Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Voting, Pandemic and Eco-Justice
distributed 5/22/20 - ©2020

In case the current news isn't confusing or distressing enough, life becomes even more interesting when we look at the overlap of two complicated issues. Neither one is any surprise: there's an ongoing pandemic, and an upcoming election in the US. But how can an election be conducted during a pandemic?

An example of how to do it badly was seen six weeks ago with the fiasco of a primary election in Wisconsin. As the political news site reported at the time,

Across the state, a shortage of poll workers led to the closure and consolidation of many polling places, which resulted in extremely long lines on Election Day. For example, Milwaukee -- a city of almost 600,000 people -- had just five polling places open (in normal circumstances, it would have 180 polling places).

This is a matter of eco-justice concern. I've often mentioned the four classic norms of eco-justice ethics (solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation). The fourth one in that list is significant. Some writers use "democracy" instead of "participation." One article on those norms says:

Participation is a crucial dimension of right relationships. Social, economic, and political systems that are insufficiently participatory cannot be just. ... participation demands democratic decision-making, cooperative relationships, empowerment of women and minorities, government accountability oriented to the general welfare, and caretaking responsibilities fairly shared.

Elections, and other political processes, need to be inclusive if the society is to have fair processes. The details of how to do that is way, way beyond the scope of an Eco-Justice Notes. To stimulate thoughtful conversation -- and perhaps some urgent advocacy depending on the situation where you live -- I'll name a variety of the factors that should be considered in looking for participatory democracy.

(This discussion is complicated because in the US, voting standards and processes are defined by the states, not the federal government.)

My list is admittedly incomplete. Feel free to add to it.

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Especially since the Wisconsin primary, there have been many calls for a dramatic expansion of voting by mail. That sounds like a splendid idea to me, because I live in Colorado, which has done elections almost exclusively by mail for several years. But it is not an election system that can be created and implemented in just a couple of months.

I was also very interested to see an opinion piece from the Guardian this morning, headlined "Mail-in voting will suppress Native Americans' votes in November." Civil rights lawyer Thea Sebastian raises lots of details about why this is a bad strategy, especially in settings like the Dine (Navajo) reservation. It is a fascinating and challenging article.

If vote-by-mail isn't the one ideal option, what should we look for? It seems to me that a genuinely participatory election system combines as many elements as possible to increase voting access and turn-out. Three essential options would be:

  • A sufficient number of polling places that are adequately staffed and fairly located. Long lines and inconvenient locations keep people from voting. Some areas have been notorious for having fewer polling places in minority neighborhoods -- depressing turn-out, which, in turn, is used as a justification for having fewer polling places. And, of course, all polling places must have plenty of space for people to maintain distancing, and follow other health protocols.
  • Extended polling dates and times. A short voting period has always reduced participation levels, and that's likely to be even more significant this year. It should be possible to have a variety of locations in-person voting available for many days prior to the official "election day." Computerized voting records now make it safe and easy to know who has voted. It does not depend on a printed list for each precinct. Wherever they are located, polls must be open in the early morning and later evening.
  • Widespread access to absentee or mail voting. Every state has some option for this, but some of them have been very restrictive. This spring, some states have been proactive in mailing applications for absentee ballots to all voters (which raised the ire of the President in a partisan tirade). If vote-by-mail can't be the normal process in a state -- which would require legislative changes -- access to absentee ballots can be expanded more easily.

Those factors deal only with the physical process of voting during the pandemic. There also are ethical concerns about voter registrations processes and standards which are less specific to the virus, but still highly pertinent.

  • Can felons who have served their sentences register to vote? It varies from state to state, and even where it is possible, many ex-felons are hindered by a requirement that they pay all fines and fees related to their prison time before being able to register.
  • As Theo Sebastian documented, some jurisdictions will not accept a post office box as a legitimate address for voter registration, and some Native people living on reservations don't have a street address. Where people live becomes a factor in disenfranchisement, with a heavy bias against Native people.
  • People who are registered may have been purged from voter rolls if they have not voted recently. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that voters in Ohio who miss a single federal election will be flagged for a process that could ultimately end in removal from the rolls. The Ohio situation was extreme, but there are quite a few other systems of purging voter rolls, and many of those have effects which disproportionately impact the poor and racial minorities.

A just and equitable society will have expansive voting rights. (There are complicated questions in the US about whether voting is a right or a privilege -- see a detailed legal discussion , or a debate among ordinary citizens -- but a bias toward the "rights" perspective with some limitations will serve us best.) Everything possible must be done to make elections during this pandemic fully participatory.

Faith communities can be a significant and non-partisan voice in calling for fair elections. Your congregation's "social action committee" can study the laws in your state. Clergy and interfaith leaders can witness and lobby for helpful changes to election rules. You can join with other groups to monitor policies and practices in your state and community. Common Cause has people on the ground in 30 states working on these and other election-related issues. The League of Women Voters is active on these concerns in all states.

Voting is at the heart of a democracy. The pandemic could make it harder for people to vote, and could easily bias the voting results by who is excluded. But it also is possible to bring about policies and procedures -- brought to the forefront by the pandemic -- which will make voting more open and inclusive.

What can you and your community do in the coming months to make elections more participatory?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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