Souls to the Polls campaign draws voters to Orlando’s Amway Center

Lisa Maria Garza, Orlando Sentinel
·4 min read

Tye Gee stood outside the Amway Center on Sunday and angled his smartphone camera so that the “I voted” sticker on his T-shirt was visible in his selfie.

The 60-year-old Baldwin Park resident was among scores of Orange County residents who cast their ballot Sunday inside the arena, with many heading across the street for food, music and speakers as part of Souls to the Polls, an annual voter-turnout initiative led by Black churches.

COVID-19 nixed the Souls to the Polls tradition of congregants arriving on packed buses at polling sites after Sunday services. Another Souls to the Polls drive is expected to happen next Sunday, two days before Election Day.

Instead, attendees stood in line to have their temperatures taken at kiosks before entering the grounds and being directed by volunteers to nearby hand sanitizer stations.

Gee, who moved to Orlando in 2016 from Pennsylvania, said he was surprised at the low voter turnout among African Americans in Florida in the last presidential election. He believes the opportunity to vote for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 motivated Black people to show up at the polls.

“In 2016, that kind of excitement kind of waned a little bit," he said. “But with all the things going on with social justice, things going on with the COVID situation, the economy, I think the turnout will be particularly high this year.”

Sunday’s event capped off a weekend of parades and prayer services in Central Florida aimed at increasing turnout of Black voters.

The Equal Ground Education Fund, a Black-led nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, hosted the event at the Amway Center and a similar drive at Sanford’s Allen Chapel AME Church.

Churches aren’t allowed to tell members to vote for one person or party. In keeping with the spirit of the event, many attendees wore face masks with crosses on them and T-shirts with voting slogans instead of proclaiming support for a particular candidate.

Pine Hills resident Tasha Strachan, 39, watched as the Rev. Terence Gray, pastor at Saint Mark AME Church where she attends, spoke on stage.

Strachan said she voted on Thursday and was inspired by Gray’s words, whom she considers a strong community advocate.

“I know the only way our voice can be heard is through the ballot box," she said. "We can talk all the game we want to but at the end of the day, we have to get out there and make it happen.”

Gray passed on words from his grandmother in Atlanta “when I was knee-high to a duck” about the importance of voting, even if the choice comes down to which candidate is “the lesser evil.”

“But no matter what comes up, you gotta make sure to cast your vote,” he said.

The event came as President Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been making final pushes to win voters over in Florida, a crucial swing state.

Trump rallied thousands of supporters on Friday at a packed field in The Villages. Former President Barack Obama is set to campaign Tuesday in Orlando for Biden.

Keuandra Williams, 34, and her son, Davion Johnson, 18, wore matching T-shirts with “Black Voter Established” in 2003 and 2020, respectively.

Williams said she already voted and went over the sample ballot with her son so he understood that it’s not just about choosing between Trump and Biden because the local races for county judges and the proposed amendments are important, too.

“I explained to him our history as far as [Black people] being able to vote, especially for women — what they went through to get the right to vote," she said. “He has the knowledge, and he’s going to do his research.”

Johnson stood in line at a food truck while Williams looked for a spot to watch the upcoming speeches and musical performances.

“I’m going to vote [Monday],” he said. “I’m going to vote for candidates that focus on the bigger issues that affect this community.”

lgarza@orlandosentinel.com

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