New Voting Rules and the Black Church

Pastor Larry Harris and church staff (center) (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
Pastor Larry Harris and church staff (center) (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)

Recent changes to early voting rules have drawn the ire, and legal teams, of a number of groups. Secretary of State Jon Husted maintains he wants fair treatment for all voters. But the ACLU and a number of Black churches say the changes adversely impact African-Americans and low-income voters. ideastream’s Tony Ganzer reports, with voices from the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland.

Changes to Ohio’s voting rules have been a recurring topic of conversation in recent years.  Yesterday, the ACLU and other groups sued over new limits on early voting imposed by Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted in February. This includes eliminating voting on the Sunday before an election. The suit also objected to the loss of the Golden Week, when it’s possible to register and vote on the same day.  The suit said these changes adversely affect African-Americans, single parents and low-income voters with less flexible hours.

Matt McClellan, a spokesman for Husted, says the limits are there so that there will be uniformity across the state in the days and hours when voting is allowed.

MCCLELLAN: “Secretary Husted has pushed for equal and fair treatment for all voters.  He’s implemented a set of voting hours for in-person absentee voting that is the same across the state.  And there are a number of options available to voters.  If they want to vote early in person they have a number of days and hours in which to do so.  If they prefer to vote by mail they can do so.  And there’s obviously still Election Day.  So it’s very easy to vote in Ohio.”

Ohio is one of 33 states that allow absentee or in-person early voting – some for only a week before an election; others, including Ohio, permit it up to a month in advance.  Whites were more likely to take advantage of it than blacks.  That changed in 2008 and again in 2012, when it was used disproportionately by African-Americans. Republican efforts to curtail early voting in recent years have drawn suspicion from African-Americans that the change has more to do with race than fairness.

WINSTON BORDERS: “What’s going on Brother Brian? Have you signed our petition to protect our voting rights? The Voter Bill of Rights?”

Voting rules are a prime topic in the foyer of the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland, on a recent Sunday.  Winston Borders sits at a table with voter registration forms and a petition for a voter bill of rights, to re-instate early voting times cut in the recent changes.

BORDERS: “We’re trying to get as many signatures as we can, because what they’re trying to do is take a lot of our rights away, from voting.  We really don’t want that to happen.”

Mount Olive and many other Black churches have run successful Souls to the Polls efforts in recent years.  They rely on Sunday early voting opportunities to bring churchgoers from the pew to the polling place, an individual and community act at the same time.  Veronica Gray is a Mount Olive church member, and she feels like the rules changes target the African-American community.

GRAY: “It is something that you do within your mind and heart, and what you believe.  And then it’s even better if you can share it with people who you love and worship God with.  And people have died for us to have the right to do this.  And so many of our elders in the black community have not been able to do it for such a very long time, and they so enjoyed it.”

LARRY HARRIS: “We see this as a moral issue and we feel that it is an infringement on our right to vote and our accessibility to vote.  And therefore we have not felt good about it.”

Larry Harris is the pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, and he echoes the feeling that the rules changes target African-Americans.

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