On August 4th, Missouri voters approved a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid in their state. In the midst of rural hospitals shutting down and the foreground of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vote was seen as a crucial win. Claudia Jean Potts and Rev. Krista Taves of Eliot Unitarian Chapel speak to Unitarian Universalists’ part in the victory, and how they worked with local partners to achieve their goals.
In July of 2019, Claudia Jean Potts had her eyes on a vote that would not end up taking place for over a year. Potts was recruiting members of her congregation, Eliot Unitarian Chapel in St. Louis, to help get signatures that would place an initiative on the ballot expanding Medicaid in Missouri. She knew well enough that it would take a dedicated effort to pass the initiative in a state controlled by legislature that opposed the motion — a legislature that also has a history of undermining ballot initiatives.
One such movement was to postpone the vote to August of 2020. They hoped that there would be less support for the initiative then, months after the initial date and not on the more popular November ballot.
“But we fooled them,” Potts said with a laugh.
“UU’s in Missouri have been focused on Medicaid expansion for years,” added Rev. Krista Taves, the Minister of Congregational Life at Eliot Chapel. “Five years ago there were busloads sent to Jefferson City to lobby for the Medicaid Expansion, and many UU’s got on those busses. There was a group of clergy who engaged in civil disobedience. This has been a long term effort.”
The Medicaid expansion will make coverage available for close to 250,000 Missourians. Now, adults whose income is 138% of the federal poverty line or below are eligible — an annual income of $17,600 for individuals and $36,000 for families of four.
Previously, any adult without a child was not eligible for Medicaid as well as anyone making over about $4,800 a year for a family of four. 15 hospitals in Missouri had closed since 2014, 10 of them located in rural locations.
There are currently people in Missouri who live more than 100 miles away from a hospital, according to Rev. Taves. In the middle of a public health crisis and with a boom in unemployment that strips many of their health coverage, UU congregations across the state recognized the importance of this vote and showed up to organize.
The Medicaid expansion will make coverage available for close to 250,000 Missourians. In the middle of a public health crisis, UU congregations across the state recognized the importance of this vote and showed up to organize.
For Eliot Chapel, the effort coincided with the larger focus that the congregation’s Social Justice and Action Committee had pledged to work towards late last year: democracy and government. They committed to concentrate their programming on elections up through November 2020. So when the UUA announced its plan to launch UU the Vote, Eliot Chapel had their intentions and groundwork laid to buy into the campaign.
The team used basic methods of communication — email blasts, Facebook posts, and a weekly newsletter. They set up a table in the social hall every Sunday after the service to answer questions.
Starting in September of 2019, the Social Justice Committee hosted monthly “assemblies” at the congregation. They ranged from showings of documentaries to guest speakers to a UU the Vote launch party in January.
Attendance varied at the events, and sometimes it was lower than they hoped. But they knew that they were doing the honest, quiet work that needed to be done: the work of mobilizing their communities towards changing the status quo.
They knew that they were doing the honest, quiet work that needed to be done: the work of mobilizing their communities towards changing the status quo.
One of the partners that Eliot Chapel works most closely with is Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), a St. Louis interfaith organization that understands the importance of action towards change. They have a long standing relationship, and leaders of MCU have come to speak at various assemblies that the Social Justice Committee hosted.
For Eliot Chapel, MCU offers larger movements that they can plug in to. The organization is also well connected to their own state-wide partners, which Eliot Chapel can then access.
“They set everything up for our actions: the phone banking, the text banking, and sending out all of the documents and communication that we would have struggled to do ourselves,” said Potts. “It is something where there is an umbrella that we can get involved in. And we start to get connected with other churches as well.”
Before the Medicaid expansion vote, Rev. Taves put together a team of 9 people from the congregation. Using a platform from Get Out the Vote, they sent 2,300 texts to voters in the four days leading up to the election. Rev. Taves had joined Eliot Chapel just a month earlier.
The ballot initiative passed, by a margin of 53 – 47 percent. However, the motion is still at risk as it is likely to receive backlash from the legislature. The legislature cannot disregard the initiative or water it down, as they did to keep puppy mills in the state, but they can force another election for the Medicaid expansion as soon as this November.
“We have learned to be very vigilant, because there are already efforts to undermine the will of the people. To protect the democratic process is an every day task,” said Rev. Taves.
This is exemplified by the Clean Missouri Initiative, a constitutional amendment that targeted corruption in the state by reducing the power of lobbyists and the extreme Gerrymandering in the state. It passed overwhelmingly in 2018, but now lawmakers are bringing it to the ballot again in November.
Even though their hard work is sometimes undone, Potts and Rev. Taves know that UU’s are going to continue to hold their representatives accountable — both in Missouri and across the country.
“I read about what is happening in Florida, and Illinois, and Wisconsin, and Arizona, and it feels like we are in this together. It feels like as UU’s, we are a nation-wide force to be reckoned with,” said Rev. Taves.
“I really think there has been a deepening of engagement recently. UU the Vote and the resources that have been provided give us a way to frame the work as living out our values and being in our mission more strongly than we ever have,” said Rev. Taves. “I read about what is happening in Florida, and Illinois, and Wisconsin, and Arizona, and it feels like we are in this together. It feels like as UU’s, we are a nation-wide force to be reckoned with.”
Written by Aidan Wertz, UU the Vote blogger. Aidan is a college student in Middlebury, Vermont and a lifelong UU.