SAVANNAH, Ga. — Sundays are always special at the St. Philip Monumental A.M.E. church. But in October, the pews are often more packed, the sermon a bit more urgent and the congregation more animated, and eager for what will follow: piling into church vans and buses — though some prefer to walk — and heading to the polls.
Voting after Sunday church services, known colloquially as “souls to the polls,” is a tradition in Black communities across the country, and Pastor Bernard Clarke, a minister since 1991, has marshaled the effort at St. Philip for five years. His sermons on those Sundays, he said, deliver a message of fellowship, responsibility and reverence.
“It is an opportunity for us to show our voting rights privilege as well as to fulfill what we know that people have died for, and people have fought for,” Mr. Clarke said.
Now, Georgia Republicans are proposing new restrictions on weekend voting that could severely curtail one of the Black church’s central roles in civic engagement and elections. Stung by losses in the presidential race and two Senate contests, the state party is moving quickly to push through these limits and a raft of other measures aimed directly at suppressing the Black turnout that helped Democrats prevail in the critical battleground state.
bill that passed the House would limit voting to at most one Sunday in October, but even that would be up to the discretion of the local registrar. It would also severely cut early voting hours in total, limit voting by mail and greatly restrict the use of drop boxes — all measures that activists say would disproportionately affect Black voters.
A similar bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate. Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has indicated he supports new laws to “secure the vote” but has not committed to all of the restrictions.
Voting rights advocates say there is deep hypocrisy embedded in some of the new proposals. It was Georgia Republicans, they point out, who championed mail balloting in the early 2000s and automatic voting registration just five years ago, only to say they need to be limited now that more Black voters have embraced them.
Georgia was one of nine mostly Southern states and scores of counties and municipalities — including the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan — whose records of racist voter suppression required them to get federal clearance for changes to their election rules. The requirement fell under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the civil rights era law that curtailed the disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South.
The changes Republicans are now pursuing would have faced stiff federal review and possible blockage under the part of the act known as Section 5. But the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, effectively gutted that section in a 2013 ruling.
Even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, churches played a key role in civic engagement, often organizing nonpartisan political action committees during the 1970s and ’80s that provided, among other resources, trips to vote on Sunday where it was permitted. The phrase “souls to the polls” took root in Florida in the 1990s, according to David D. Daniels III, a professor of church history at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Raphael Warnock, one of the Democrats who won a special Senate race in January, is himself the pastor of the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
the Center for New Data, a nonprofit research group, African-Americans voted at a higher rate on weekends than voters identifying as white in 107 of the state’s 159 counties. Internal numbers from Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group, found that Black voters made up roughly 37 percent of those who voted early on Sunday in Georgia, while the Black population of Georgia is about 32 percent.
State Representative Barry Fleming, a Republican and chief sponsor of the House bill, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did three other Republican sponsors. In introducing the bill, Republicans in the Legislature portrayed the new restrictions as efforts to “secure the vote” and “restore confidence” in the electoral process, but offered no rationale beyond that and no credible evidence that it was flawed. (Georgia’s election was pronounced secure by Republican electoral officials and reaffirmed by multiple audits and court decisions.)
Limiting Sunday voting would affect Black voters beyond losing the assistance of the church. It would inevitably lead to longer lines during the week, especially in the Black community, which has historically been underserved on Election Day.