• Sun. Apr 11th, 2021

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Pastors at the Polls? Meet Ohio’s Election Protection Squad

From across Ohio, ministers, chaplains and social workers who have volunteered to deploy to the polls dialed in to a videoconference to hear nine hypothetical situations they might encounter on Election Day, from people refusing to wear masks to politicians pressuring those in line to vote for them.

Then the callers were confronted with one final scenario that troubled them the most.

“Voter A comes to the line carrying a handgun: What do you do?” asked the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, a minister and the executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Justice of Ohio.

Ohio’s clergy are at the forefront of an unusual effort to ensure an orderly election. This year, voting rights groups are recruiting them from around the state to head to the polls — even asking them to wear their clerical garb at polling stations — in an effort to calm a polarized electorate as it casts ballots in the most tense election season in generations.

They call themselves the “peacekeepers.”

“A guy once came up to me and pointed a gun in my face and said, ‘I need food,’” said Ms. Van Becelaere, recalling an incident from years back when she worked in a soup kitchen. “I took a deep breath. I said we had food, and welcomed him in. Pretty soon the gun was at his side.”

Experiences defusing situations like that, Ms. Van Becelaere said, could prove useful again.

The loudest alarm bells in recent American elections have had to do with foreign interference from countries like Russia. Voting rights groups have campaigned against identification requirements and voter roll purges that have disenfranchised voters. Poll monitors have tried to ensure that ballots were counted accurately and have assembled legal teams to investigate irregularities.

These problems still exist, but the possibility of violence this Tuesday is a new and real concern to many. President Trump has refused to say whether he would accept an election loss, and during the first debate in October, he called on the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for attacking peaceful protesters, to “stand back and stand by.”

This has left voting rights groups treading a fine line in their efforts this year: They want voters to feel that they are unlikely to encounter problems or intimidation, but that if a conflict does arise somewhere, there is a plan to confront it.

ImageVoters waiting to cast ballots at the Franklin County Board of Elections on Saturday.
Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

“One thing we know to be true is that intimidation can be as much psychology as physical action,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Ohio. “What we don’t want is people to expect intimidation and skip out on voting.”

It’s not only clergy members who are part of the effort. After anti-abortion groups began harassing people casting ballots early in October, the Election Protection coalition, a nonpartisan group in Ohio, began recruiting musicians to create musical distractions at lines where tensions were building. The group may even hire magicians to that end.

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Keep up with Election 2020

In North Carolina, the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty group, organized 5,000 clergy members across the country to assist voters ahead of the Nov. 3 election, a group it calls the “prophetic council.” Last weekend, when a conservative group threatened to send operatives to follow a community leader in Greensboro, N.C., whom they accused of voter fraud, pastors were sent to ensure she was not harassed, according to the Rev. William Barber II, a minister with the group.

“We didn’t engage in an escalating way; we know how to do it,” he said.

The Ohio clergy members got a taste last weekend for the tensions that may be ahead in the city of New Philadelphia. A Unitarian pastor was sent to the town, 50 miles south of Akron, after armed Republicans and Democrats congregated near an early polling site. Both sides eventually dispersed and fired no shots.

During the training, Ms. Van Becelaere outlined techniques to de-escalate other conflicts that might arise. Offer water to someone who is getting angry, she said. If a group comes to harass people in line, try singing “Happy Birthday” loudly to create a distraction.

The pastor played an instructional video on how to corral people who are intimidating voters by surrounding the aggressors in a horseshoe shape, shielding voters while giving the intruders a way to easily leave the scene.

As representatives of the clergy, the pastors hope they will be more easily trusted by both sides than the partisan election monitors who might also be present on Election Day. And unlike the police, who might be called to arbitrate a dispute, many of the pastors have experience disarming violent situations without the use of weapons.

During the training, Joseph R. Henry, a retired chaplain in Cincinnati, recalled a time in the 1970s when he was doing charity work as a seminary student, and a man grabbed him by the tie and threatened to throw him over a railing. By staying calm and not fighting back, Mr. Henry said he was able to defuse the situation and escape.

“I knew he had me if he wanted me, but I managed to talk him out of it,” Mr. Henry said.

The Rev. Angie Cox, a pastor at Broad Street United Methodist Church in Columbus, said she was less worried about armed people arriving to intimidate voters than she was about voters showing up with legal weapons under Ohio’s open-carry laws.

Ms. Cox said that she has had trouble persuading residents not to enter her church armed, despite signs saying weapons are not allowed.

Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

“People can be pretty bold about this and just say, ‘I’m going in,’” Ms. Cox said.

In such situations, not forcing the person to disarm is the best way to avoid escalation, she said.

The pastors were hard-pressed to think of another election where violence was such a concern at the polls. Some thought of disputed elections in other countries. Others remembered social justice campaigns they had participated in during the 1960s, when the Vietnam War formed the backdrop of presidential elections.

This time would be different, Ms. Van Becelaere said — the clergy are arriving not as activists but as neutral parties, with the goal of making sure that everyone is comfortable casting a vote.

And if conflict does arise, settling it is ultimately not the church’s job.

“We don’t jump in like Mighty Mouse to save the day,” Ms. Van Becelaere said.