u.s. Politics

Black Church Leaders in Georgia Intensify Their Voting Rights Push

Good evening. Tonight we have some news from Georgia courtesy of our colleague Nick Corasaniti, who reports on a voting rights project by Black religious leaders.

In the months leading up to the 2020 election, Bishop Reginald Jackson undertook an expansive get-out-the-vote operation for the 534 African Methodist Episcopal churches he oversees in Georgia, holding registration drives, voter education programs and efforts for coordinated Sunday voting.

That work appeared to pay off: Strong Black voter turnout helped power the victories of Joe Biden, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia.

But now, after Georgia Republicans passed an extensive law last year with a variety of voting restrictions, Jackson and other Black faith leaders across the state worry that they need to do more to help Black Georgians exercise their right to vote.

So this week, more than a dozen of these faith leaders are starting Faith Works, a project with an initial budget of $2.6 million that will seek to organize voting operations across more than 1,000 churches in Georgia.

The enterprise is a first for Black churches in Georgia, leaders say, with a formal fund-raising and operations center that will bridge different regions and denominations. Informally, the leaders call themselves “the Faith Avengers.”

The initiative, which will be housed in a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization founded by the church leaders called Transforming Georgia, will offer small grants to churches to help customize get-out-the-vote operations, begin a social media advertising campaign, coordinate faith leaders’ messages on voting and build partnerships with other voting rights organizations, which are numerous across Georgia and have large national followings.

“Faith leaders across the state worked ourselves into a frenzy to make sure we got out the vote in 2020,” Jackson said. “We have to work doubly hard to overcome the barriers put in place now for the 2022 election.”

In Georgia’s primary elections in May, turnout surged past previous milestones, setting off a fresh debate over the impact of the voting law, which had largely been untested. Among other provisions, the law instituted strict new identification requirements for absentee ballots, limited drop boxes and expanded the Legislature’s power over elections.

But Jackson and other civil rights leaders remain fearful that the primary election was not necessarily an accurate test of the law, and that the legislation’s provisions could still make voting harder in their communities.

Their new voting push builds on a long history of civic activism in Black churches, especially in both fighting to protect the right to vote and ensuring that members exercise that right.

Voting after Sunday church services, often known as “souls to the polls,” is a tradition going back decades in Black communities across the country, and church leaders in Florida and Virginia began to organize such efforts more formally in 1998.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald, a Baptist minister in Atlanta who was one of the original national organizers of “souls to the polls,” said he viewed Georgia’s new voting law as a call to arms.

“We’ve been at this for over 40, almost 50 years, going back to when I served as the full-time assistant pastor of Dr. King’s church, Ebenezer,” he said, referring to the historic Atlanta church once led by Martin Luther King Jr., where Warnock is now pastor. “We were fighting the same battles.”

Much of Faith Works’s initial focus will be on the program of grants for churches, which could pay for things like buses for “souls to the polls” efforts, call lists and phones for phone-banking operations or mailers to members.

Church leaders will also hold voter education programs, coupled with a social media advertising campaign, to make sure voters know about their rights under state law, and how to work through potential confusion or challenges stemming from the new legislation.

The leaders of Faith Works have also hosted town-hall meetings with key national voting rights figures, joined by hundreds of pastors from across Georgia. On Thursday, more than 350 joined a call to discuss voting rights with Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division. The leaders have also met with Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, and Cedric Richmond, a former senior Biden adviser.

The goal, leaders say, is to leverage the trust and influence of the Black church in key communities, especially in rural areas where turning out first-time and infrequent voters can be a challenge for national groups.

“Let’s be clear: People will trust their pastors,” said the Rev. Lee May, a pastor from outside Atlanta. “They trust their churches, and we want to really utilize that and helping to get people to turn out to vote.”

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Credit…Ulster County Board of Elections

— Blake

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