Black voters celebrate ‘Souls to the Polls’ despite efforts to cut the crucial early voting day

Florida reinstated the day after the last presidential election.

Haitian-American North Miami residents march from their church to the local polling place. CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Haitian-American North Miami residents march from their church to the local polling place. CREDIT: Kira Lerner

NORTH MIAMI, FLORIDA — In 2011, shortly before the last presidential election, Florida’s Republican-led legislature cut the state’s early voting days from 14 to eight and eliminated the last Sunday before election day — the busiest day of early voting for black communities. In 2012, early voting by minorities dropped dramatically.

But after immense pressure from civil rights advocates, Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed a law the following year to undo the damage, restoring all 14 early voting days including the crucial Sunday before Election Day.

On Sunday in Miami, voters were ready to take advantage of the day.

Across the state, a coalition of faith, labor, and immigrant groups united to hold “Souls to the Polls” events, leading marches from black churches to the their neighboring polling places. Music blasted, people barbecued, and children played in the parking lots outside churches and libraries. While turnout data isn’t yet available, lines of black voters were long at one North Miami poll, and pastors told ThinkProgress they were enthusiastically pushing their congregants to vote on the celebratory day.

Pastor Rhonda Thomas CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Pastor Rhonda Thomas CREDIT: Kira Lerner

“Souls to the Polls is really a historic day for the black church,” said Rhonda Thomas, the pastor at New Generation Baptist Church in Opa-Locka, Florida. “We feel like if anyone could move people, it would be clergy… We encourage as many people as possible to take advantage of early voting and the Sunday that has been designated for us.”

Thomas’ church and others in the area organized caravans to drive to the North Dade Regional Library where hundreds of people were congregating outside.

Roughly a dozen miles away, in the city of North Miami, congregants at the predominantly Haitian Shalom Community Church gathered after services to march together to the nearby library. As they walked, they chanted and sang in both English and French.

Joanem Floreal, the pastor of that church, told ThinkProgress that the last day of early voting is crucial in both the Haitian and Christian communities.

“It’s about the soul of the community turning out together.”

“It’s about the soul of the community turning out together,” said Gihan Perera, the director of the New Florida Majority, a group that works to increase the voting power of marginalized communities. “It’s a collective effort, it’s a community effort. You don’t vote alone.”

As Latin and Haitian music blasted from speakers behind him, Perera told ThinkProgress that the day holds many layers of significance for black voters.

“Especially in the black community, there’s been such hardship to exercise the right to vote — people have died, there’s been such a history of struggle, that going together to vote is a remembrance of the history of what it took, it’s going together to protect ourselves, it’s going with the community we feel safe in, and it’s seeing voting as a community act to change the entire community.”

Sunday wasn’t all sunshine outside the Sunshine State

Florida isn’t the only state that in recent years has been tangled in a messy partisan battle to allow people to vote on the last Sunday before Election Day. Republican lawmakers in other states continue to try cut back on Sunday hours in an attempt to reduce black voter turnout.

In North Carolina, a state whose leaders have recently cut a large number of early voting locations, recently-released emails reveal that GOP lawmakers deliberately tried to cut Sunday voting as well. “Many of our folks are angry and opposed to Sunday voting,” North Carolina Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse wrote in an email obtained by Reuters. “Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period.”

“That was an explicit strategy to suppress the black vote.”

When one elections board chairman in a largely-white county agreed to open a Sunday voting site near a black church, Reuters reported, “he was labeled a traitor by his fellow Republicans” and withdrew his support.

In July, a federal court rejected North Carolina’s attempt to cut an entire week of early voting, but the state still does not allow early voting the Sunday before Election Day.

As they headed to the polls or volunteered outside, Floridians told ThinkProgress they see those early voting cuts as explicitly discriminatory.

Gihan Perera CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Gihan Perera CREDIT: Kira Lerner

“It is an attack to us directly,” Floreal said about the Haitian-American community.

Perera called all of the GOP-led voter suppression efforts, especially in swing states, “nothing but a direct attack on black voters.”

“In Florida in 2011, when there were all of these laws passed to restrict early voting days, to get rid of Souls to the Polls Sundays, to make it harder to register voters, that was an explicit strategy to suppress the black vote.” The black community saw that not just as a law, but as a fundamental attack on the black community.”

In response, Perera said black voters waited in line to vote in 2012 for upwards of five hours to prove that they cannot be disenfranchised.

Pastor Thomas said the laws also would not deter her, given that voting is especially crucial to her as she grew up hearing stories of how her parents and grandparents were disenfranchised because of their race.

“What I would say to those who try to stop us: As Michelle Obama said, when they go low, we go high,” she said. “We would just choose another day of the week. So to take it away means nothing. It just agitates us to do more.”