Black churches in N.J. getting ready for ‘Souls to the Polls’

Tanya Ross poses for a picture outside a polling place

Tanya Ross poses for a picture after voting in the New Jersey primary election at McGraw Elementary School in Camden. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey will initiate early in-person voting for the first time on Saturday. With it comes a Black church tradition that goes back to the 1990s.

Souls to the Polls” is being organized by several organizations in the Garden State to energize Black voters to cast ballots in this year’s gubernatorial race.

“[Churches will] be having service, but they’ll also will be lifting up the ‘Souls to the Polls’ effort, telling about the history of “Souls to the Polls” and giving instructions to congregants to which location they’ll go to,” said Aaron Green, associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, one of the organizations raising awareness of the event.

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Greene said there is excitement about the new in-person early voting rules which have opened the opportunity “for people to organize around very important issues.”

He says it will “get people civically engaged” and give them something to celebrate even as there are “long, hard battles that still face us.”

This year, Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy hopes to be the first Democrat since 1977 to win a gubernatorial re-election in New Jersey. His Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli hopes to make Murphy “one and done in ’21.” In addition, all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs and there are a couple of statewide ballot questions.

“Souls to the Polls” began in Florida in the 1990s, prior to Florida formalizing early voting in 2004. By that time, it had become a national movement.

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Early voting in person did not get approved in New Jersey until earlier this year. Murphy signed the law in March.

Some Black churches organized similar efforts earlier in the pandemic.

The Murphy Administration held “Grateful for the Shot” events as part of their “Operation Jersey Summer” initiative. The goal was to encourage more COVID vaccinations among Black residents.

“Souls to the Polls” is something that many people have been “clamoring for” in New Jersey, according to Greene.

“They’ve been wanting to participate in this tradition,” he said. “And now, with our collective advocacy and getting legislation passed, we are able to embark on this effort … during this election [and] every election going forth.”

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