The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. tensions are high. Chaplains at the polls tried to keep peace.

They were on hand to offer spiritual guidance, calm and bipartisan assistance at polling stations in 10 battleground states on Tuesday

HANDOUT - Hundreds of peacemakers fanned out across polling places in 10 battleground states on Election Day with one mission: Keep the peace. The initiative was the work of Faiths United to Save Democracy, an organization formed in 2021 in Washington, D.C., to protect the right to vote and ease conflict at a time when America’s partisan divisions have deepened. The organization – cofounded by Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder and former head of Sojourners, a Christian community that emphasized transforming Jesus Christ’s teachings in the Gospels into action-seeking social justice, and Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, trained more than 700 poll chaplains and equipped them with basic information to assist people trying to vote. This collage shows poll chaplains, mostly from Detroit, who worked voting places around Michigan. (Faiths United to Save Democracy)

As tensions mounted on Election Day, often over who would be allowed to monitor the vote during one of the more hotly contested and consequential midterms in years, at least one group went to the polls hoping to keep the peace: chaplains.

Like their counterparts in the military, these trained volunteers — whether ordained clergy or laypeople driven by religious faith — were on hand to offer spiritual guidance, calm and bipartisan assistance to voters at precincts in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and six other battleground states. If need be, the poll chaplains, dispatched by D.C.-based Faiths United to Save Democracy, were also ready to connect people with legal aid to ensure their vote would be counted.

Democracy is tested as partisan divide intensifies

“Lawyers and collars, we called it,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder and former head of Sojourners, a Christian community that emphasized transforming Jesus Christ’s teachings in the Gospels into action-seeking social justice.

Wallis, who monitored the poll chaplains’ activities from a command center inside the National Council of Negro Women’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, said the organization built on a long tradition stretching back to the early civil rights era to unite religious faith and political action to ensure all people’s voting rights. Some had deployed as poll chaplains in 2018, while the United Church of Christ also trained precinct chaplains during the 2020 election. Politics and religion mix insofar as many religious leaders view voting as sacred, he said.

“This is Jewish, this is Muslim, this is Christian, this is Quakers. This is young, old, Black, White, Asian, Latino, Native American,” said the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, who partnered with Wallis to establish Faiths United to Save Democracy in 2021. She said religious leaders around the country felt that it was necessary to redouble their efforts to protect the vote following the 2020 election, when election laws were passed in several states that many viewed as unfairly restrictive.

“We needed to broaden our focus,” she said.

The organization has so far trained more than 700 poll chaplains, primarily in strategies to reduce conflict and keep the peace, said Wallis, who also heads the Center on Faith and Justice at Georgetown University.

In addition, the organization has conducted webinars and other educational instruction on voter rights and the importance of voting. And it has given poll chaplains fact sheets on each state so that they can answer questions voters might have, such as what to do if they’ve moved since the last election or how can they obtain a foreign language interpreter. The group has also tapped a much more extensive network of people to assist in legal challenges, such as the Committee for Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, through a hotline.

“There are thousands helping us around the country,” she said.

The organization’s poll chaplains assisted with early voting in the states where it began as early as Sept. 29, and some will be on duty during what’s expected to be a lengthy count in some states.

“They’re people of faith,” Williams-Skinner said. “They are prepared to be a calming, peaceful presence at a very turbulent time in the country.”

During a videoconference check-in Tuesday afternoon, most of the reports from poll chaplains on the ground were relatively uneventful.

The Rev. Donta McGilvery, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Justice” and “Jesus” forming an intersecting cross on the letter “S,” said a man had been heckling voters, demanding to know whether they had voted in line with their faith in Jesus, but otherwise the morning had been calm.

Bishop Harry Seawright, speaking from Alabama, said he was impressed by the heavy turnout and exuberant mood among people who felt that democracy itself was on the line in this election and they were ready to fight for it. “We are seeing some positive results,” Seawright said.

Wallis and Williams-Skinner, expressing satisfaction that things had been calm so far, said poll chaplains have not been so lucky in other recent elections.

“In Arizona, they saw men with rifles standing within a clear distance, but visible, with their faces covered in [military]-like garb in a menacing way. And in other places, they saw people making notes and taking pictures of them also in a threatening way,” Williams-Skinner said. “We tell them during the training, ‘Do not argue with people. Do not argue. You are there as ambassadors of Faiths United To Save Democracy.’ ”

No one has been assaulted or hurt, she said. She and others believe just the presence of the poll chaplains has so far kept the peace at many voting places.

“When you see a priest or a clergy or an imam or rabbi and they have their clergy garment on, for most people, that is a symbol of some level of calm and peace,” Williams-Skinner said.

After the polls closed, Wallis said, reports from across the country rolled in. “Poll chaplains were very well-received by voters and were a good, calming presence as hoped,” he said. “Now we turn to the fair counting process, which was very important last time.”