At the invitation of New Georgia Project and Faith in Action, I flew to Georgia on Monday to serve as a poll chaplain in Tuesday’s historic election. I went to offer a non-partisan ministry of presence and support: to bear witness to what would happen at a few different polling sites in Augusta, to encourage and assist anyone trying to vote, and to document any concerns around access to voting. I experienced much that was deeply inspiring and much that was deeply disturbing.
The outpouring of community commitment and civic responsibility was moving. Elderly voters brought young people with them, teaching the importance of voting. Young adults brought elderly people with them, helping navigate the voting booth. First time voters came out, approaching cautiously and asking questions, ready to take that final step. I met one young woman who would turn 18 the very next day; while disappointed that she couldn’t vote, she shared her excitement that she was still teaching her young niece all about the process. I heard the exhaustion in a young man’s voice as he rushed to the polls after work, eager to get home but compelled to do his civic duty first. One of my colleagues met a voter who had been shot the day before, yet still stopped by the voting booth on his way home from the hospital. It was so inspiring to see each person do their part, individually and communally, for Georgia, for themselves and for the country.
Georgia community orgs like New Georgia Project and Georgia Shift came out, creating a party atmosphere with music and radio hosts and SWAG. Asian American Action Fund brought free food for all. People from across the country came out, in partnership and support. In the midst of the excitement, my colleague and I shared waves, smiles and small talk as we handed out PPE supplies and thanked everyone for voting. I met a few of the countless community members who have worked for weeks and months, some even years, to encourage every Georgian to safely exercise their right to vote. This was a day that people had sacrificed their very lives to make happen.
But the day was not without its heartbreaking disappointments, and the insidiousness of voter intimidation was in the air. I observed a young woman unable to vote at the site where her parents, living in the same house, voted. Apparently she was registered at a different polling place. She was eligible to complete a provisional ballot, but was curtly told it would be difficult and entail a lot of paperwork. Although her polling place was just a few miles away, the hostile demeanor of the poll manager was damaging. Frustrated and defeated, she gave up and was turned off from the voting process on what was likely her first outing. As my colleague and I tried to listen to the family’s frustration and provide comfort, the poll manager began yelling at us for interfering. She then proceeded to verbally attack silent onlookers, including the director of the center hosting the polling site. I can’t help but wonder how many voters were discouraged to vote by her hostile demeanor. We filled a formal complaint about what happened, but given she has served as a poll manager for over 20 years, I fear she will continue to hold her position of power.
At another polling site my colleagues witnessed a police officer hanging around, purportedly to ensure traffic safety. He couldn’t understand how his presence at the entry to the polling site might affect voters, and was extremely reluctant to move away. Although noting that he “didn’t want to be here, but my boss made me come,” he had no problem standing in the middle of the parking lot for all to see him watching them. It took conversations with multiple poll chaplains to get him to sit in his car and be less obtrusive. The community could then conveniently park their cars all around his to protect voters from his presence. It was these insidious forms of intimidation, along with a history of violence and voter suppression, that helped me understand the people I met who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote after a lifetime of racist abuse by people in power and the systems in place designed to keep them out.
Perhaps the scariest moment I experienced came when I saw a slightly-past-middle-aged white man dressed in camo fatigues just standing around in the area. I noticed him when he came in, but didn’t think much of it. It was 45 minutes later when he was still standing in the same place, an unoccupied entryway, and I noticed his orange backpack laying on the ground several feet away from him, that I began to worry. His presence could have been benign, but our instructions were to be vigilant. The sakes were high, bomb threats had been made, and the Proud Boys had also traveled to Georgia on our flights. We took photos, reported his presence, were told not to worry, addressed him kindly, and eventually he left. The stresses of the day left me exhausted and deeply disturbed. The reality is that these are experiences and emotions the black community deals with on a daily basis. It was a reminder of the emotional weight of racism that so many in this country constantly carry with them, and that so many white people are oblivious to.
I only spent one day visiting a few polling sites, but it gave me a taste for the amazing work being done in Georgia and the courage and commitment of the community to stand together. It also revealed some of the powers at play in limiting people’s ability to vote in a safe environment, in addition to the overt measures the state had taken to reduce polling places, limit drop boxes, and restrict voter access. These powers – antithetical to democracy – were on vivid display in our nation’s capital on Wednesday, and it was symbolic that their vile and criminal behavior silenced the celebrations and overshadowed the power of the people enacting democracy the day before. We continue to fight for what this country can become – and the people of Georgia, primarily the black community who exercised their rights to vote, organize, and support one another, are helping lead the way.