Where Religion And Politics Intersect In Northeast Ohio
As Election Day draws nearer and early voting continues to swell, local churches are stepping up efforts to get people to the polls.
On the first Sunday of early in-person voting at the Stark County Board of Elections in Canton, Bishop G.L. Evans was on a mission. He wanted folks to know if they didn’t have a ride to the polls, he could get them there. And for the long line of voters already in place, he wanted them to know they’re appreciated.
Evans is an associate minister at New Harmony Worship Center in Massillon. He’s part of “ Souls to the Polls,” an effort by local churches to get out the vote. The effort gained prominence in 2008, when African American churches mobilized en masse and helped set a trend for early voting, in-person turnout.
That historic election gave the country its first African American president. Twelve years later, this election is historic, too; it’s being held in the midst of a pandemic. And that shows in the way Evans recruits churches for the transportation service.
“Normally we used to use church vans and pick people up. Now, because of COVID, we have to be more creative," Evans said. "Now we’re just being a little more visible, doing more Facebook, more media, using pastors to let them know the polls are open on Sundays.”
In Cleveland, the Rev. James Gates sees a similar drive. He’s talking from his office at Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church in the city’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Like Evans, the novel coronavirus has affected his church’s push to get voters to the polls. For one thing, he no longer uses the old term “souls to the polls.”
“Now we’re calling it Rides to the Polls, based on COVID-19. We still are taking individuals to the board of elections, but we can’t do it in masses as we have in the past,” Gates said.
The difference is keeping people apart from each other to keep them safe.
“Before we would pack up a 15-passenger van with 15 people. We may even load up a car with three or four. Now we may put three people in a van, one person in a car, in order to practice social distancing policies,” Gates said.
Zion Hill is among several local congregations participating in Vessels Vote, sponsored by People for the American Way Foundation. The organization was founded in 1981 by television producer Norman Lear, of “All in the Family” fame, and the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. The organization says its mission is to fight right-wing extremism and build a democratic society by encouraging civic participation. But Gates says Vessels Vote’s ultimate aim is getting people more involved in the electoral process.
“We have a five-point plan that we use. It’s called: voter verification, voter registration, education, motivation and then voter participation. Then we feel we have properly prepared those individuals to go to the polls and vote,” he said.
Folks needing a ride have to schedule one. Drivers provide door-to-door service, and wait while the rider votes. The plan was to make runs three days a week. But Gates quickly learned the service was so vital for elderly voters, he runs it five days a week.
“Here in Cleveland, some of our senior living facilities were historically voting places. When COVID-19 hit, our board of elections moved those voting locations, and many of the residents could no longer walk out of their apartment to catch the elevator and vote,” he said.
Neither Gates nor Evans is pushing a specific candidate. Evans urges voters to rely on their conscience.
“The Bible says, 'Try the spirit by the spirit.' Whether you vote Democratic or Republican, your candidate should line up with your spirit, line up with your point of views,” he said.
Early in-person voting continues from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Friday. The weekend hours are Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
The last day of early in-person voting is Monday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Although there will be no in-person voting at boards of elections Nov. 3, ballots can be dropped off until 7:30 p.m.
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