment 71 are so difficult that they serve as a form of political suppression.

This week, the Board of Directors of Eco-Justice Ministries considered taking a stand on Amendment 71. They agreed that this amendment presents serious ethical problems in terms of the norm of democratic participation. They supported this use of Eco-Justice Notes to educate on ethical principles, and to urge our Colorado constituents into leadership of informed debate on this important ballot item.

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I am deeply concerned about the health of our political system. I don't see evidence of any systemic "rigging" of elections through fake ballots or manipulation of vote counts. But I do see far too many ways in which stakeholders are suppressed and excluded from elections and other processes of decision-making.

This fall, and in the coming years, I am committed to working for the inclusion and empowerment of all voices. I will fight against the systemic exclusion and suppression of voters and community voices.

I pray that all people of faith and conscience will join me in that commitment to the most inclusive standards for our (small-D) democracy.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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