Sunday morning, the Rev. Steven Caldwell urged his parishioners to do their “godly duty” and vote in the primary election, warning them that “if you think your vote doesn’t count, the Devil has lied to you.”
If Caldwell’s booming words weren’t enough to move his flock, he had a coach bus waiting outside to drive them to an early-voting site after the service.
“We thank God for letting us play a part in the political process,” said Caldwell, pastor of the New Providence Missionary Baptist Church, 760 NW 53rd St., Miami. “We’re going to vote. Amen.”
New Providence’s early-voting bus trip represented just one cog in a broad effort by African American churches to get their members to cast ballots on the last day of early voting before Primary Day on Tuesday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Championed by Democrats, the churches’ “Souls to the Polls” strategy helped fuel a partisan battle in 2012 when Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-led Legislature barred early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. They brought it back for 2014, making Sunday a revival for the relatively new campaign tradition.
“It’s human nature to wait until the last minute,” said the Rev. Johnny Barber, of Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, 698 NW 47th Ter., while greeting parishioners outside the polling place at Miami’s Caleb Center. “We do it for Christmas [shopping]. And we do the same thing even when it comes down to voting.”
Before the polls closed at 4 p.m., early-voting and absentee ballots were running at just under 20 percent of eligible voters, about the same turnout recorded in the 2010 elections, said Carolina Lopez, a deputy supervisor of elections in the Miami-Dade County elections department.
Florida instituted early voting in 2004 as a way to fix some of the problems that plagued the 2000 presidential election. It was also the busiest day of early voting this cycle, with 4,235 people in Miami-Dade casting ballots.
Democratic contenders for governor Charlie Crist and Nan Rich spent Sunday morning at North Miami-Dade’s New Birth Baptist Church, 2300 NW 135th St., as candidates across the region took advantage of the final day available to greet voters before Tuesday’s showdown. While a judge visited New Providence for the 8 a.m. service, the pews were politician-free for the later session. Caldwell credited his “no drive-by” policy — his rule that if a candidate wants to address the congregation, he or she must attend the full two-hour service first.
“If you are asking people for your vote, I think you ought to give them that part of your time,” Caldwell said. “Be there with us, and fellowship with us and our culture. I think that’s important.”
With light voter turnout expected, the church vote could have outsize importance, particularly for two hotly contested nonpartisan County Commission races in Miami-Dade.
African American churches are considered a key battleground in the rematch between two Democrats in District 2: incumbent Commissioner Jean Monestime and the man he unseated four years ago, Dorrin Rolle. In South Miami-Dade’s District 8, challenger Danielle Levine Cava is counting on higher Democratic turnout across the region to unseat incumbent Lynda Bell, a Republican.
In Homestead, the local NAACP chapter organized an outdoor barbecue — with entertainment from a youth gospel choir — on a tree-shaded parking lot catty-corner from a Homestead early-voting site on Krome Avenue.
“We really want to celebrate our right to vote,” said Kevin Chambliss, the organization’s South Area director.
Attendance, at least early on, was sparse. But the grill smoked, Motown tunes blared and neighbors swapped notes on their favorite candidates.
The singing children were from Homestead’s Whole Armor Ministries. Pastor Deborah Vaz said she hoped to instill in them a voting tradition from a young age.
“Some of my members are too young to vote,” she said. “But they wanted to be a voice to voters, to make sure that the community is run by people who care about the total community.”
The NAACP doesn’t endorse candidates, but Chambliss’ day job is in the office of Miami Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia, who posed for photographs with constituents at the barbecue. He’s not on the ballot until November, but spent the weekend campaigning with Levine Cava.
The day’s Souls to the Polls theme was evident throughout Miami-Dade, including when Levine Cava took the microphone at the NAACP event.
“I ask for your prayers, for your blessings,” she said. “Can I hear an ‘amen’?”
Eighteen miles north, Commissioner Bell was also courting voters — at the Coral Reef Library, where she was surrounded by volunteers.
“You can tell I’ve been out in the sun,” she said, pointing to the bronze tan on her arms. She fanned herself with a bell-shaped campaign sign attached to a wooden panel that read, “I’m a Lynda Bell Fan.”
Bell reiterated her belief that midterm elections don’t require two full weeks of early voting. Still, enough voters were streaming into the library for Bell, a former Homestead mayor, to greet them in English and in Spanish. Twice, people did a double-take when they realized it was the commissioner herself who was saying hello.
The Bell-Cava race is the most expensive in commission history, with more than $1 million raised by the candidates and their two campaign committees.
In District 2, which has the largest black population of the 13 commission districts, Monestime has raised close to $500,000. Rolle’s total in the last campaign report was a modest $46,000. The third candidate, Miami pastor A.D. Lenoir Sr., raised about $4,000.
All of Rolle’s $5,000 advertising budget went to either The Gospel Truth newspaper or WMBM, a local gospel radio station. Backing in African American churches is considered crucial for Monestime, the first Haitian American county commissioner.
“Monestime has made major strides,” said the Rev. Carl Johnson, of the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church. “I’m on the radio endorsing him.”
Monestime and Rolle were not available for interviews Sunday. The Miami Herald also was unable to arrange interviews with five pastors listed as Rolle campaign contributors.
Only a few people lined up outside the New Providence front doors to board the bus for Sunday’s trip to the polls. “I want to beat the crowds,” Alfreda Collins said as she prepared for the five-minute drive from the church to the Caleb Center. “Parking is always a problem there.”
At the polling site, the gospel tune I Don’t Mind Waiting blared from a pair of speakers near the entrance. Terry Wilcox provided the music.
“The purpose of the music is to inspire people,” Wilcox said, “but at the same time spread the gospel of God.”
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and el Nuevo Herald staff writer Juan Tamayo contributed to this report.