Thousands heed call of ‘Souls to the Polls’ in Miami, statewide

At Sunday noon services at the Faith Community Baptist Church in North Miami, youth preacher Richard P. Dunn III praised the boys’ football team and talked about God’s help in turning a cruel world into a happy one.

And he added a political dimension to his spiritual message. “We live in a world where some people don’t care about the 99 percent, but only about the 1 percent,” Dunn said, as the congregation of about 100 raised their hands and shouted “Amen!” and “Yes!” His father, the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II, finished by telling them, “God bless you — let’s go to the polls!”

The scene at Faith Baptist was replicated at over a dozen churches around Miami-Dade on Sunday, as African-American religious and community leaders joined in a “Souls to the Polls” effort to turn out their followers to vote.

Sunday has traditionally been a crucial voting day for African Americans. Polls this year show blacks overwhelmingly support President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney. Black voters swamped Florida’s early polls in 2008, with one-third of them voting on the Sunday before Election Day.

The massive turnout helped Obama carry Florida and the country. But the Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature cut the number of early voting days this year from 14 to eight — and eliminated the Sunday before Election Day.

“I think it was designed to frustrate and confuse people and suppress the number of votes,” said the elder Dunn, First Baptist’s pastor and a well-known community leader, of the cutbacks. “We gotta stop that momentum.”

Whether Sunday’s effort will make up for the loss of early-voting days remains to be seen. The campaign was organized by PICO United Florida, part of a 17-state network of faith-based community organizing groups. The Florida chapter, which includes 60 congregations around the state, also put together voter drives in Pensacola, Tampa, Orlando, Kissimmee and Gainesville on Sunday.

The Miami effort stretched from Liberty City to the New Generation Baptist Church in Opa-locka, where the Rev. Al Sharpton was helping local leaders rally a caravan of cars to go to the polls in North Miami.

PICO organizers had said buses would bring hundreds of churchgoers to the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City. But only dozens boarded the bus at Faith Community, clutching containers of food prepared by church volunteers, while others stowed umbrellas and folding chairs.

Faith Community member Claytosha Owens-Fields said she and her husband would drop their five children at their grandmother’s house before heading to the Caleb Center to cast their ballots.

“I want to be sure that believers are counted,” said Fields. “I want my kids to know I’m standing up for what counts.” She was not discouraged by having fewer days to vote. “I can get upset, or I can just come out and do what I want to do,” she said. “For me what’s important is to get the opportunity to be able to vote.”

Tedd and Brenda Johnson came on their own from church to vote at the Caleb Center. Lifelong Democrats, the Johnsons are ardent Obama supporters, voting for him in 2008 and on Sunday.

“Everyone should take advantage of the right and privilege of voting,” said Tedd Johnson, who said he and his wife spent about 20 minutes in line before voting.

Turnout Sunday seemed lighter than the massive numbers that came out for the first day of early voting on Saturday, when a record-breaking 22,625 people waited up to 5 ½ hours to vote in Miami-Dade. Wait times were shorter on Sunday, from no time at all at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami to as long as three hours at the West Kendall Regional Library, according to the Miami-Dade Elections website.

There was a lively crowd at the Caleb Center, where a truck blasted R&B music for a line of people that stretched into the parking lot, waiting up to an hour and a half to vote. Others streamed in from buses to the center’s auditorium, where religious and political leaders rallied a crowd of about 200 people.

Pastor Carl Johnson of the 93rd Street Baptist Church, who had helped lead several Liberty City churches on a march to the Caleb Center, invoked the civil rights movement and the sacrifices of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers. “There is a spirit of apathy nowadays because people forgot!” Johnson said to shouts of “Hallelujah!” “Dr. King laid down on a balcony so that we should have the right to vote!” he said.

Others compared the early-voting cutbacks, as well as this year’s controversial Republican effort to tighten voter identification requirements in Florida, with the civil and voting rights battles of the 1950s and ’60s.

“I saw the civil rights movement as a child. I remember those marches,” said Vanessa Byers, 55.

A leader of a Miami chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, started by African-American women in 1908, Byers was helping lead an attention-getting phalanx of 50 women from AKA. They gathered outside the Caleb Center in black suits, white gloves and pearls, pink corsages and pink tape over their mouths, holding signs that read “No vote — no voice.”

“We’re getting the message out to people who don’t know the importance of voting no matter what,” Byers said. “But I think this cutting back just mobilizes people to say, ‘We’re gonna vote in spite of this.’ ”

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story should have noted that more than 20 Miami area churches, pastors and community groups worked with PICO Florida on Sunday's "Souls to the Polls" get out the vote drive.

Nicole Best, a visiting journalist with the Caribbean Media Corp. contributed to this report.