Churches using 'souls to polls' to rally vote

Associated Press Modified: October 2, 2012 at 10:01 am •  Published: October 2, 2012
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"I pray it's not politics, but I don't know. It doesn't look like anything other than politics," said the Rev. Richard Dunn, pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church in Miami.

One organization, the faith-based PICO National Network, staged a "Let My People Vote Sunday" in September in which about 300 churches around the country held voter registration drives during services and recruited churchgoers to go out and register even more people. The goal was to sign up around 75,000 people, PICO policy director Gordon Whitman said.

"People are stopping in the middle of worship to have people pull out the registration forms and fill them out. It's about the church saying, 'We are going to participate in this process,'" Whitman said.

In many states with early voting, the Sunday before Election Day in 2008 was a church-based political event in which minority congregations went en masse to polling places and cast their ballots. That year in Florida, 33.2 percent of all African-American voters and 23.6 percent of Latino voters cast ballots on that final Sunday, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

In Ohio in 2008, Whitman said about 100,000 people voted during the last weekend before the election. A new Ohio law would have cut off early voting on the Friday before the election, but a federal judge declared it unconstitutional because some groups such as military personnel were exempted. The state is appealing that ruling.

This year in Florida, a new election law eliminated early voting on that last Sunday, although there is a Sunday for early voting about a week and a half earlier. Dunn, the Miami pastor, said he expects most churches will shift to that earlier day, which falls on Oct. 28 this year.

"Sunday in the African-American tradition is one of the biggest days historically in our community," he said. "You have large numbers of people who go to church. Pastors aren't saying who to vote for, but they are saying, 'This is souls to the polls day.'"

Florida's law was also challenged in federal court, but a judge ruled in September there wasn't enough proof that the change would harm African-Americans' right to vote. The judge also noted that, unlike the previous law, the new rules required at least one Sunday for early voting.

Meanwhile, from the pulpit, some churches are even using a litany that calls upon congregations to remember the fight to obtain the vote as well as other civil rights. One such script distributed by PICO (it stands for People Improving Communities by Organizing) mentions the Rev. Martin Luther King, the bloody march in Selma, Ala., and many other civil rights milestones.

"We remember thousands of little towns where countless, unnamed ancestors stood in their dignity to cast a ballot," the script says. "In 2012 we will not be silent or denied the right to vote. For we have come too far by faith."

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