This year, Catholics have important and difficult decisions to make up and down the ballot that will impact the trajectory of our country in the years and decades ahead. No matter what decisions each of us makes when casting our ballots, we all have a stake—and responsibility as Christians—in ensuring that every American who is eligible to vote is able to fulfill this most fundamental democratic right.
The coronavirus pandemic adds an additional layer of uncertainty as we vote this year. As COVID-19 case levels rise across the country and the death toll climbs above 175,000, it is likely that Americans will go to the polls amidst social distancing and even stay-at-home orders. Some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters – including older Americans, people with various illnesses, and people with disabilities – will have the hardest time making it to the polls. Others will face both new and long-standing voter suppression efforts.
One of the central themes of Catholic Social Teaching is participation: “We believe people have a right and duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.” In our representative democracy, voting is a foundational component of participation. With so many challenges facing our country, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines in 2020, and we can’t let systemic failures leave any of our brothers and sisters out of the process. We need voting systems that protect each individual’s right to vote while also protecting their health and safety.
In the spirit of this teaching, Catholic public officials, clergy, lay leaders, and media personalities must forcefully avoid spreading conspiracy theories for partisan political purposes, oppose voter suppression, and actively promote voting access.
Avoid Spreading Conspiracy Theories
During a recent appearance on a Catholic media outlet, President Trump put forth a flurry of inapplicable analogies, distortions, and outright falsehoods about voting access in the 2020 election. While pointing out that people continued to vote in person during World War I and World War II, the President labeled mail-in voting as “the greatest fraud ever”—and went on to accuse foreign governments of printing US ballots and claim that California election officials might send mail-in ballots to undocumented immigrants but not to Republicans.
Since the president’s claims were not challenged on air, it’s important to debunk them here:
Every state has voters who vote by mail. Five states already utilize universal mail-in voting, tens of millions of Americans have their ballot handed to them by their postal carrier (not a poll worker), and the number of fraudulent ballots is miniscule. The president himself voted absentee in the 2018 election. His statements about California are fabrications. And during World War II, service members did mail in absentee ballots, and regular polling places remained open because the country faced a different challenge during that war than it does right now. World War II was an overseas armed conflict; it was not a contagious virus at home. And the very Americans who fought in World War II are among the most at-risk to die from the coronavirus.
Catholic leaders have a responsibility to tell the truth, and they must demand the same from our public officials. Fear mongering with the purpose of decreasing voting access is unacceptable.
Ensuring voting access during the pandemic
To preserve voting access in the 2020 election, we need safe in-person voting, expanded early voting and absentee voting, and increased education campaigns so that every eligible voter knows how and when to exercise their right to vote.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides unique challenges to election administrators. Our leaders should focus on rising to these challenges, not making them harder. As my colleague Tammy Patrick has pointed out, we have laws on the books to prevent fraud and to discover and prosecute it when it happens. She told NPR, “If and when a bank gets robbed or a car gets stolen, we don’t stop using banks or cars. We enforce the laws we have in place.”
Furthermore, there’s no evidence that expanding voting access by mail benefits one political party or the other. With the coronavirus most affecting older voters – who voted decisively for President Trump in 2016 – it may even benefit his own election prospects to promote this option. Catholics of all political persuasions should call on their federal representatives to fully fund election security measures in all 50 states and demand that their state and local leaders administer an election in which every eligible voter can safely cast their ballot.
Opposing voter suppression
As Catholics, we must oppose voter suppression that is aimed at preventing our Black and Brown brothers and sisters from voting. The USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship mentions voter suppression by name and it repeatedly calls on Catholics to oppose racism. It states that the wound of racism “continues to fester” and that racism of any form is an assault on human dignity.
As I recently told Charlie Camosy in Crux, racism is not just a problem of personal sin; it is a systemic problem. We must certainly “open wide our hearts,” and we must also open up our political processes to include every eligible American.
This includes a collective Catholic effort to protect against the elimination of polling places in majority Black neighborhoods, oppose efforts to reduce polling hours, speak out against “purged” voter rolls, and combat disinformation campaigns that would disenfranchise Black Americans.
We’re all called to protect the right to vote
Living out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching means promoting the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters—including their full right to participate in our civic processes. In the face of a pandemic, social unrest, and voter suppression, protecting every eligible Americans’ right to vote is a challenge every American Catholic is called to meet. No matter what disagreements we have when we fill out our ballots, we should ensure each one of our eligible brothers and sisters has equal access to the ballot itself. Anything short of that standard is a violation of our faith-based principles and the rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Chris Crawford is a Catholic activist in Silver Spring, Maryland. He manages the Faith in Democracy portfolio at Democracy Fund, a private foundation in Washington, D.C. that champions the leaders and solutions making American democracy more open and just. He previously worked in the pro-life movement for The Susan B. Anthony List and their affiliated Super PAC.