Black churches organizing to protect polling places from voter intimidation

‘We are sending pastors to the polling sites to be peacekeepers’

By: - October 28, 2022 2:23 pm

Proud Boys arrive at the Florida Capitol Building for a rally protesting the arrests of Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection suspects. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Black church pastors called upon Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd and county election supervisors on Friday to ensure that the polling places operate fairly and free of intimidation as early voting proceeds and on Nov. 8, the date of the general election.

They added that they plan to position themselves and church members outside polling places to make sure of it, outside the 150-foot no-solicitation zone.

“We ask in faith that all the SOEs [supervisors of elections] protect our sacred right to vote. We ask you to stand on your word when you took this position and to ensure that all polling sites are safe — that there will be no nuisance, there will be no trouble, there will be no fighting, there will be no intimidation,” Tracey Stallworth, senior pastor of the Kingdom Glory Worship Assembly in predominantly Black Gadsden County, said during a Zoom conference.

Cord Byrd, Florida Secretary of State. Credit: House of Representatives

“We ask in faith that the secretary of state, Cord Byrd, utilize all of his power that he has been granted to support all of the SOEs in the state of Florida by protecting our sacred right to vote and to ensure that they are safe,” he continued.

“The citizens in my county — and I’m pretty sure the citizens elsewhere in the state of Florida — they want to go to a place where it is safe, not being intimidated or harassed by a special police.”

Communications aides to Byrd have not yet responded to a request for comment.

Election crimes unit

Florida’s election-crimes police unit made 20 arrests of people who’d been convicted of murder or sex offenses who told reporters that elections officials allowed or even encouraged them to register and cast ballots even though they were ineligible under Amendment 4, the 2018 state constitutional amendment designed to restore the franchise to qualifying ex-felons.

The first of the mostly Black people arrested had his case tossed recently by a state trial judge on the ground the statewide prosecutor lacked jurisdiction.

Od’Juan Whitfield. Credit: Faith in Public Life

“We are deeply troubled by any actions or statements that intimidate voters or deny safe and equal access to voting, or that sow doubt in electoral outcomes and raise a threat of violence,” Marcus McCoy Jr., senior pastor at Orlando’s Greater Refuge Memorial Church, said.

McCoy cited “Florida’s 20-year-long history of attacking the voting rights of its Black constituents.”

Faith in Public Life, a self-described “religious left” organization, sponsored the discussion.

“We are sending pastors to the polling sites to be peacekeepers, to make sure that if any voter has any questions or any concerns that they can be answered, because protecting and expanding our freedom to vote and honoring the will of the people is our moral duty,” said Od’Juan Whitfield, Florida associate manager of the group.

Potential for violence

The pastors spoke as federal authorities investigated a hammer attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in their San Francisco home. CNN reported  that the suspect repeated, “Where is Nancy, where is Nancy?” The speaker was in Washington at the time. Her husband is expected to make a full recovery.

There also have been reports that violent right-wing organizations such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are monitoring early voting places including ballot drop boxes and intimidating voters, and Republican candidates in many states continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, raising fears that violence might erupt at polling places.

None of the pastors who spoke on Friday reported any problems in their own areas, however. The idea, McCoy said, is to be “proactive” against any interference by paramilitary groups or the state election-crimes unit.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker cited a decades-long pattern of voting laws designed to limit minority-group voting in invalidating portions of SB 90, a voting restriction law DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2021 ostensibly to make elections more secure notwithstanding that he’d bragged about how well Florida had run the 2020 elections. The Legislature adopted additional restrictions this year.

“At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental,” Walker wrote in March. “Based on the indisputable pattern set out above, this court finds that, in the past 20 years, Florida has repeatedly sought to make voting tougher for Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates.”

However, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overruled Walker, allowing the restrictions to govern this year’s elections.

Additionally, DeSantis forced the Legislature to adopt a congressional redistricting plan that diminishes Black voters’ ability to elect representatives of their choice by carving up a Black-held seat in North Florida. Contrary to the amendment’s proscription against favoring any political party, the plan gives Republicans the advantage in 20 of Florida’s 28 districts.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.