Taking religion out of the polls

Churches are easy polling locations, but these locations violate our democratic principles.

Trent M. Kays

The election is over, and I am thankful for it. This last election cycle became a weary, repetitive narrative of conservatives fighting for their ability to take rights away from other Americans and liberals acting as the defenders of those rights with little more than hot air. Suffice to say, I am happy I don’t have to sit through another presidential election until 2016.

Despite the election having come to an end, I would like to bring up something that is intimately tied to many elections: polling places. On Election Day, I awoke, ate breakfast and walked down to my polling location. Older adults, ranging in age between 50 and 70, staffed my location. That’s just a guess, but from my perspective, that seemed to be the age range. I went in, received my ballot and voted. It was a painless process. The only perplexing aspect of my experience was that I had to vote in a church.

My polling location was the Minnesota Church Center on West Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. It was a very nice building with a lovely brick interior, yet I couldn’t help but feel out of place. My discomfort stems from the fact that I was in a church center, and I am not Christian. I do not identify as Christian, I do not believe in the Christian God, and I don’t visit churches. However, my polling location was in a church center. This is, of course, not unique in the U.S. Many polling locations are in churches, and every election cycle some lament this situation.

Knowing how many church communities feel about some social issues, voting at a polling location that resides in a place that is hostile to certain worldviews is bothersome. I’m surprised it doesn’t bother more people. I have nothing against churches. I think religion and church communities can be wonderful support networks in our world, but I do not think they can serve as non-threatening polling locations.

For example: I voted “no” on the Minnesota marriage amendment, and I proudly did so. I voted “no” in a church center. This odd experience made me feel like I was either doing something wrong or I was fighting the oppressive nature of religion in our country. Either way, it could have been avoided had my polling location been a non-church place.

For a country that apparently values the separation of church and state, we seem to ignore glaring contradictions to this practice in our election processes. Personally, I am a Buddhist, and while I have no direct problems with churches, I would make the same argument for any religious center or worship location. Our country is founded on strict principles that we place trust in the public citizenry — not in religious doctrine.

Yet, ironically, if democracy were a religion, then it would be the dominant religion in the U.S. Monuments and altars to the democratic process spot the landscape, and perhaps the polling location is one such altar. But, does the faith we place in democracy survive the faith shoved down our throats by Christians and their dogma? I don’t know. It seems that our beloved democracy is more controlled by religious zealots in the guise of politicians than anything else. The entire discussion around abortion, for example, is based in religion for conservatives. The thought process involved to hurl religious doctrine at pro-choice advocates doesn’t take much stimulation. Honestly, a five-year-old child could do so.

We accept it. That is, we accept the instruction of religion into our political processes. We do so in the name of what? Equality? No. Nonpartisanship? No. The whole idea behind polling locations is that they are placed in nonpartisan locations. They are supposed to be placed in locations where voters will not be or feel harassed to vote one way or another. Yet, we allow voting locations in churches.

More than anything else, this past election cycle has shown that churches are places of partisanship. The evangelical Christians who often get lots of press, like Billy Graham, have ruined any illusion of the nonpolitical church. Churches are political entities, and they need to be treated as such. We shouldn’t allow churches to become polling locations. I know it’s easy to do so because churches are ubiquitous in our country. It seems you can’t go a mile without running into some type of church.

But how do we go about fixing this issue? First, I think we need to make Election Day a federal holiday. Second, we need to house all polling locations within government-affiliated facilities like city halls and courthouses. Third, we need to make election judges temporary federal employees. Lastly, we need to start implementing electronic and Internet voting through secured channels.

All of these suggestions are easy to do because most of the infrastructure already exists to do so. We can make more comfortable polling locations, and we can treat the election process as a serious process. I don’t want churches or other politically motivated locations to taint the election process. It’s too important.

We can’t trust religion to guide our election processes, and we can’t trust religion to even be near our election processes. Our country was founded on an important distinction between religious and state processes, and we should not tolerate a religious intrusion into our election process.