Minority communities have keenly felt the divisive rhetoric of the current election season.
“There are those who want to limit those who can vote,” said Bishop Victor Curry of New Birth Baptist Church in South Florida. “They say they want to ‘make America great again’ but we know that path, and that is just code for voter intimidation, disenfranchisement and restriction.”
With early voting in Florida starting on Monday, groups such as Souls for Polls are gearing up to get out the vote.
]The Souls for Polls initiative is a program that promotes congregations to go to early voting polls after worship services on Sunday. According to Curry, it’s a way “to ensure people of faith – especially the African-American community – have their voices heard in the election.”
“I believe that it’s important that we get out – not only get out, but in massive numbers – to vote,” said Pastor Derrick McRae of the Experience Christian Center in Orlando.
For McRae, issues that effect working class families such as working wages and benefits, mass incarceration and keeping immigrant families together are of great importance.
Exercising the right to vote has historical resonance, and black churches have held special significance for the African-American community.
“When we talk about getting out and voting, we understand that strong voices have always been held, right here, in the church,” said McRae. “I understand the power of our platform. I understand the influence of us on our people, and also our place of expression. I believe it’s very important for the church to come together in unity, crossing denominational lines.”
For the two Sundays that early voting polls are open, Oct. 30 and Nov. 6, Souls to the Polls churches and organizations will help in providing access for voters who may normally be restricted to polls by lack of transportation or work schedules, according to Curry.
In addition to churches, Souls to the Polls has also reached out to barber shops, beauty salons and Greek organizations. Participating organizations and congregations will be hosting community events and marches across the state to encourage voters to vote early.
Sunday, Oct. 30th, African Methodist Episcopal churches will be encouraged to give sermons and talks to their congregation on the importance of civic engagement and to take part in the Souls to the Polls initiative, according to Bishop A.J. Richardson, who is the presiding bishop of the 11th district of the A.M.E. church.
“We want to move from intimidation to inspiration,” Richardson said.
“There are years our candidates win and there are years our candidates lose,” said Curry. “But as long as we keep showing up, and we keep exercising our God-given right to vote, our community will never lose.”
The majority of counties in North Central Florida close early voting polls on Nov. 5 – Marion, Alachua, Dixie, Gilchrist, Columbia, Baker, Union, Clay and Putnam counties all close early voting polls on Saturday.
Some argue that it doesn’t make fiscal sense for polls to stay open on Nov. 6. For example, in Gilchrist County, voter turnout on Sunday can be as low as 35 people, who often only come earlier in the day, according to Connie Sanchez, who has been Gilchrist County’s Supervisor of Elections for the past nine years. Early voting polls are open from Oct. 29 to Nov. 5 in Gilchrist County, and closes two hours earlier on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Suwannee and Bradford counties, however, are some of the few counties in North Central Florida to have the early voting period last through Nov. 6, a Sunday.
“It’s very expensive,” said Glenda Williams, Suwannee County’s supervisor of elections. “We’re paying extra to keep our polls open.” Typically, there isn’t expected to be high voter turnout two days before Election Day, according to Williams.
According to Williams, community voices – including Souls to the Polls – have urged the county to make the early voting period last for an extra Sunday to allow for more people to send in their ballot.
“Our vote is our voice, and we plan to speak loudly,” Curry said.