Democracy meets divinity in Savannah, where the word of God is a simple one: vote

SAVANNAH, Ga. — From the oldest African-American pulpit in the United States, Rev. Thurmond Neill Tillman's fiery Sunday sermon is as much about having faith in democracy as it is about spreading the word of the Lord.

Many tactics are being used these days to discourage people from exercising their right to vote, Tillman preaches — including some that exploit the apprehension Black people have long felt when casting a ballot in Georgia.

"Fear will paralyze you — it almost makes you want to do nothing," the pastor tells worshippers inside First African Baptist Church, a Savannah institution that predates the Declaration of Independence.

He warns pointedly about SB 202, the state election law passed last year that cracks down on absentee ballots, gives residents more power to challenge the eligibility of fellow voters and forbids anyone other than poll workers from handing out food and water to people waiting in line.

"Stand your ground … don't be fearful," Tillman says, inviting his flock to the basement after worship for a church potluck, to ensure no one has to fight off hunger pangs while waiting at the polling station.

"We cannot be afraid to vote; we cannot be afraid to live," he says to applause and scattered shouts of "Amen."

"We cannot be afraid to do what we know God has given us an opportunity to do."

An hour later, a bus emblazoned with the name of the church pulls into the parking lot at Chatham County's voter registration office, disgorging congregants from the oldest Black church in America, here on a mission from God.

"He had us come in a caravan — we have cars, also," says Diane Mikell, resplendent in her Sunday best, a purple pantsuit with a bejewelled pendant around her neck: the word "Blessed" in diamond-encrusted script.

"Somebody might say, 'Well, you know, my vote ain't gonna count.' I've seen people lose by one vote," Mikell said.

"That's what he preaches, for us to come out and voice it because our ancestors died so that we can, you understand? That's why it's important for us to vote. And that's what we all are doing right now."

It seems to be working: even before Mikell's caravan arrived, a 30-minute lineup had formed at the door, under the watchful eye of a Chatham County police officer on the lookout for "poll watchers" who might be intent on intimidation and harassment.

Staff in many Georgia counties are also equipped with a new fast-response text system that allows them to promptly notify senior election officials about any security threats or dangers that could crop up while polls are open.

The lines, which stretched for hours in predominantly Black neighbourhoods in 2020, will surely get longer before election day on Nov. 8, which is why officials want people to vote as early as possible to prevent such delays from getting out of hand.

"For me, voting is just something you take seriously," said Willis Joyner, who lives in Port Wentworth, a fast-growing suburb just northwest of Savannah's downtown core.

"I just do it because the people who came before me, you know, made it possible for me to do it."

Alice Huling, a voting-rights expert based in D.C., said she often feels two "gut reactions" when she sees images from 2020 of voters in Georgia and elsewhere across the country enduring hours-long lineups just to cast a ballot.

"One is awe for Americans who are dedicated to making their voices heard and participating in their democracy," said Huling, who is general counsel for Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit advocacy group focused on electoral issues

"But also frustration, because truly every American should be able to cast their ballot and participate in their democracy without facing barriers."

A total of 18,109 showed up at polls across the state on Sunday, a 211 per cent increase over the first early-voting Sunday of the 2018 midterms — a pace Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger describes as "astounding" and within striking distance of the presidential election turnout in 2020.

As of Tuesday, 892,301 people had cast in-person ballots in Georgia, a remarkable figure for the midterms, an election season notorious for voter apathy. Two years ago, turnout for the Donald Trump-Joe Biden battle was 846,121 over the first eight days of early in-person voting.

Raffensperger, who famously rebuffed Trump's demands that the state "find" him 11,780 votes in hopes of overturning the 2020 results, is cheering the turnout on a daily basis, hoping to rebuff Georgia's reputation as a hotbed of voter suppression.

He's also clearly trying to short-circuit any efforts on the part of candidates or their campaigns to foment public doubt about the outcome of the election.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: both the left and the right need to quit weaponizing election administration," he told a news conference Tuesday in Atlanta.

"I would put our Georgia election system and our voter experience up against any other state in the union. We are seeing record turnout, and I anticipate we'll continue to see midterm records broken."

The record turnout could well have a lot to do with Georgia's dramatic Senate race, which polls suggest has incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock in a statistical dead heat with former NFL running back Herschel Walker.

That's despite Walker's clear lack of political experience and a gaffe-prone campaign, which has culminated in allegations from two different women that the avowedly anti-abortion candidate pushed and paid for them to get the procedure.

His apparent resilience in the polls demonstrates the tribal nature of U.S. elections, especially when control of the evenly divided Senate is expected to come down to a handful of battleground states, said Charles Bullock, a professor of politics at the University of Georgia.

"The more activist Republicans buy into the notion that Herschel may be flawed, but the greater good is to ensure that Republicans take control of the Senate," Bullock said.

"For them, it's a replay of that statement that Donald Trump made five years ago, that he could shoot someone in broad daylight with everybody watching and it wouldn't cost him any votes. There are a lot of Republicans who feel that way."

Mikell, who cast her ballot for Warnock, said she's at a loss to explain why Walker is still in the fight.

"I'm so surprised, I am so surprised," she says. "But, you know, it is what it is."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press