With prayer or a party, people of color urged to go to the polls in Miami-Dade

Karina Elwood, C. Isaiah Smalls II, Joey Flechas
·7 min read

Deon Hinds got up around dawn Saturday to go vote at the North Dade Regional Library, where she was reminded of her faith in God before casting her ballot.

As she waited in a line of about 50 people that wrapped around the library in Miami Gardens, a group of pastors and activists sang the hymn “We’ve Come This Far By Faith,” clapping and harmonizing with each other.

“It made the waiting easier, simpler,” said Hinds, of Miami Gardens. “I believe everything you do you should put God first, even voting.”

The morning prayers were part of a statewide effort called “Prayer at the Polls,” organized by a coalition of faith-based groups encouraging voters, especially Black communities and other people of color, to vote early in the days leading up to the Nov. 3 election. The coalition, Faith in Florida, hosted events in six Florida counties, including three in Miami-Dade County. Similar outreach events are focused on young voters in minority communities — demographics that could make a difference this election since more voters between age 18-34 have registered since 2016.

Another set of faith-based events is scheduled for Sunday, and more rallies are planned for the following weekend, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, wrapping up two weeks of early, in-person voting. The initiatives all fall under the broader “Souls to the Polls” push from faith leaders to encourage their congregations to participate in the election.

“We are energized. We are mobilized. We are galvanized to get the vote out,” said Gaston Smith, the pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Miami, in a message on Twitter encouraging people to vote on Sunday.

The appeal by faith leaders to turn out voters of color coincided Saturday with a visit to Miami by former President Barack Obama, who was in town to campaign for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, with stops in a predominantly Hispanic community and a car rally in North Miami.

Sheena D. Rolle, deputy director of campaigns for Faith in Florida, said in a statement that the statewide day of prayer is a moment for voters to advocate for passage of constitutional Amendment 2, which would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour gradually by 2026; demand racial justice from sheriffs and state attorneys, and expand democracy by protecting and respecting voters and voters rights.

Rolle told the Miami Herald said she believes three state constitutional amendments on the ballot in Florida, amendments 1, 3 and 4, threaten to limit citizens’ voices.

Amendment 1 would slightly alter the wording of the Constitution to say that “only a citizen” of the U.S. can vote. Amendment 3 would allow all registered votes, regardless of party affiliation, to vote in primaries for state-level races — meaning two candidates from the same party could potentially face each other in a general election. And Amendment 4 would make it harder for voter ballot initiatives to change Florida’s constitution.

“Amendment 4 is a direct attack on voters,” she said. “It would make it literally twice as hard for the average Floridian to have a voice in policymaking.”

Pastor Stephanie E. Russell, right, and Denise Mills Mincey, left, pray as voters lineup to cast their early ballots at the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens on Saturday, October 24, 2020. Faith in Florida, a federation of the national faith-based grassroots organization Faith in Action, hosted Prayer at the Polls events like this one across the state Saturday.
Pastor Stephanie E. Russell, right, and Denise Mills Mincey, left, pray as voters lineup to cast their early ballots at the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens on Saturday, October 24, 2020. Faith in Florida, a federation of the national faith-based grassroots organization Faith in Action, hosted Prayer at the Polls events like this one across the state Saturday.

The turnout was lighter in downtown Miami early Saturday, where eight pastors, ministers and Faith in Florida organizers joined hands and started to pray at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, the headquarters for Miami-Dade County’s municipal government.

Though voters were scarce, organizers set up a livestream on Facebook as they praised God and and urged people to get to the polls. They clapped and sang American spiritual “Glory, Glory (Lay My Burden Down).”

“Many people have already started to come out and every day we look at the statistics and we have more early voters than we have ever had,” said Cheryl Coleman, a minister and local organizer with Faith in Florida.“I believe it’s because we are doing efforts like this across the state.”

On Friday night, Faith in Florida hosted a virtual discussion with religious leaders around the country and civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who famously represented the family of Trayvon Martin in the state’s case against Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, in 2013.

On the video call, Crump encouraged voters in fight against social injustices by voting for candidates they believe will make a difference. Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, ran for Miami-Dade County Commission this year but narrowly lost.

In downtown Miami, Coleman said that it’s especially important for people of color to vote.

“We fight for the social ills of our community and the Black and brown people are those who suffer the most with health disparities, with economic oppression,” Coleman said. “So we’re really trying to educate them and to encourage them that their vote makes a difference and they need to be a part of the process.”

Faith in Florida officials said they are holding 80 Souls to the Polls events across Florida with the support of 800 congregations. Some of these events will concentrate on reaching millennials.

Both Democrats and Republicans are reporting greater engagement and turnout among young voters in Florida so far. Data analysis from Catalist, a progressive polling group, show that turnout among voting-age people under 39 has increased 44% compared to 2016. More than half of these voters are non-white, a significant increase from same point in time before the 2016 election.

Party to the Polls

Hoping to encourage young voters to turn out, volunteers and canvassers danced side-by-side as a DJ spinning everything from Journey to Jay-Z to Burna Boy greeted voters Saturday afternoon at Coral Reef Library in Richmond Heights. The neighborhood is the first private subdivision in Miami-Dade built for Black World War II veterans, making it one of the first planned Black communities in the U.S.

The event was billed as a Party to the Polls, but volunteers at the event were focused on the importance of the 2020 election. It’s why Kim Kennerly-Burke, 50, traveled from Aventura to volunteer.

“I’m hoping to effect change for years to come,” Kennerly-Burke said, citing racial tension as a primary reason for being there. She had been working with the Overtown Youth Center on voter outreach.

In a gray “Your Voice Your Vote” T-shirt, she was part of a three-person team handing out snacks to the small number of voters trickling in.

Biden’s “focus on unifying the country” appealed to Rusty Mayo, a 60-year-old science teacher from Palmetto Bay. The Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic baffled the former registered Republican who said he became a Democrat after Trump’s election.

“This should’ve never happened,” she said. “The first thing you study in biology is how a contagion spreads. I mean, this is ninth grade sh—.”

Kim Kennerly-Burke, 50, hands out snacks at a polling place in Miami, Fla., Saturday, Oct.  24, 2020. Wanting to help make a change, she traveled all the way from Aventura to Richmond Heights just to volunteer.
Kim Kennerly-Burke, 50, hands out snacks at a polling place in Miami, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Wanting to help make a change, she traveled all the way from Aventura to Richmond Heights just to volunteer.

For Allister St. Ledger of Richmond Heights, increasing the minimum wage was a primary concern. He was a yes for Amendment 1.

“Americans, on a whole, are being paid way too little for what we do,” St. Ledger said.

Teresa Pardo, an eighth grade teacher who resides in Cutler Bay and voted on Saturday, agreed, adding that the cost of living Miami has skyrocketed. She and St. Ledger also favor passing Amendment 3 to open primaries to voters who are not registered with a political party.

Pardo said she worked at a polling site during the 2020 primary and had to turn away eager but unaffiliated voters, something she called a “huge problem.”

Overall turnout before Election Day has surged amid the COVID-19 pandemic, altering historical voting trends for Republicans and Democrats. About 3.5 million Floridians have voted by mail since late September, with about 580,000 more Democrats than Republicans turning in mail ballots. Republicans have turned out in larger numbers at early voting sites, though, leading Democrats by around 190,000 in the first five days of early voting.

In Miami-Dade, about 78,000 more Democrats have voted by mail than Republicans. The early voting totals between the parties are only separated about 1,100 votes, with Republicans ahead as of Saturday, according to figures provided by the state’s Division of Elections.

Miami Herald photographer Matias J. Ocner contributed to this report.