General Assembly 2008 Event 2058
Presenters: Rob Keithan, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Washington Office; Susan Leslie, Director of Congregational Advocacy & Witness, UUA; Shelley Moskowitz, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee; Kindra Muntz, president, Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections
Rob Keithan, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Washington Office for Advocacy, said that the fifth of the seven UUA principles is of central religious importance for him. The fifth principle states that Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large." For Keithan, this religious principle drives him to help congregations get involved in voter registration drives and other forms of voter mobilization, especially in a presidential election year.
Keithan urged Unitarian Universalist congregations to get involved in voter registration campaigns. But he said it is important to be aware of the federal regulations governing the kinds of activities congregations and other non-profit 501(c)3 organizations can carry out; these regulations are administered by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Keithan said that under IRS regulations, there is no limit on time, effort, or expense that a congregation may expend on issue advocacy. This covers broad, general issues.
However, Keithan said, the IRS states that there are "narrow limits" on time, effort, and expense that a congregation may expend on lobbying. Lobbying involves advocating for or against a specific piece of legislation, rather than a general issue. While the IRS won't specify what those "narrow limits" are, many observers believe that congregations should not devote more than 5% of their total time, effort, and expense on lobbying.
Finally, Keithan said that intervention in political campaigns is totally prohibited for congregations under IRS regulations. This means that if a congregation ever talks about specific candidates, they cannot have any message favoring or opposing a candidate. "If you're going to do voting work, you have to be very careful in talking about candidates," Keithan said. "Any good, service, or facility you offer to one candidate must be available to all candidates on an equal basis."
Keithan's office has released their guidelines for allowable political activity. Called The Real Rules: Congregations and IRS Guidelines on Advocacy, Lobbying, and Elections, the guidelines provide information on what congregations can and cannot do, based on a binding decision issued by the IRS in June 2007.
Once congregations know what forms of voter mobilization are permissible, they can begin organizing. Keithan suggested that congregations can begin by registering all eligible voters in their own congregations first. "Once you do that, you have more credibility in the wider community," said Keithan.
Keithan emphasized that voter registration can be an important activity for Unitarian Universalist congregations. "We can't take democracy for granted," said Keithan, adding that the fifth principle calls Unitarian Universalists to promote voting. "This is a role where people of faith can work for civic engagement."
To bring home the importance of voter registration, Keithan stated that in the close 2004 presidential elections, only 72% of eligible voters were registered. In 2008, many voters are still not registered, and 20 million of those who are not registered are young people, particularly young people of color. Thus voter registration becomes an act of social justice.
Voter registration, according to Keithan, is a multi-step process, beginning with building face-to-face relationships, then asking people if they're registered, registering them, educating them about the voting process, and making sure they actually vote. "The whole campaign is a multi-step process," he said. "And after election day, make sure you celebrate!"
"It's important to work in partnership," said Susan Leslie, Director of Congregational Advocacy & Witness at the UUA. She said that in 2004, Unitarian Universalist congregations were always most effective when working in partnership with other community groups. "Eighty of our congregations registered 50,000 voters," she said, with most of those congregations working in community partnerships. "Congregations reported this was a very gratifying experience."
Kindra Muntz gave an overview of how she got involved in voter mobilization in Florida . Muntz is the president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, a non-partisan political committee. She became active as an individual Unitarian Universalist, rather than working to involve her whole congregation in voter mobilization work. Shelley Moskowitz then gave her personal experiences in mobilizing against the war in Iraq.
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.