Voting From the Pews

Voting From the Pews

Why black churches in Georgia are helping congregants cast ballots by mail.


On Sunday mornings in black churches across Georgia this October, congregants will gather like they always to do, to pray and worship together. But in the weeks preceding the November 6 election, they’ll be doing something a little bit different: voting by mail, together.

At Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta, pastor Billy M. Honor plans to preach a sermon about civic engagement on October 28. The scripture text he has chosen is Isaiah 56:8, which asks, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”

“We’ll be talking about voting, the sacred act of voting, how citizenship is a God-given right,” Honor says. “We best exercise that right when we participate in that project.”

After that, churchgoers will take out the absentee ballots they ordered earlier in the month and cast their votes alongside each other. “And then we’ll pray, we’ll pray over them,” Honor says.

Pulse Church is one of approximately 800 to 1,100 black churches in Georgia participating in a statewide vote-by-mail campaign this fall, the first of its kind. The initiative is being co-sponsored by the three largest Methodist bodies in Georgia—African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion. It’s led by the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

Black churches have long played a critical role in politics, particularly in the civil-rights movement. But wide-scale voter-turnout efforts have historically been dominated by mostly white evangelical congregations motivated by single issues such as abortion. In 2014 midterm elections, for instance, white evangelicals made up a disproportionate share of the electorate across the South. This effort seeks to counterbalance that trend.

In the first weeks of the campaign, congregations will request their absentee ballots together. Then, on a following Sunday, they’ll bring those ballots to church and vote together. At many churches, including Honor’s, leaders will gather congregants’ ballots and mail them off in bulk. At others, congregants will march to a local mailbox together to mimic the act of going to the polls. Some churches will pass out stickers or play music to mark the occasion.

The AME church, which accounts for approximately 500 of those congregations, aims to get 80 percent of its congregants to vote before Election Day, according to Bishop Reginald Jackson. “Our task is to build God’s kingdom on earth and to elect candidates who are in sync with us,” says Jackson. “Voting is an act of faith and its irresponsible for you not to exercise your right to vote.”

The AME Zion, which has about 40 congregations across Georgia, has a smaller footprint but big goals. Known as “The Freedom Church,” AME Zion has deep ties to social justice. It was the spiritual home of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. Bishop Mildred Bonnie Hines hopes AME Zion members will help extend the vote-by-mail campaign to friends and family members who are not part of the church.

“The message that I’m extending is that it is our right to vote,” says Hines. “Our forefathers and mothers bled, fought, and died so that we could have this privilege, and it is a worshipful and spiritual responsibility that we have as a church.”

Historically, most faith-based voter-mobilization efforts among black communities in Georgia have taken place on Election Day, like “souls to the polls” efforts to bus voters to their polling sites. This year’s campaign, to bring mail ballots to the pews of historically black churches, is new. “This is an attempt to start a culture shift among historically and predominantly black churches,” says Honor, who is also the faith organizing director for the New Georgia Project. “It’s going to take a couple cycles.”

Honor came up with the idea after conducting focus groups with groups of pastors across Georgia. “One of the things that came up a couple of times is how many races across the state get decided by absentee or mail-in ballots,” he says.

Although the New Georgia Project was founded by Abrams, now the Democratic candidate for governor, Honor says he isn’t interested in party affiliations. Based on the issues he mentions several times—raising the minimum wage, closing prisons, expanding access to child care—it would be easy to place Honor within the burgeoning “religious left.” But he is reluctant to claim the term out of fear it might be viewed as partisan. “The Democratic Party has been just as guilty,” he says. “For me it’s about an agenda of justice.”

Nonetheless, the vote-by-mail campaign is intended to mobilize voters who care about economic justice, he says. He and the other organizers also zeroed in on mail ballots because they create a paper record.

“Not only does Georgia have a long and recent history of voter suppression, but there are concerns about election security,” said New Georgia Project executive director Nse Ufot. “The only real way we know as a state to independently verify and audit an individual vote is by paper ballot. The only paper ballot we have in this state is the absentee ballot.”

In a lawsuit brought by citizens against Georgia, a federal judge recently said the state’s electronic ballot system, installed in 2002, “poses a concrete risk of alteration of ballot counts.” The judge declined to order paper ballots for the 2018 election but scolded Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp for “delay[ing] in grappling with the heightened critical cybersecurity issues of our era posed [by] the state’s dated, vulnerable voting system.”

Kemp, whom many see as the state’s grandest architect of voter suppression, is squaring off against Abrams in the race for governor.

“I say to young people all the time, if you have any doubt about whether your vote counts, you should consider all of the ruthless efforts that some are undertaking to keep you from voting,” says the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a 3,000-person congregation and the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“[Kemp] expressed in no uncertain terms his concern that we were registering ‘all these minority voters,’” Warnock says. “Well, we intend to make his worst nightmares come true.”

The vote-by-mail campaign is also set against the backdrop of a major demographic shift. In what has been called the reversal of great migration, many young black people are moving to the South, increasing the likelihood that states like Georgia might soon flip blue. Abrams is hoping to become the first black woman governor of Georgia, and her candidacy has been an energizing force.

“If they can’t be successful now with this effort, then I don’t know if they can ever really be successful with such efforts down the road, because the context is so ripe for getting people engaged,” Emory political science professor Michael Leo Owens says of the church-led campaign. Owens believes the biggest barrier might be the strong culture among black Georgians of voting on Election Day, a tradition held dear by those who fought the hardest for the ability to vote.

Warnock himself has never voted by absentee ballot. “I think about myself as a person who is used to the ritual of going to the polling station with my family, with my 2-year-old daughter in tow,” he says. “I don’t expect that in one election cycle we’re going to change the way that everybody votes.”

Warnock has previously led so-called “souls to the polls” campaigns, in which churches bus voters to their polling places on the day of an election. The vote-by-mail initiative, he says, isn’t intended to replace those kinds of efforts. Rather, it’s “just one more tool in the toolkit.”

He and the other faith leaders participating in the vote-by-mail campaign all believe that voting is a sacred act, meaning it won’t be hard for them to come up with sermon ideas to get congregants energized.

“The vote at its root is really about giving people a voice, and there’s nothing more basic and more sacred than having a voice.,” says Warnock. He points to the fact that “liturgy” translates into Greek as “the work of the people.” “If you think about it, voting literally is the work of the people,” he says.

He also says there’s a wealth of scripture for him to draw on. “When the prophets of old said, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream’ [Amos 5:24], it’s rhetoric rooted in actual concerns about poor people and widows and immigrants, which the Bible speaks about over and over again,” Warnock says. “It shouldn’t be extraordinary for faith leaders to be involved in this work, we really should be leading it, and that’s what we intend to do.”

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