Voting Your UU Values

In November, the light is less.  The walker trudges ankle deep in leaves, the vernal wisdom moves from ripe to sere.  In November the birds who are going and the birds who are staying all look serious.

And in November, on the first Tuesday at least every other year, we exercise our responsibilities and rights as citizens and cast our votes. 

A few weeks ago I received a small sheet of stickers in the mail that say “I vote my UU values.”  I put it on the greeter table in the back of the Great Hall.  Please feel free to take one today, if you’d like. 

I started my last pre-election sermon, in 2016 saying,

Are you frightened?  Disillusioned, disgusted, in despair?  We are clinging to a rock, losing our fingernails as a flood swirls around us – a flood of dehumanizing and demonizing rhetoric, of bad information and bad behavior, a flood carrying acts of hatred and violence.  It wasn’t prophecy.  It was worry.  Jan Nettler preached eloquently the Sunday afterwards.

We’re still clinging to the rock, two years later, on the eve of the 2018 elections.  The flood waters have risen.  There are not enough candles to mourn all the horrors that happen.  There is as much call for Kit’s song, for taking back the night, as there was when she wrote it in 1976.  Many of us are trying to figure out how to keep on going on.

And many of us have been active in campaigning this year – in different campaigns, in different ways.  Someone said recently that she has sent as much money as she could to as many candidates as she could.  Some of you have been canvassing in other states, and staffing phone banks targeting key districts or senate seats or gubernatorial elections.

During an election, a religious organization is not supposed to take a position in favor of one candidate over another.  We can’t endorse a particular political party.  We can take stands on ballot initiatives.  And we can lobby for specific causes and specific pieces of legislation, as long as lobbying activities are an “insubstantial” part of our total activities.[i]

We also have the right to speak about the issues that matter to us, and to oppose policies and actions that violate our values and principles.  If it happens that one candidate supports policies that we have been opposing all along, we are very likely on firm ground even if we happen to mention his or her name.

We are definitely on firm ground when we work and vote on behalf of our UU values. What does it mean, to you, to vote your UU values? 

This year’s ballot initiatives give us something to work with in considering that question. The fifth principle is “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” 

Claire Higgins’ (previous mayor of Northampton) recently wrote a guest column about the referendum questions for the Gazette. She challenges us to think about when ballot initiatives are useful and necessary, and when they are a poor substitute for legislative deliberation and compromise.  In our democracy, there are still lots of questions about who should decide what, and how.

As a democratically organized congregation we face the same kinds of questions.  If you are a member – if you have signed our membership book and have made a commitment to support the congregation financially in accordance with your means, at the level you choose – you are a member, and you have the right and responsibility to vote.

Our bylaws provide some parameters about who decides what.  Members elect the Board and other officers.  Members vote to approve the annual budget.  Members vote to call, and sometimes dismiss, the Minister. 

The Minister has “the duty to make a report at the Annual Meeting, and to bring to the attention of the Board of Trustees any matters which seem to her or him pertinent to the general welfare of the Society, and to make such recommendations as seem proper.”  The Minister also has freedom of the pulpit.  Sounds like a simple job!

The Board governs the Society.  The bylaws say that it “shall be responsible for ensuring that the Society is following its mission,” and that its duties include “managing finances, protecting assets, overseeing stewardship, personnel and operations.” The Board also “leads the congregation to develop plans to maintain the Society’s heritage and vision for the future.”  It’s nice to know that the planning process you can hear more about after this meeting is explicitly part of the Boards’ job.

But the rest – the how – is not spelled out.  Board members don’t run finance, stewardship, personnel, and operations.  Other people – lots of people, both staff and volunteers – do those things and much more.  How things work is up to all of us to figure out, adapting and adjusting as people and times change. 

We figure it out guided by our values and principles, in good faith, and as principle number three suggests, with “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.”  If you have ever thought about offering to serve here in an elected position – that acceptance and encouragement is some of what you may experience.

I’m not sure you get encouragement to spiritual growth if you assume public office as a city councilor or state rep or legislator in Washington.  But our local, state and federal governments are built on the same basic foundation as this Society. Mostly, we vote for people who will represent us to uphold the systems and laws that have been established and to amend them as needed. Less often, we vote on an issue directly.

Two of the referendum issues this year are about the democratic process. Question Two asks us to weigh in on the Citizens United “corporations as people” case.  This was the 2010 Supreme Court decision that granted freedom of speech protection to corporations, and equated free speech with corporate funding of political campaigns, paving the way for even greater corporate influence in politics.

If the measure passes, the state will appoint a commission to investigate the effects of big money on our political system and to propose a federal constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.  It’s a tiny first step in what would be a very long process. 

What principles and values guide your vote on this one?  Years ago I learned in business school that a corporation’s first (some said only) responsibility was to increase the wealth of its shareholders.  Does that match up with your understanding of personhood?  As a person, what is your first responsibility – what is at the core of what it means to be a responsible person? 

The other democracy-related referendum question asks us to support Ranked Choice Voting.  It is very relevant to primary elections, and to any time there are more than two candidates competing for one position.

With Ranked Choice Voting, voters rank multiple candidates — 1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, and so on.  If no candidate gets more than 50%, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and the second choice of voters for the least votes is reallocated to those still in the race.  If necessary, the process is repeated.  This means that the candidate most preferred by the largest number will win, and that the person who wins has a broader base of support.

Proponents of ranked choice voting say that too often the current system pressures voters to choose the “lesser of two evils,” discourages potential candidates from running, and elects candidates without a majority of support.  Another benefit is that the system encourages candidates to be civil and stick to the issues so as not to alienate voters.  Every candidate will want, if not ranked first, to be ranked second.

Maine has just adopted this method state-wide.  It’s used in some local elections in California.   The UUA used it in its presidential election in 2017. 
There are a lot of ways UU values seem to point to a yes vote – an encouragement to move this forward.

The ranked-voting referendum item is only the ballot in Western Massachusetts.  I don’t know why.  One hypothesis is that people out here are more enlightened that those in other parts of the state. 

Passage of these democracy-related questions doesn’t change any laws.  They do give our representatives a sense of where the electorate stands on these questions.  And Number Two requires some specific actions on the “corporation as person” question.

Two of the ballot questions – One and Three – do have a direct impact.

Question One proposes legally mandated specific staffing ratios for hospital nurses, ratios that would be required to be maintained in every hospital in the state. 

Spokespersons from both sides cite competing reports with widely different projected impacts on costs, on community hospitals, and on other parts of the healthcare system that employ nurses.  Patient safety will be enhanced.  Patient safety will be endangered.  This will worsen an already serious nursing shortage in our state.  This will force us to address the nursing shortage. 

Friends and neighbors are asking each other how to vote.  Strangers are arguing in the supermarket aisles.  Some of us are distrustful of the money poured into the campaign by the hospital industry. 

I’m married to a physician who says “vote no.”  (I have his permission to tell you all this.)  He did both inpatient and outpatient medicine for most of his nearly 40 year career.  Over that time he has witnessed a proliferation of government requirements and red tape that have made his job harder and have almost certainly contributed to the shortage of primary care physicians.

Claire Higgins writes, “I worry that decisions to vote “yes” or “no” will be made based on fear, or anecdote or personal relationships, instead of on the actual text printed on the ballot.”

What would it mean to vote your values on Question One? 

We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity and compassion in human relations.  My values and my experience tell me that the people who do a job know best what it takes to do it well.  My values tell me that hospitalized people are vulnerable, and deserve care that honors their dignity and worth, as well as their safety.  I think nurses are often undervalued and overworked, in part because of other problems with bureaucracy in healthcare delivery.

And resources are finite.  My mother is in a nursing home.  I worry about the how non-hospital settings would be affected – about what might happen to their ability to provide adequate nursing care if the referendum passes.  I’m skeptical that what’s right and safe at Mass General Hospital applies equally to Baystate Franklin or Berkshire Medical.  I’d like to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science in voting on question one, and I can see that some of the factors I’m considering are based on fear, anecdote and personal relationships.  So….

I know I’ll vote yes on Question 3.  Question 3 is also binding.  Question 3 could be confusing because it seems to be framed as a double negative.  Don’t be confused. 

Should we maintain the current law that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in any place of public accommodation?  Yes – what the white, green and yellow signs say.  This ballot initiative is a direct attack on hard won rights for transgender people.  A “yes” vote says those rights should be retained.  UU principles and values are clearly aligned with a yes vote on three.
Question 4 is also a Western Mass special and is non-binding.  It asks about single-payer healthcare.:  This one is non-binding.  The system we have now is overpriced and inadequate in myriad ways.  Is single-payer an answer, or at least a better approach?  What values and principles guide you here?  I’ll vote yes.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that
the universe we know and help to create must hinge on a moral foundation.  What that means in concrete terms is up to each of us to discern.  Our UU values and principles provide guidance; the rest is up to each of us.

Every day presents opportunities for us to act faithfully in accordance our values and principles.  Exercising our right and responsibility to vote gives us a special opportunity. 

It is one way in which we assert our power to make a difference, to add our weight to those trying to bend the arc of the universe towards justice, to shape for good our own lives, and the lives our neighbors near and far, the life of the planet we call home.

Let us sing together.