Politics

A Black Pastor’s Zoom Campaign to Save Pennsylvania for Biden

He retooled his Righteous Warrior page on Facebook, which he originally set up for his side business as an executive coach and a book he wrote on “moral manhood,” to focus on voting issues. There, since October 5, Waller has recorded daily “30 days to the polls” prayer videos that compare attributes of God with political themes. They attract 3,000 to 5,000 views each.

In the October 10 video, Waller, sitting in his basement and wearing a LeBron James T-shirt and a “Make Hate Wrong Again” ballcap, read six verses from the Psalms describing God as a defender of the afflicted, the fatherless and the oppressed. “How can we be defenders and particularly in this political time?” he asks. He tells his viewers they’re defending against hate, injustice, “the takeover of the Supreme Court,” and “turning our democracy and our democratic institutions into a Russian oligarchy.”

Then, as always, he encourages his viewers to vote. “The same way God is a defender for you, you need to view yourself as a defender of your community and of this land.” The video racks up 3,800 views and 162 comments: “Defend our democracy,” “Mailed in that ballot,” “I voted yesterday—praise God!”

Enon hosted two drive-through voter sign-up days in September, when people, socially distanced in their cars, could register to vote, apply for a mail-in ballot and volunteer as poll workers.

On November 3, for the first time, Enon’s two church properties will become voting locations, replacements for former sites that are too small to allow for social distancing. To keep the site neutral, Waller said, voting will be the only activity at the church that day other than food trucks paid for by the get-out-the-vote fund Black Voters Matter. “This year, our efforts needed to stand up the system, because the system itself is threatened,” Waller said.

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Efforts like Waller’s have contributed to a surge of interest in voting across Philadelphia. The city’s voter registration is at a 35-year high, at 1.1 million voters, more than 90 percent of those eligible. In June, the number of polling places in Philly shrank from 831 a year ago to only 190, mostly because older poll workers declined to work during the pandemic. This November, thanks to poll-worker recruitment drives like Enon’s, Philadelphia will have 718 polling locations and a nearly full contingent of 8,200 poll workers, chosen from 20,000 who offered to work. “There was an outpouring of volunteerism,” said Pat Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan good-government group in Philadelphia. Thanks to Pennsylvania’s 2019 law allowing all residents to vote by mail, 429,000 Philadelphians requested mail-in ballots by the October 27 deadline, and 266,000 have already returned them.

Yet mail-in ballots are much more prone to disqualification than votes cast in person. In September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that so-called “naked ballots”—those sent without an inner security envelope, just the outer return envelope—won’t be counted. (Philadelphia counted its naked ballots in the June primary and previous elections, before the ruling, as did many other counties in Pennsylvania.) A Philadelphia elections official has estimated that the naked-ballot ruling could disenfranchise 100,000 mail-in voters statewide.

So Waller is doing his part to keep mail-in and early-ballot mistakes low. He’s appeared in a city-produced video on how to vote at Philadelphia’s early-voting satellite locations. Wearing a “Black Voters Matter” mask, he narrated and acted out putting the ballot inside the two envelopes, in proper order. On Zoom, he held a seminar with the Penn Memory Center on how to help disabled relatives vote absentee.

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Despite the pandemic, Waller only recommends mail-in voting for people 60 and older, and he’s advising older voters to take their ballots to a drop box, rather than rely on the postal service. He thinks voters under 60 should vote in person on Election Day. “If you are able-bodied and can go on that day, I suggest that you walk in and do it,” he said.

One reason Waller advises younger voters to cast a ballot in person is to help counter what he expects will be Trump’s plan to prematurely claim victory before Pennsylvania’s count is done. Unlike 46 states, Pennsylvania doesn’t allow election officials to open mail-in ballot envelopes for pre-processing until Election Day. Philadelphia and other counties took two weeks to count the mail-in votes after Pennsylvania’s June 2 primary. Though Philadelphia has since spent $5 million on high-speed sorting and counting machines, officials believe the city may need most of Election Day week to count all ballots.

Trump’s attacks on mail-in balloting have convinced many Republicans to vote in person. Across the state, Democrats requested 1,925,000 mail-in ballots by the October 27 deadline, compared to Republicans’ 775,000. That could create what Democrats are calling a potential “red mirage”—early in-person returns showing a Republican lead before final results confirm a Democratic victory. “Because of the mail-in ballots and the walk-in people, it’s almost as if two elections are going on,” Waller said. “I honestly believe that we’re going to have to win both, or he’s going to try and steal it.”

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On Election Day, Waller will step away from his virtual outreach and resume his in-person habits from years past.

Waller will help organize Philadelphians’ participation in Lawyers and Collars, an eight-state election-protection effort that will pair pastors with election lawyers at 15 polling locations around Philly. Four years ago, when Trump first called for his Pennsylvania voters to “watch other polling places,” Waller and his allies braced for possible voter intimidation but encountered no major incidents.

This year, at the first debate, Trump said, “I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” (Poll-watchers are legal in Pennsylvania—but only if they’re certified by their local elections board and watch polls in their home county.)

Waller said he thinks it’s “a probability” that groups such as the Proud Boys, a far-right neo-fascist organization, will come to Philly on Election Day. Trump, he said, “has called up a whole part of our country that wants to do evil.” So Waller said he and others will be ready to show up and defend Philadelphia’s vote from any disruption. “We will, like we did four years ago, have men all around the city,” Waller said, “prepared so that nothing will hamper a free and fair election and someone getting to the polls.”

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