The Common Good

Watch the Vote: The Ground Game

For the next 12 days it’s all about the ground game. With most voter registration deadlines passed, the fight against voter suppression has shifted focus from registration drives to calling banks, car-pools, and calls to vote early.

Bishop Dwayne Royster is Executive Director of P.O.W.E.R.  (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild), a 37-member interfaith organizing coalition in Philadelphia. Royster is also lead pastor of Living Waters United Church of Christ in Philadelphia. In a recent interview Bishop Royster explained just how vital the fight against voter suppression has been for the people of Philadelphia.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative, Philadelphia is the 6th poorest large city in America with a poverty rate that held at 25 percent in 2011. The unemployment rate is higher than the national average at 11.5 percent, and nearly half of all high school students engage in a fist fight at least once in the course of a year. Tensions are high in the City of Brotherly Love.

In this context P.O.W.E.R.’s focus had been jobs, jobs, jobs. The group was working to get 10,000 jobs for Philadelphians within the next year. Then the state of Pennsylvania passed Voter ID law, known as Act 18, in June 2012. 

Royster explained, “We watched it and thought it would be shot down, but it was upheld.” 

They realized this was going to work to further disenfranchise the poor, so they would have to engage the fight as soon as possible. 

“We jumped into the fight in August,” said Royster, “and with the support of the PICO network we hired people to help register folks to vote, make sure they have the proper ID, and to educate them about the Jobs campaign.”

According to Royster, the 37 member congregations represent about 27,000 people in Philadelphia. 

On Oct. 2 the courts blocked the law. Voters in the Keystone State can now vote without photo ID.

“There was a lot of anger and frustration before the voter ID law was blocked,” Royster said. “Pastors put a lot of energy into people getting the proper ID. They included calls to vote in their sermons.” 

The good thing, Royster explained, is that people are still fired up: “We are currently phone-banking to help Philadelphians to know they must get out and vote and they don’t have to have state-Issued ID.”

Groups like P.O.W.E.R. and the Pennsylvania State Voices Table, a state-wide coalition are getting that message out across the state. 

Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many people are beginning to jump on the early voting bandwagon.

I’d been trying to decide if I was going to vote in person, as I usually do, or send in an absentee ballot. I decided to join the rising tide of early voters.

On Tuesday I sat down in my living room and read through the D.C. Voting Guide that came in the mail about a month ago. Then I whipped out my absentee ballot that arrived earlier this week — thanks again TurboVote — and I started filling in the circles. As I dropped my ballot in the mail I felt like I was participating in the new “in” thing — early voting! It’s kind of incredible how a social movement to fight voter suppression has started to feel just plain cool. 

For the folks in Pennsylvania and for the 13 states with restrictive voting laws still in effect, the ground game is much more than cool. It is vital. 

Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

Voting illustration,  suwan reunintr / Shutterstock.com

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