For years, South Florida’s Black churches have gathered their flocks on the Sunday before Election Day and led them to the polls on the final day of early voting.
The coronavirus pandemic won’t change that. But it will change how and when “Souls to the Polls” takes place in a region with one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
This election, Black faith leaders are encouraging parishioners to vote on either Sunday before the primary on Aug. 18. And instead of lining up to vote inside polling places, some churches are encouraging their members to drive this Sunday to early voting centers and deposit mail ballots at outdoor drop boxes instead of sending them through the U.S. Postal Service.
The deadline to request a mail ballot is 5 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re not laying down on voting,” said Carl Johnson, pastor of the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church in West Little River and moderator of over 41 churches in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. “We’re emphasizing that we still must vote.”
According to fliers circulating among churches and campaigns, New Birth Baptist Church, Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church and other congregations in Miami-Dade County are teaming up with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, gospel AM radio station WMBM and Black sororities to encourage parishioners to drive their mail ballots to the polls this Sunday at the early voting site in the library at the Miami Dade College North Campus.
In Broward County, several churches, including New Hope Baptist Church — which ahead of the August primary two years ago marched with gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum to the early voting site at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale — are encouraging their congregations to decorate their cars and drive to the library. Pastor Henry E. Green Jr., of Mount Hermon A.M.E. Church in Fort Lauderdale, said congregants are choosing the method best for them, either dropping off mail ballots or going inside to vote.
Kim McCray, a political organizer, lobbyist and parishioner at New Birth Baptist Church, one of the largest and most influential Black churches in Miami, said Sunday’s events are taking place a week early in order to give everyone time to adjust and vote comfortably amid the pandemic.
“Within our community, there’s a lot of voters who prefer to vote in person,” she said. “Traditionally, Souls to the Polls is normally held that Sunday before Election Day. But with so much happening now, it’s important for the community to get out as early as possible.”
Early voting remains a fairly new phenomenon in Florida elections, starting in the 1990s before it was formalized statewide by law in 2004. Typically, Souls to the Polls is a bigger draw during November elections. But Black churches do make an effort to push parishioners to the polls during the August primary.
That is true this year as well, though it’s more complicated. While churches are allowed to open their doors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, many have chosen to go virtual rather than risk an outbreak in their pews, making it more difficult to rally members or involve candidates.
“People still have the fear of the virus,” said Johnson.
But churches aren’t only relying on mail ballots and motorcades to get the vote out. Johnson, moderator of the Seaboard Missionary Baptist Association, said faith leaders are calling their church members and other pastors to encourage parishioners to participate in the election. He said part of the message to church members is to vote in honor of John Lewis, a prominent voting rights activist, Christian and Black congressman who died last month.
“Even though he died, he still lives on through these various churches,” said Johnson.
So far, through the first four days of early voting, the number of voters casting ballots in Miami-Dade County is actually greater than the number participating over the same period in 2018, so the novel coronavirus doesn’t appear to have diminished in-person voting. Mail voting is also at a record pace.
The effectiveness of a new-look Souls to the Polls could be consequential for local races in Miami-Dade County, where roughly a quarter-million of the county’s 1.5 million registered voters are non-Hispanic Blacks. Democrats, especially, are watching turnout, given that Black voters make up roughly a third of the registered Democrats in the county.
Candidates often visit churches and speak to congregations before they go to vote. This year, they’re hoping to set up video chats with pastors, and plan to appear in person to greet voters as they show up. In the race for county mayor, for instance, Alex Penelas is planning to be at the Miami Dade College North Campus Sunday to greet voters participating in the drive-thru Souls to the Polls.
“Typically, what you’d do is organize a bunch of people to go to church and from church they’d either walk … to an early voting site or drive from church,” said Reggie Cardozo, a political consultant working with state Rep. Kionne McGhee’s run for County Commission District 9 in South Miami-Dade and Rep. Shevrin Jones’ state Senate District 35 campaign. “We’re trying to be creative with how we engage with members of the clergy and the faith community on that day.”