The "Vote Early, Vote Big" project, sponsored by the Cleveland NAACP and PowerPAC, has really exploded since about eight churches participated on the afternoon of October 12th. That number grew to about twenty churches the next week, and on the third Sunday this past weekend more than thirty churches were involved. Ten buses and several vans ferried voters from churches to the downtown Board of Elections, with many more church members traveling via informal car pool.
I drove to Good Shepherd Baptist Church in the far northeastern part of Cleveland to observe the program there. This church is in a newer building nestled among residential streets uphill from busy Euclid Avenue. Pastor Walter L. Ratcliffe was in the middle of his sermon when I arrived, but an usher told me that he had described the"Vote Early, Vote Big" project at the beginning of the service. The title of his sermon was "Remembering God," with Pastor Ratcliffe urging the congregation to remember the Almighty during these hard economic times:
People are losing their money invested in stocks, but remember God. People are losing their jobs, but remember God. This election has incited the racial divide, but remember God. Remember God, and remember all that He has done before.After the service, the pastor stood outside the front door of the church and directed members of the congregation to the waiting transportation. "If you're going to vote, God bless you," he said. "There's the bus and a van, right over there in the parking lot."
Despite the gray sky and drizzle, the bus and van filled up quickly. Pastor Ratcliffe announced that he would drive downtown separately and take passengers along. After all the loading and arranging, we all departed for the ten mile drive down Euclid Avenue to the Board of Elections.
The scene downtown was astonishing. Buses lined 30th Street alongside First United Methodist Church, site of the reception for "Vote Early, Vote Big" participants. A line of at least 300 early voters filled the sidewalk along the front and side of the Board of Elections building. Candidates and their representatives talked to those waiting in line (beyond the 100 foot perimeter established by Ohio law), and journalists from local television station WKYC-TV and the New York Times conducted interviews. Common Pleas Judge Lance Mason waved to me from across Euclid Boulevard and called out, "It's democracy! Isn't it grand?" Local news reports indicated that evening that about 2,000 people voted that afternoon.
I walked back to the reception to watch project participants enjoying the refreshments and listening to speakers talk about the historic importance of the right to vote. I asked Maxine Greer, Outreach Director for the First United Methodist Church, to explain its role in the project and how she saw it fitting into the church's overall mission. She explained that her church partnered with the NAACP to host the reception so that people could celebrate voting early. She said that more and more people were participating each week, with the 250 or so voters on the first Sunday growing to between 700 and 1,000 on the third Sunday. She described it as a non-partisan effort that fit into the church's mission to help improve the lives of the people of Cleveland. "This is about people exercising their God-given right to vote," she said, "helping them to exercise their right to live a better life through the political process." She explained that the church provided the hall along with the tables and tablecloths, and landmark Cleveland restaurant Lancer's Steak House catered the food (fried chicken, meatballs, green beans, potato salad, and lemonade).
Back on the street, observing the throng waiting to enter the Board of Elections to vote, I met Stanley R. Miller, Executive Director of the Cleveland NAACP. He called it a "special occasion" and "a great program." As a non-partisan group the NAACP is not concerned with who wins, he said, but with making sure that people have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote in a safe and protected manner. He said that word has gotten out about the program, and that the NAACP has been on the television and radio promoting it. With participation next week expected to be even higher, he said that the Board of Elections is looking at providing additional facilities for voting.
Although the wait to get into the Board of Elections was long, the voters in line seemed to be in a fairly upbeat mood. As I spoke with Mr. Miller people in line (across the street from where we stood) began to sing "We Shall Overcome." He beamed. "This is really a special moment," he said.
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