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Voting should never take place in locations that make people feel intimidated or distressed.
No one, regardless of creed or religion, should be made to feel uncomfortable when exercising his right to vote. But Rob Meltzer, an observant Jew from Framingham, Massachusetts, does feel uncomfortable. He recently filed a federal civil suit against the town for “impinging upon constitutional rights” by forcing him to vote in the local Methodist church.
In a country with a clear and long-established separation between church and state, it is perhaps the greatest irony that our most important civic duty, voting, is often done in the local church. As a civic duty, voting should take place in a civic building.
This breach of the separation of church and state is not only a problem in Framingham; indeed throughout much of Massachusetts—including Cambridge—voting in churches is quite common and allowed under state law.
While it may be convenient for towns to have polling places in churches, which are often the center of a community, such a policy is constitutionally problematic and can lead to the disenfranchisement of many citizens. States must ensure access and fairness in voting practices, even at the cost of incurring logistical problems. Ensuring fair voting access surely outweighs the inconvenience to local governments of finding new polling places. With government and other non-sectarian buildings—post offices, for example—in every community, finding polling replacements should not be difficult.
Universal and fair voting access is a necessity, so eliminating voter feelings of intimidation and distress is the highest of state voting priorities. While going to a church in general may not be a problem for most citizens, including non-Christians, the fact that it makes some people, like Meltzer, extremely uncomfortable is telling.
Reminders of our troubled past, especially the civil rights era when minorities felt intimidated in voting places due to their race, must not be forgotten. One’s race or religion should never have to become an issue in a duty as fundamental and vital as voting. But when voting takes place in a church, some voters may feel intimidated, uncomfortable or unwelcome, especially in small towns where religious diversity is low.
To ensure fair and free access to voting, Massachusetts and all states must find civic buildings to replace churches as voting places. In the interim, Massachusetts’ towns should consider bolstering its absentee ballot system that has increased voter participation in many Midwestern states. Until voting can take place at locations where all citizens feel comfortable, the democracy that we so value will remain tainted.
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