In Philly, Black clergy warn voters of color will face challenges casting their ballots in November

(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADLEPHIA — The Philadelphia Black Clergy and Vicinity is adapting its get-out-the-vote campaign during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

With social distancing measures the new normal and in-person gatherings mothballed, the group of 75 pastors — overseeing houses of worship that represent at least 10,000 potential voters in the region — have used virtual meetings and social media to interact with voters and encourage them to cast a ballot in November.

But lack of in-person events has left the Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black clergy, unable to fully gauge the enthusiasm of African-American voters, leaving him to question how motivated they are 49 days before the election.

“In 2008 and 2012, I could see people physically,” Collier said referring to the years President Barack Obama was on the ballot. “With the pandemic we’re only able to do things through technology and media so you don’t see the results.”

On Tuesday Collier and members of the Black clergy joined elected officials in front of City Hall to urge registered voters in the region to apply for their mail-in ballots and return them when mail-in voting begins.

Later that day, President Donald Trump was scheduled to hold a town hall with undecided voters at the National Constitution Center.

The cadre of local and state Democratic officials cast the election in dire terms, describing Trump as working to frustrate and suppress Black voters through challenging mail-in voting systems throughout the country and undermining the United States Postal Service.

“It is very clear that there is an attempt to suppress the vote,” state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said, adding that those efforts will disproportionately affect communities of color.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, called Trump a “failure,” saying the 45th president’s campaign was focusing on reversing voter-access initiatives in federal courts in various states rather than focusing on his record.

Kenyatta said Trump was attempting to “create a system where we can go back to the type of Jim Crow intimidation that we’ve seen many many years in our country’s history.”

At-large City Councilman Isaiah Thomas said when Philadelphians don’t show up to the polls, “we suffer.”

Last month a federal judge shut down the Trump campaign’s federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania seeking to ban the state’s mail ballot drop boxes, lift residency requirements for poll workers, and other election changes, according to WHYY-FM.

Republican state legislators have also pushed a bill that would allow election offices to begin processing mail ballots before election day but ban satellite drop boxes, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Democrats in Harrisburg have pushed back against the GOP legislation.

City Commissioner Omar Sabir, a Democrat and one of three elected officials tasked with overseeing the city’s elections, maintained that commissioners aim to open 800 polling locations for the Nov. 3 ballot — down from the pre-pandemic level of 831.

During the June primary, only 188 polling locations were opened due to issues caused by the pandemic.

Sabir said resources for voters and accountability of elected officials were at stake in the election.

“The more you vote, the more you get,” Sabir said.

Commissioners have confirmed about 6,000 poll workers to oversee election polling locations, with a goal of 8,515. The figure is up from nearly 4,500 at the start of the month.

Black and brown folk in Philadelphia and the region were facing additional hurdles to voting.

Collier said the coronavirus pandemic was a “great deterrent” to African Americans voting, which closed hundreds of polling locations in the June primary and led to long wait times to vote at some locations.

Collier, the senior pastor at Galilee Baptist Church, also said a misinformation campaign over mail-in ballots and ballot drop-off locations was targeting the Black community, leading to confusion and potentially creating voter apathy.

“A process that should be crystal clear has become unclear,” Collier said. “We don’t want our people to get discouraged and say, ‘Well, it’s not worth it.’”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.