ABOVE PHOTO: Delphine Bell, back left, votes in the primary on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, at St. Peter’s AME Church in St. Louis. Polling places opened at 6 a.m. across Missouri, where Secretary of State Robin Carnahan predicted a turnout of more than 25 percent of registered voters.
(AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Laurie Skrivan)
By Rev. Dr. Tony Minor and Rev. Larry Harris
In our 30 years as pastors in Cleveland, we have helped thousands of our parishioners to vote. We help them understand the importance of voting. We make sure they know where to vote and when. And we help to get them to their polling places. We work with hundreds of African-American ministers across the country who are doing exactly the same thing. We see our work as a continuation of the civil rights movement. We have greater access to the polls than ever before, and we will not be denied full use of it.
But according to Franklin County Board of Elections Chairman Doug Preisse, in a recent email to The Columbus Dispatch, churches that are driving our congregations to the polls are a sinister “urban — read African American — voter-turnout machine” and should not be “accommodated” by election officials.
What Preisse calls the “African-American voter turnout machine,” we call a tremendous success story for civil rights and civic participation. In 2008, 43 years after the Voting Rights Act banned racial discrimination at the ballot box, African Americans for the first time voted at the same rate as white Americans. That is a huge achievement. And that is what Preisse and his allies want to undo in 2012.
Around the country, four years after African-American voter turnout reached its highest point in U.S. history, election officials in swing states are targeting the African-American vote. In Pennsylvania, a judge recently let stand a voter ID law that could make it harder for as many as 700,000 Pennsylvanians to vote this November — a disproportionate number of whom are African-Americans in the state’s largest cities. In Florida, the secretary of state is planning to conduct a voter purge reminiscent of the one that cut thousands of African Americans from the state’s voter rolls in 2000. And the swing state of Virginia just got the go-ahead for its own suppressive voter ID law.
If you want to know why a machine exists to get African-Americans to the polls, just look at the effort that’s still being made to keep us away. When you’re faced with suppression, you unify, mobilize and organize to fight back. And that’s what the black church, civil rights groups and community leaders have done.
In the years leading up to the 2008 election, Ohio made a number of advances that made it easier for more people to cast ballots. Early voting was expanded to help eliminate the long lines that deterred some from voting in 2004. Entire congregations drove from the church to the polls the Sunday before Election Day. In just the three days before the election, 93,000 Ohioans cast their ballots. A disproportionate number of those who took advantage of early voting were African-Americans. On Election Day, the long lines that many had feared did not materialize.
But this year, Gov. John Kasich and the legislature eliminated early voting in the three days before the election. And then officials in the four urban counties that are home to 56 percent of Ohio’s black population moved to eliminate night and weekend voting as well, even as a handful of rural counties expanded their early voting hours. Faced with criticism and a possible legal challenge, Secretary of State Jon Husted then tried to equalize the situation by cutting back everyone’s early voting rights to the lowest common denominator, rather than expanding them.
The goal of a democracy is to ensure that as many people as possible who can vote do vote, not to construct arcane rules meant to keep certain groups of people from the polls. We’re proud to be part of the “machine” that is fighting these restrictions and getting Americans to the polls despite them. It saddens us that some of our elected officials won’t join us.
Tony Minor, advocacy director of the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, and Larry Harris, president of the United Pastors in Mission, are members of the People for the American Way Foundation’s African-American Ministers Leadership Council.