Richard von Glahn, policy director of Missouri Jobs with Justice, spoke to a very real challenge in a public forum convened by the Deaconess Foundation on Monday, November 18. “Both the economy and democracy are not working for people,” von Glahn said to a sizable crowd of mostly non-profit leaders and community organizers. “At the same time, we are asking people to invest more in processes that are not producing for them.”
He was speaking about the challenges of community organizing in the United States leading up to the presidential election of 2020, when President Donald Trump will ask voters for four more years in power. More specifically, von Glahn was assessing the task of collecting signatures for two ballot initiatives. One such initiative, to expand Medicaid in Missouri, is underway, and indeed signatures were collected that morning at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being. The other initiative has not been announced formally but apparently would institute automatic voter registration in Missouri and expand the window to vote wider than just on election day.
The St. Louis American emphatically endorses Medicaid expansion, automatic voter registration and expanded days to vote in Missouri. The history of voter suppression in the United States is complicated and continues today in varied forms, including voter intimidation. Anything we can do to empower voters – all voters – must be done. We will do everything in our power to support these important initiatives in participatory democracy. As von Glahn said, a ballot referendum levels the power in politics. On a ballot referendum, the vote of every state senator – indeed, every U.S. senator – has no more weight than any other citizen’s vote.
Further, we commend the Deaconess Foundation (under the dynamic leadership of Rev. Starsky Wilson) for choosing Missouri Jobs with Justice and Action St. Louis as its 2020 policy partners. The two grass-roots organizations will share a $100,000 foundation grant to work on “Medicaid expansion and democracy reform,” apparently in the form of these two ballot initiatives. “In the political climate of this state, the ballot referendum is especially important,” said Kayla Reed, leader of Action St. Louis.
She knows what she is talking about. The Republican super-dominated Missouri Legislature cannot be trusted to vote in the name of the people, we learned in last year’s general elections, when Missouri voters passed a wide slate of progressive reforms – increasing the state minimum wage, legalizing medical marijuana, cleaning up the state political process – that the legislature would never pass and repealing an anti-union measure that it did pass.
Reed, whose first public organizing efforts happened under the heat of Ferguson protests, also knows what she is talking about when she says that foundation grants (though crucial and important) are not enough. “We need people to show up,” she said.
This sharpened one of the central points made earlier in the Just for Kids Community Conversation program by its keynote speaker, Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund and Democracy Fund Voice in Washington, D.C. “The next 12 months will help to determine the future of this country,” Goldman said, “and no one can sit on the sidelines.” Goldman knew that much of his audience is invested in or directing non-profit organizations whose political activities are severely restricted or forbid by the Internal Revenue Code.
This was another challenge that must be faced: how organizations can work for social change in a make-or-break election year without being political in a partisan way. Justin Hansford, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law, said in response to Goldman: “We should distinguish between non-partisanship and neutrality.”
Goldman offered some direction that we would like to emphatically second. “We need to make sure the electorate is represented in the election,” Goldman said. “This is the future of our country,” Goldman said, “and our country has to be represented at the ballot box.” It is time to make sure our neighbors are registered to vote and that their electoral records are in good standing with local and state election authorities. It also is time to make sure that our election authorities are prepared to handle historic levels of voter turnout. One way citizens can help is by volunteering as poll workers; employers should be supportive by offering paid time off work to serve in this way. Finally, he said, we all are challenged “to prevent misinformation and fear mongering.” Now more than ever, we should all substantiate facts before broadcasting or sharing reports and opinions.