Growing up, Darrin Sims was taught that voting was an expression of his faith.
“For people who have been disenfranchised, who've been told no, who've been told that their voice doesn't matter, casting a ballot and hoping for something different is a very spiritual process,” said Sims, a seminary student at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
Looking to guide others in this spiritual practice, Sims will join clergy from across the country who are serving as poll chaplains on Election Day. This group of unofficial poll watchers hopes to offer a ministry of presence and provide voter protection in the case of disenfranchisement.
Poll watching regulations vary from state to state; in Georgia, political parties assign credentialed poll watchers to make sure elections are conducted fairly, but other groups are allowed to remain outside the polling location to observe the process and help voters navigate the voting procedure as they wait in line to cast their ballot.
Sims, who coordinates Candler’s poll chaplain efforts on behalf of The New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voting advocacy group founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, says he wants to be a positive presence during what may be a stressful time for voters.
“A lot of people are very nervous. They’re wondering what will happen to the soul of America,” said Sims. “We want to be a presence of peace, to pray and sing with folks during this time of change and stress.”
Those stresses are not unfounded, particularly in Georgia where the state’s elections have been consistently marred with accusations of voter suppression. In 2018, over 300,000 active voters were improperly purged from the voter list during an election where Republican Brian Kemp, then a gubernatorial candidate, refused to recuse himself of his role as the state’s secretary of state, a position that oversees the state’s election. And in the 2020 June primary, where election officials raised concerns over malfunctioning voting machines and long lines, voters in predominantly non-white neighborhoods waited to cast their vote an average of 45 minutes longer than their white counterparts, according to analysts.
Despite a meteoric rise in early voting across the country, tense situations nationwide, along with baseless accusations from President Donald Trump that Democrats are trying to “steal the election,” have raised concerns about voting infringement. In some cases, supporters of the president have arrived at the polls armed.
“Nine times out of 10, we’ll just be greeting people and passing out water and snacks,” said Billy Michael Honor, who directs Loose the Chains, the faith engagement initiative of The New Georgia Project. “But in the event that something does happen, it’s good to have people there who know how to lead people in situations of conflict or crisis.”
Over the past month, Sims and Honor have worked to host several Zoom trainings for faith leaders across the state. On Election Day, teams of clergy will work in shifts assessing the sites for ADA compliance and adequate amenities while also engaging voters — “If you don’t talk to people, they ain’t gonna talk to you,” laughed Honor — offering spiritual guidance and answering questions about the voting process, even helping voters obtain provisional ballots when necessary. Chaplains, who are encouraged to vote early themselves, will also maintain a running count of the votes cast each hour and compare them against numbers from the precinct to ensure accuracy (though poll workers are not legally required to share their data).
A multi-faith coalition of over 130 poll chaplains that includes Unitarians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Reformed rabbis have volunteered to serve alongside Loose the Chains on Election Day. “In all my years of organizing, this is the most motley group that I’ve ever been a part of bringing together,” said Honor. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Many poll chaplain participants were also present this summer during the protests for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black victims of police violence. After attending protests over the killing of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer in June and seeing the empathetic presence of faith leaders, Sims says he felt compelled to offer a similar service during the November election.
“Clergy have always shown up in times of distress,” said Sims. “This isn't something new. We’re just showing up differently.”
Deirdre Jonese Austin, another student at Candler and a ministerial intern at Ebenezer Baptist Church, says she sees poll chaplaincy as an extension of the biblical command to love her neighbor.
“I’m aware something could happen, but I’m not afraid. We need a faith that meets the needs of the soul, as well as the needs of the body,” said Austin. “Yes, we’re going to get you saved, but we’re also going to make sure that you have food, that you have water, and that your voting rights are respected.”
Unable to wait until Election Day himself, Honor spent last weekend greeting voters at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center voting precinct in Fulton County, a polling location that experienced multi-hour long lines during the June primary. He says that, so far, wait times have been relatively short and problems minimal.
“People are very relieved. After they finish voting you can see the sense of relief and sometimes joy on their face,” said Honor. “It reminds me of when I used to be a greeter at church. It’s a good feeling to welcome people into such a worthy affair.”