So, I just got back from voting in North Carolina's primaries today. As a registered Democrat, the only really interesting primary is for the NC governor's race. However, as readers of this blog are probably well aware, the big issue in NC this election is Amendment One, the gay marriage ban.
Amendment One is actually about a lot more than gay marriage--it effectively restricts the benefits of marriage or civil partnership only to heterosexual married couples. There are lots of ways this effects non-LGBTQI populations. For example, much has been made of the impact this can have on domestic abuse among cohabitating but unmarried partners, or, you know, on the children of unmarried het and queer parents.
BUT, today I want to talk about the shady, coercive, UNETHICAL (if not illegal--does anyone wanna check on this for me?) practices at the church that is my polling place. I'll make the case as to why this is unethical below (and, as a philosophy professor who teaches a lot and publishes a little in applied ethics, I think I have some expertise in this area). But first, let me describe to you what happened.
I've been going to this polling place for about five years (since I moved into my current house in 2007). It's always been Charlotte location #63, housed in New Hope Baptist Church on E WT Harris Blvd. The church does not seem to have a website, and it should not be confused with New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, which is in another part of town. I've voted at this location many times, in primaries and in general elections. So, I'm very familiar with how they usually run things at location 63.
So, I was very surprised when they moved the polling place from the detached gym where it usually is to inside the church itself. I was confused for a second, b/c I was half on autopilot, just walking to where I usually go to vote.
So, I enter the church, and I do the usual check-in. That's in one office. The voting machines are in the office next door. In this office, which has been cleared of all furnishings except the voting machines, are two Bible verses on a vinyl banner, and a printed word processor-produced sign about God and Jesus being Lord. They do not appear to be regular fixtures of the room. For example, the printed sign is not faded, as you would expect of a computer-paper document that's been posted to a wall for a while. And, they removed everything else, so why not also take down these signs? You can't miss these signs. They're on the main wall that you face when you walk in the room.
Add to this the content of the church's front sign, which I pass every day on my way to school, the gym, the grocery, etc. It said: "Vote Yes Obey God" They took the sign down for election day, but it was up for at least a few weeks leading up to the election. So, knowing that the church had been actively and publicly advocating for this amendment, and framing this advocacy as a matter of obedience to God and scripture, the two other tweaks to the polling place (the changed location and the indoor signage), it is pretty obvious that they're using these tweaks to influence voters.
And I think at least the indoor signs are possibly illegal--it's illegal to have political signs INSIDE the polling place (that's why there's always such a mess of signs outside them). Now, while these signs didn't DENOTATIVELY address Amendment One, the CONNOTATIONS AND CONTEXT pointed directly to A1...The church's outdoor sign, which was up for weeks, makes it obvious how the indoor signs are to be interpreted.
So, while all this may or may not be illegal. It's unethical. It is unethical to try to persuade or coerce voters inside the very room where they're casting their ballot. This should be a place that is overtly neutral, a place where no one is made to feel marginalized, uncomfortable, or uneasy for voting in whatever way ze chooses. I mean, they ban cell phones in the voting room (that's why I don't have a picture of the signs), so they can at least ban not-so-thinly-veiled political signs, and other shady manipulative moves like the location-switch.
So, shame on New Hope Baptist Church for their unethical polling practices. I understand that they feel strongly about Amendment 1, but in their role as a polling place, they are not a church, but a public institution. So not only are they obliged, as a polling place, to uphold the public trust, they ought, ethically, to refrain from coercion and manipulation. Voters have a moral and legal right to vote in an environment free of coercion and manipulation.