Michigan UU’s Find Connection Through Activism in the Pandemic

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The collage, featuring people holding signs that read: “I Registered Absentee! Having a Safe Choice Makes Sense”.

Electoral activism has transformed dramatically in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Members from the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a small congregation in Michigan’s upper peninsula, have adapted their activism to socially distanced interactions. Miriam Pickens, Bill Fink, and Barry Fink speak to how they helped design creative solutions to register voters for the absentee ballot. 

Houghton, Michigan is a small university town with around 7,000 residents.  But even in the upper peninsula of Michigan, the pandemic is a very real danger to the upcoming election. Unitarian Universalists have responded by launching a campaign called IRA (I Registered Absentee), using creative ways to encourage their neighbors and friends to continue participating in our democracy during the pandemic. 

“With the votes in Wisconsin [and Georgia] where so many people had to go wait at the polls, we are concerned,” Pickens said. “Wisconsin is our neighbor, and we will likely have to do the same thing.” In 2018, Michigan passed a ballot initiative modifying the state constitution so that anyone can request an absentee ballot with no special circumstances — a crucial amendment protecting voter rights. The next step is to spread awareness of the option.

They call it “Guerrilla Marketing”. Members from the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (KUUF) put their heads together and came up with any and every way to spread the word of the IRA campaign. They started with radio and developed a logo for bumper stickers, yard signs, and more. The congregation submitted an article to the local paper, displayed above the fold on the front page. 

Paul Mitchell, the minister of KUUF, came up with another socially distanced solution: a collage. Pickens remembered, “He asked if I could put something together that looks like a Zoom call.” 

The collage has grown into a piece of art that illustrates human connection in a world where physical interaction has become potentially dangerous. It is a real example of how a changing societal experience requires adaptable versions of activism — and how people are rising to the challenge in creative ways. 

[The collage] is a real example of how a changing societal experience requires adaptable versions of activism — and how people are rising to the challenge in creative ways. 

“I took a couple of pictures with people holding the sign and posted them on Facebook. Then I got phone calls saying ‘I want my picture on Facebook with that,’” Pickens said. “We also have members of other faith communities holding the sign. The Methodist church in town, the Lutheran church, the Episcopal church… this is a multi-faith effort.”

Pickens enjoys the conversations that come out of the ‘I Registered Absentee’ campaign. When she would receive requests to take someone’s photo, Pickens would meet them outside of their home. “It’s fun being able to see where they live, talk to them, getting that face to face connection… and being able to do that while we’re socially distancing,” Pickens said. 

Organizers say the campaign to register voters for the absentee ballot has high stakes because Michigan is a state where  just 10,000 votes decided the 2016 presidential results. 

“I’m deeply concerned that with an increase of virus effects in the fall, we’re going to have great difficulty with accessibility,” Bill Fink said. “I also see getting absentee ballots and extending early voting as the safety so that poll workers are kept safe.”

“I’m deeply concerned that with an increase of virus effects in the fall, we’re going to have great difficulty with accessibility,” Bill Fink said. “I also see getting absentee ballots and extending early voting as the safety so that poll workers are kept safe.”

Months before election season the IRA campaign has already made an effect in their community. According to Fink, since the campaign started there have been about 300 new requests for absentee ballots. This more than doubles the 275 people on the permanent absentee ballot list before, and the total percentage of voters in the township registered for the absentee ballot now lies around 18%. 

Registering voters for the absentee ballot has lasting effects. “We chose to do this project because it is a way to address a systemic problem,” Barry Fink said. People will have an accessible method of voting going forward past this election cycle. 

A collage may seem to be an unlikely way to spread voter accessibility, but it is one way to keep a sense of personal connection that can be lost in the digital world. Creative solutions keep bringing these connections back to the forefront.

Written by Aidan Wertz, UU the Vote blogger. Aidan is a college student in Middlebury, Vermont and a lifelong UU.

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