WASHINGTON (AP) — Black clergy are taking to the pulpits and the streets nationwide this weekend in hopes of energizing black voters ahead of Election Day, aiming to make a difference in the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Many expect a drop in black voter participation this year, primarily because Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, is not on the ballot. His historic candidacy in 2008 and re-election in 2012 helped to fuel record black turnout.
"Voting, for us, is both a spiritual and a political issue," said Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and architect of the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina. Barber will be one of several clergy at the historic Riverside Church in New York City Sunday evening for a revival service to encourage voting on Tuesday.
In battleground states like Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, other black clergy are extending "Souls to the Polls" efforts for a second weekend to get black churchgoers to cast ballots early or on Election Day. Souls to the Polls events are based around black churches that encourage their parishioners to vote — although they cannot tell them who to support — and try to make it easier for elderly, busy or just reluctant voters to cast ballots.
The number of African-American voters has increased steadily: 12.9 million in 2000, 14 million in 2004, 16 million in 2008 and 17.8 million in 2012. In the last presidential election year, blacks for the first time voted at a higher rate, 66.2 percent, than did whites, with a rate of 64.1 percent, or Asian-Americans or Hispanics, with rates of about 48 percent each.
No one expects those numbers for blacks this time around, said Derrick L. McRae, pastor of The Experience Christian Center in Orlando, Florida. "But I'm pretty confident we're going to show up."
Obama will travel to Florida on Sunday to campaign for Clinton and encourage get-out-the-vote efforts. Clinton and Trump will be crisscrossing the country, too, with the Democrat in Michigan as well as Pennsylvania and Ohio and the Republican in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Get-out-the-vote efforts are underway outside the churches as well, in vote-rich places like Ohio, where Clinton will appear this weekend with hip-hop mogul Jay Z and other artists who she hopes can persuade black millennials to vote for her.
At several historically black colleges and universities like North Carolina Central University and Bethune-Cookman University, students have held marches to the polls to encourage early voting not just for president but for other issues they care about.
"For Floridians the issues of social justice, criminal justice reform and economic parity are also critical," said Salandra Benton, convener of the Florida National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the Florida Black Women's Round Table.
Florida and North Carolina are considered key states for both Trump and Clinton, with the potential to push either of them toward the electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
In addition to helping people vote, several black churchgoers also plan to monitor polling places to ensure potential voters are not intimidated by anyone trying to depress turnout through trickery or misinformation.
"If it's an older woman who's on a cane, if it's somebody who's thirsty, if it's someone who just needs some encouragement, we're there to do just that," said Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia. "And if anyone comes around to do anything that would deter from the free, fair opportunity to vote, we will shut that down."
Lawsuits have been filed around the nation over allegations of voting intimidation, including in Ohio where a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against Trump's campaign and his friend Roger Stone. It says that anyone who engages in intimidation or harassment inside or near Ohio polling places will face contempt of court charges.
In other states including Michigan, Nevada and Arizona, judges are considering similar complaints.