MIAMI — It's not just the collection plate that's getting passed around this fall at hundreds of mainly African-American and Latino churches in presidential battleground states and across the nation.
Exhorting congregations to register to vote, church leaders are distributing registration cards in the middle of services, and many are pledging caravans of "souls to the polls" to deliver the vote.
The stepped-up effort in many states is a response by activists worried that new election rules, from tougher photo identification requirements to fewer days of early voting, are unfairly targeting minority voters – specifically, African-Americans who tend to vote heavily for Democrats. Some leaders compare their registration and get-out-the-vote efforts to the racial struggle that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"In light of all this, we are saying just let our people vote," said the Rev. Dawn Riley Duval, social justice minister at the Shorter Community A.M.E. Church in Denver. "The people are being oppressed by these measures. It has ignited a sense of urgency and collective power that we can take by engaging in the process."
In key swing states such as Florida and Ohio, proponents of the new election rules deny they are aimed at suppressing the minority vote in hopes of helping Republicans win more races. Reasons for their enactment vary between rooting out fraud and purging ineligible voters to streamlining the voting process.
But to some African-American leaders like the Rev. F.E. Perry, a Cleveland-based bishop in Ohio's Church of God in Christ, it's as if the 1960s barriers to black civil rights have returned all over again.
"We've come too far to sit idly by and watch that happen," Perry said. "We want to get souls to the polls. Whatever it takes to get them there, that's what we're going to do."
With national public opinion surveys showing a close race between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even a few votes either way in a state such as Florida – a mere 537 votes decided the 2000 contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore – could prove decisive. In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of black voters and is likely to get an overwhelming majority again. He also won among Latinos, a rapidly growing constituency that also tilts heavily toward the Democrat in polls this year.
But any loss of votes would sting.
To be sure, not all clergy are encouraging their flocks to turn out on Election Day: Some black pastors are telling their congregations to stay home, seeing no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports gay marriage. The pastors say their congregants are asking how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as Obama did in May. As for Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, some congregants are questioning the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.
Those pastors, however, are in the minority.
Many Democrats see a pattern of partisanship in many of the new election laws, which they contend are intended to hinder minority turnout and boost the prospects of GOP candidates.
"I pray it's not politics, but I don't know. It doesn't look like anything other than politics," said the Rev. Richard Dunn, pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church in Miami.
One organization, the faith-based PICO National Network, staged a "Let My People Vote Sunday" in September in which about 300 churches around the country held voter registration drives during services and recruited churchgoers to go out and register even more people. The goal was to sign up around 75,000 people, PICO policy director Gordon Whitman said.
"People are stopping in the middle of worship to have people pull out the registration forms and fill them out. It's about the church saying, `We are going to participate in this process,'" Whitman said.
In many states with early voting, the Sunday before Election Day in 2008 was a church-based political event in which minority congregations went en masse to polling places and cast their ballots. That year in Florida, 33.2 percent of all African-American voters and 23.6 percent of Latino voters cast ballots on that final Sunday, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In Ohio in 2008, Whitman said about 100,000 people voted during the last weekend before the election. A new Ohio law would have cut off early voting on the Friday before the election, but a federal judge declared it unconstitutional because some groups such as military personnel were exempted. The state is appealing that ruling.
This year in Florida, a new election law eliminated early voting on that last Sunday, although there is a Sunday for early voting about a week and a half earlier. Dunn, the Miami pastor, said he expects most churches will shift to that earlier day, which falls on Oct. 28 this year.
"Sunday in the African-American tradition is one of the biggest days historically in our community," he said. "You have large numbers of people who go to church. Pastors aren't saying who to vote for, but they are saying, `This is souls to the polls day.'"
Florida's law was also challenged in federal court, but a judge ruled in September there wasn't enough proof that the change would harm African-Americans' right to vote. The judge also noted that, unlike the previous law, the new rules required at least one Sunday for early voting.
Meanwhile, from the pulpit, some churches are even using a litany that calls upon congregations to remember the fight to obtain the vote as well as other civil rights. One such script distributed by PICO (it stands for People Improving Communities by Organizing) mentions the Rev. Martin Luther King, the bloody march in Selma, Ala., and many other civil rights milestones.
"We remember thousands of little towns where countless, unnamed ancestors stood in their dignity to cast a ballot," the script says. "In 2012 we will not be silent or denied the right to vote. For we have come too far by faith."
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt