I’d Like to Say: The Time to Protect Elections Is Now 

illustration of ballots

As trust in our election system erodes, so does our sense of unity as American citizens. By looking to the Franciscan tradition and its emphasis on peace-building, we can find ways to heal and strengthen our divided society. 

In December 2021, Pope Francis was speaking in Athens, Greece, often referred to as the birthplace of democracy, and said: “Today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy.” His statement came 11 months after January 6, 2021, when a violent, armed insurrection took place in Washington, DC, for the purpose of overthrowing our legally elected government. Pope Francis warned us that our society, ideally centered around the common good, is being threatened by skepticism of institutions, hyper-individualism, and partisanship. 

One of the most important components in a thriving democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. In the United States, we have almost always taken for granted that when an election is over, the loser accepts the results and congratulates the winner. History shows us that a democracy cannot and will not survive without citizens accepting the legitimacy of the process. 

A Dark Day in American History

Some people will argue that January 6 was nothing more than a spirited demonstration by people who felt the election was stolen. Leading up to the date, though, there were more than 60 lawsuits filed challenging the election results and claiming voter fraud. Every suit was thrown out of court or dismissed not only on technical grounds, but also because they were found to be false claims and presented no facts to prove voter fraud. 

Of those who participated in the so-called “peaceful demonstration,” more than 1,250 people were charged with a criminal offense. These charges include assaults on federal officers, obstructing law enforcement, and seditious conspiracy. Around 460 were sentenced to jail time. More than 700 people pleaded guilty, which points to a less-than-peaceful event. 

It is critically important that our elections are secure and that integrity is protected. To ensure this, it is necessary that election officials administer the election process in a way that is nonpartisan and professional. Election officials also should feel safe in carrying out their duties, yet this is not always the case. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, one out of three election officials feels threatened, and many have reported actual threats of violence. Election officials are being deluged with hateful messages—just for doing their jobs. 

Freedom of religion thrives in a strong and vibrant democracy. Many of the first settlers came to the United States seeking freedom to practice their religion. But today, there are those who claim to support religious freedom only if it is for their particular brand of religion. They do not support a democratic form of government but an authoritarian government centered around White Christian nationalism. 

In order to maintain a strong democracy, it is important that every US citizen eligible to vote is given the opportunity to do so. Our fourth president, James Madison, insisted that the elections clause be stated in the Constitution. He argued: “[The] Elections Clause was needed to prevent self-interested partisans from twisting election rules to benefit their faction.” Madison believed that state legislatures could be corrupted easily and would be taken over by what he called “factions.” He thought that these factions would do things to prevent anyone who had different opinions from voting. What Madison was describing could today be referred to as gerrymandering and voter suppression. It is important to note that gerrymandering is not limited to one political party. 

Ensuring Free and Fair Elections

Though the attempted coup on January 6 failed, the goal of undermining our election process and our democracy continues. Since the 2020 election, we have heard continued false claims of a stolen election, which has led to attempts to restrict voting and/or undermine confidence in the election process. States are passing new laws that make it more difficult for many to vote, marginalizing the young, the impoverished, and people of color. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that legislatures in 27 states are considering more than 250 bills with restrictive provisions. 

In 2021, inspired by the “big lie” of a stolen election, 19 states passed 34 new laws that, in one way or another, made it harder for some people to vote. Some of these laws may seem benign and even appear to be a good idea to help protect the integrity of elections. As an example, legislation was passed in Texas requiring a form of ID to vote. On its face, that does not seem to be unfair. However, students could not use their University of Texas ID as a valid ID to vote, but a concealed carry gun permit was acceptable. This is just one example of picking and choosing rules that clearly benefit one group while making it more difficult for another group to vote. The implication of who benefits is pretty clear. 

People of faith are in a unique position within their communities to encourage an environment of informed, engaged, and peaceful participation in the electoral process. This is especially true for Franciscans. Inspired by St. Francis, St. Clare, and others, Franciscans are called to be agents of change in the larger community and, through the centuries, have been engaged in building peace among warring factions. Our nation is deeply divided. We must follow in the footsteps of St. Francis and continue to strengthen the commitment to the common good. We are peacemakers, and, as such, we have to stand with those who work to repair our democracy. We should follow the example of organizations like Franciscan Action Network, which have joined with other faith organizations partnering with Faiths United to Save Democracy, in the spirit of Franciscan peacekeeping, to promote an effort to train peace-builders who will serve as “poll chaplains.” They will work with other faith leaders to be a peaceful and de-escalating presence at polling places on Election Day. 

Free and fair elections are a foundational concept of the United States of America. It is only through the peaceful transfer of power that our republic will continue to be a successful democracy. 

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1 thought on “I’d Like to Say: The Time to Protect Elections Is Now ”

  1. I thank you for this message and I only disagree with one statement in it. ” It is important to note that gerrymandering is not limited to one political party” is only technically true, as Republicans have gerrymandered far more than Democrats. Of the 13 states at present that have been significantly gerrymandered, 11 are Republican and 2 are Democratic.

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