Twin needs – getting registered voters to cast early ballots and pushing back on a perceived act of voter suppression – transformed the Downtown area around the Shelby County Election Commission into an activism zone Thursday afternoon.
Summoned by the “Black Out the Polls” pitch issued by a coalition of voting rights groups, those who turned out rallied with a resolve that they were participating at the beginning of a to-be-continued push to get voters, especially African Americans, to the polls for the May 3 Shelby County primaries.
“We have an election day coming up in May, and another one in November. We will do what we always do when voter suppression is used against us – we come out stronger,” the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher, founder of UpTheVote901, told the smaller than projected crowd.
Thursday was the second day of the early-voting period that began Wednesday (April 13) and continues through April 28. Only the Election Commission office at 157 Poplar Ave. was designated as a voting site for those days.
The “Black Out the Polls” rally was a next-step move after Special Judge James F. Butler on Monday (April 11) denied a court order directing the Election Commission to open all 26 sites across the county on opening day for early voting.
The request for injunctive relief was part of a larger lawsuit by the Memphis Branch NAACP, UpTheVote901 and the Black Clergy Collaborative that challenged the Election Commission’s plan for the start of early voting as an unconstitutional effort at voter suppression.
Five more early voting sites will be open on Saturday (April 16). The full slate of 26 sites will be open on Monday. No early voting was held on Good Friday.
The goal voiced for Black Out the Polls was to “overwhelm them with our numbers.” However, the turnover was lower than hoped for.
On Thursday, the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis, along with Fisher, held a brief prayer and communion ritual before directing voters to enter the poll at the Election Commission.
“We are intentional in serving the sacrament today because this is Holy Week, the week we do holy work,” said Fisher. “And for those of us in the Black faith tradition, the electoral process is an extension of our faith. …
“As preachers, we are out here saying, ‘The vote is sacred to us.’”
People driving by honked their horns and waved to those lined up to vote.
Most of the early-voting sites are in African-American churches. Verline Carter, a retired nurse, was among those on hand to voice their belief that the Election Commission’s decision to limit the first days of early voting to the Downtown site amounted to voter suppression.
“Numbers show that Black churches have some of the highest voter turnouts,” said Carter. “The election commission says they want voters come out and vote, but then, they keep these sites closed. That action appears to target black, largely Democratic voters in Memphis.”
Fisher said the voting rights coalition likely lost its legal challenge because the judge was “reluctant to disrupt the early voting process” since it was less than 48 hours away.
“If we had been a week out from the start of early voting, I believe the judge would have ruled in our favor.”
Retired teacher Barbara Miller, 78, said she “parked and walked two blocks to be here” because it was “time out for other people to dictate to us, and we have nothing to say about it.”
Local vocalist Deborah Manning Thomas was direct.
“Opening the election commission and closing our churches appears to be a little voter suppression tactic, and I am not with that,” said Manning.
“Parking is limited downtown, making it hard for seniors and handicapped individuals to vote. But, I came down today anyway for James Meredith, for John Lewis, and for my people.”
The election commission made free parking available for the first two days of early voting, designating a parking lot at the corner of Poplar Avenue and B.B. King Boulevard.
Contesting the voter suppression assertion, Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips testified during the recent court hearing that she relied on her staff’s statements that none of the churches serving as early voting sites would agree to open in advance of Easter Sunday. She also said low turnout in past county primaries did not warrant having all 26 sites open on the first two days of the period.
Several pastors whose churches serve as early-voting sites said they were not asked if their churches could be open for voting prior to the Easter observance.
Memphis Branch NAACP President Van Turner Jr. repeatedly has said Phillips was saving money where “she has not been asked to save money” and that the Shelby County Commission was the source for funding the opening of more sites.
The Black Out the Polls protest was held on Thursday, the second day of early voting, because of a severe-weather forecast that hit the mark on Wednesday.