A Souls to the Polls rally in a Cleveland church in August. With in-person early voting now a reality in New Jersey, Garden State churches are replicating these types of rallies for the first time. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
New Jersey’s Black churches are ready to take their members’ souls to the polls.
Black faith organizations around the state began sending congregants to early voting sites en masse Saturday, joining churches in other states in a long-standing tradition that seeks to boost the influence of Black communities by leveraging existing organizations and worshippers’ trust of community leaders.
“We want our people to know that the vote matters, but we want our people to know the Black church is relevant, is responsible, and that we will use our voice in a prophetic, powerful way to make a difference and make our communities better,” said the Rev. Kenneth Clayton of Paterson’s St. Luke’s Baptist Church. “We will not be discounted or discarded or discredited.”
In coordination with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, more than a dozen Black churches around the state planned “Souls to the Polls” events on the first and last Sundays of the early voting period, which began on Oct. 23 and ends Oct. 31.
The practice sees congregants taken to polling locations directly from their Sunday services. Churches often charter busses to take their worshippers to voting sites, though some have opted for car caravans this year to diminish the spread of COVID-19.
The Rev. Charles Boyer of the Greater Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Trenton said exercising the right to vote is “absolutely imperative.”
“Blood was shed, and so the vote for Black folks is sacred, which is why souls to the polls is so meaningful, particularly for us here in New Jersey,” Boyer said.
Early voting presents a particular opportunity to voters of color, especially those in urban centers. At 62%, turnout in Essex and Hudson Counties — where most residents are people of color — was lower than anywhere else in the state during last year’s general election, which was held almost entirely using mail-in ballots.
Because of historical disenfranchisement, voters of color may hesitate to use vote-by-mail ballots that have become increasingly critical to New Jersey Democrats’ electoral strategy. Early in-person voting conducted on voting machines doesn’t face those same hurdles.
“We act like it’s three or four hundred years ago. It was very, very recent that we were deprived of those rights,” said Clayton. “And because of that reality, as a people, we have to assert and demand that our people are responsible and exercise this responsibility at every single election.”
Though funding constraints kept early voting in New Jersey to just nine days — well short of the 30 initially sought by Murphy and the 15 proposed in bills Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has introduced for years — the period does cover two full weekends.
Weekday early voting shouldn’t be discounted either. Houses of worship and their leaders can contact their members through mailing lists and other platforms on days without services, and they’re already planning to do so.
“In all of our communication on every day this week, in our daily prayer call, this will be something that we’ll mention and remind folk,” said the Rev. Timothy Adkins-Jones of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church. “All of our social media are reminding folk as well, so even if folk don’t go on Sunday, they’ll be able to go throughout the rest of the week, even leading up to next Sunday.”
Bethany Baptist held its “Souls to the Polls” event this past Sunday, while Mount Zion and St. Luke’s have theirs scheduled for Oct. 31.
Black churches and their leaders have been active in state politics for years, though their influence has sometimes been limited.
Church leaders were involved in discussions on enabling legislation for New Jersey’s legal marijuana market earlier this year, urging for youth protections that made it into the law with the help of the legislative Black and Latino caucuses.
A group of Black ministers pressured legislators to vote for a millionaire’s tax championed by Murphy in 2019 — threatening to boost primary challengers or push their congregations against incumbents who opposed the policy — but never followed through. The tax was approved the next year after relations between the governor and Democratic legislative leaders warmed following infighting that colored the first two years of Murphy’s term in office.
Early voting will likely increase the churches’ influence in coming years. Ministers are working to ensure that it does.
“This will be an annual thing, and we’re going to look to make a whole weekend out of it,” Boyer said. “As we go into next year, we’re going to have the voter rolls and we’re going to do get out the vote phone callings in the weekends before and host pizza parties and get folks in the church.”
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