‘Souls to the Polls’ aims to turn out early voters in Ohio

November 4, 2012

COLUMBUS -- As he concluded his sermon at Faith Ministries Church in Columbus Sunday, Pastor Dexter Wise asked how many people had voted already. Only about a third of his 500 members raised their hands.

"The way stuff is happening here, they'll have some law by tomorrow that says none of us can vote Tuesday," Wise joked as he urged his followers to join him in a vehicle caravan after services that would take them to a nearby shopping center.


"Souls to the Polls" brought local churchgoers and Obama supporters to early vote sites across Ohio Sunday. (Ed O'Keefe via Instagram)

After fighting traffic and struggling to find a parking spot, dozens of Wise's followers joined thousands of other Columbus-area voters in a line that stretched for almost two hours. Many of the voters in line -- an overwhelmingly Black and Democratic crowd -- learned for the option through the "Souls to the Polls" project, a critical element of President Obama's voter outreach strategy here that supporters hope will lift him to victory once again in Ohio.

Nearly 230 churches across the state joined the Obama campaign Sunday in using church vans and car pools to drive people to the polls. The churches also recruited local restaurants and gospel singers to provide nourishment and entertainment.

Sharon Saunders, 57, said Wise's offer of a ride to the polls made her decision to vote much easier.

"It was a blessing, I didn't have a ride otherwise," Saunders said. "It worked and it would have been hard for me, because I have to work."

Saunders has to work a late shift at a nearby Bath and Body Works assembly plant Tuesday and stood in line with her sister, Wanda Panton, who had already voted.

Panton said she voted almost 10 days ago as forecasters began warning of possible local damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. "I heard there was a hurricane coming, so I got out and just did it. Besides, the machines might not work on Tuesday," Panton said.

Both women said they received several phone calls and mailings about early voting from the Obama campaign, but Panton also angrily recalled receiving several calls from Romney supporters "and 12 pieces of mail."

"I'm getting it from both sides, but I don't like that Romney is sending me mail," Panton said. "I'm not a Republican."

A few spots back in line stood Chaya Mazur, 29, who said she had planned to vote for Obama on Tuesday until an Obama campaign volunteer knocked on her door last week.

"I'm from Michigan originally and I never thought I could do this," she said. But with a busy day of work on Tuesday, Sunday made more sense.

Mazur said she was undecided until she learned of Romney's plans to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood: "As soon as I heard about that, I said forget it, I'm going with Obama."

Outside the department store, the line snaked for about 100 yards in the direction of a Value City Furniture. A store employee, who declined to give his name, said Sunday's crowd was the biggest over the course of the almost 35 days of early voting at the site.

Amid the crowd, dozens of Obama supporters were handing out flyers promoting Monday's final campaign stop by the president, where he will be joined by Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z. Among those handing out the flyers was Matthew Lesko, the Washington-based author and activist who has used his books and loud TV commercials to raise awareness about tax breaks available to millions of ordinary Americans.

Though his views and life's work skew more Libertarian, Lesko said Obama was the better choice for Americans.

"We have too many rich people in this country, we don't need one running the country," he said.

As if the sight of Lesko in his famous corduroy question-mark outfit wasn't enough, an Abraham Lincoln impersonator was prowling the crowd looking for any irregularities.

"I'm 203 years old and hard of hearing," the impersonator, Robert Brugler, joked to one woman. Turning serious, Brugler said he's a strong proponent of the early voting process. "Just voting on one day is silly," he said. "There can be too many problems on that one day."

Marveling at the large crowd, Dana Walch, deputy director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, confirmed that the popularity of early voting far exceeds levels reached in 2008. Since early voting began on Oct. 2, at least 60,000 county residents had cast early ballots by Saturday. Every day more people have cast ballots early in person than the total number of early ballots cast four years ago, he said.

"You know how we've heard the candidates talk a lot this year about the 'New Normal?' Well, this is an Ohio elections official's version of the New Normal," Walch said.

Closer to the street, Obama supporters dressed as Sesame Street characters Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie stood waving signs. Romney's presence was scarce: A reporter's attempt to find a Romney voter over the course of 30 minutes came up empty. A single delivery truck plastered in Romney signs drove around the parking lot and only two Romney campaign volunteers were spotted handing out sample Republican ballots.

And near the street, Wise reconvened his followers next to a food truck and offered a prayer: "We thank you Lord, for the joy of being involved in this election," he said, adding that he hoped the result "might not be wrought with deceit and fraud."

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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