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Philadelphia pastor's battle to increase Black voter turnout complicated by COVID | Kelly

Mike Kelly
NorthJersey.com

Pennsylvania is a key to victory for President Donald Trump and for former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party challenger. Veteran USA TODAY Network Columnist Mike Kelly and Visual Journalist Chris Pedota are visiting three Keystone State regions to assess voters' sentiments before the Nov. 3 election. This segment — the second in a three-part series — looks at Philadelphia and efforts by Democrats to turn out the vote for Biden. 

PHILADELPHIA — Robert Collier Sr. has spent nearly half a century saving souls. He is, after all, the pastor of a Baptist church in the Roxborough section on this city’s hilly west side.

Now Collier’s vocation is decidedly more earthbound. He just wants to win an election for Joe Biden.

Sometimes he wonders which job is harder.

Collier, 78, the pastor of Galilee Baptist Church, also chairs Philadelphia’s Black Clergy Council. And this year, the council’s goal is to increase turnout among the city’s African American voters for the presidential election on Nov. 3.

Collier's efforts will get a boost on Wednesday, when former President Barack Obama is scheduled to come to Philadelphia to stump for Biden. The Biden campaign has not yet released Obama's itinerary, but his presence — the first in-person campaigning by the former president this year — will likely focus on increasing turnout in African American neighborhoods. 

Normally, that might not be such a difficult task. For decades, Democrats looked to Philadelphia’s Black community to deliver massive vote tallies — often by 80% margins over Republicans — to win Pennsylvania.

That changed in 2016.

Yes, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s Black voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump. But the numbers of Black voters fell off by as much as 10% in some districts, according to several post-election studies.

G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll, which surveys Pennsylvania voters, found that a key reason for the decrease in Black voters from high levels in 2008 and 2012, when Obama ran, was Clinton herself.

“She just didn’t connect with African Americans,” Madonna said.

Coupled with a dramatic increase in Trump's support from rural, mostly white, working-class communities of central Pennsylvania and his victories in coal mining towns in the southwest and northeast corners of the state, it meant Trump squeaked past Clinton by less than 1% — about 44,000 votes — to take the Keystone State’s 20 electoral votes and propel himself to the White House.

'We want to take care of home'

This year, the Biden and Trump campaigns again see Pennsylvania as a key to winning the presidency.  But their strategies are as different as their personalities and policies. Trump aims to build on his support among white voters, while Biden is trying to peel away some of Trump’s white working-class supporters while also energizing Pennsylvania’s Black voters.

That’s where Philadelphia — and the Reverend Collier — come into play.

“This is where we live,” Collier said on a recent morning as he sat in a chair in the sanctuary of 124-year-old Galilee Baptist Church. “We want to take care of home.”

Red, yellow and blue light from the church’s stained-glass windows danced across the mahogany and white pews. Collier sighed and breathed in the musty air. A baby grand piano and a drum set sat silent. 

Galilee has been closed since early March because of fears of spreading the coronavirus known as COVID-19. But on many days, Collier drives from his home in Ambler, a Philadelphia suburb, to work on drumming up votes.

“We want to energize folks to get out and vote,” Collier said. “We have a particular emphasis on Black and brown folks. They’re the ones who did not vote as they should have in previous elections. In 2008 and 2012, they showed up. But in 2016, Black folks just didn’t vote, basically.”

Collier gazed around his empty church, his eyes pausing for a few seconds on a stained-glass window on the back wall and its inscription: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

In a way, Collier now sees himself as a voting shepherd for his community.

“It’s heartbreaking when you look at the numbers,” Collier said. “You find the number of people who didn’t vote and how the tide could have been turned because of people who didn’t vote.”

Meanwhile, Collier has to battle constant rumors — unfounded and circulated by Trump supporters — that mail-in voting is routinely rigged. Trump even raised suspicions recently about any kind of voting in Philadelphia, claiming — again without evidence — that "bad things happen in Philadelphia."

In Philadelphia, Trump's criticism was widely viewed as an attack on Black voters.  

But Collier had an answer. He said he is countering Trump by using the "bad things happen" criticism to inspire Black voters to go to the polls or mail their ballots early. 

"We took the tag that he gave us and we’re going to turn around and use it for the good," Collier said. "We’re letting folks know that bad things happen in Philadelphia if you don’t register and if you don’t vote. We’re using that 'bad things happen' statement to encourage folks to do a good thing."  

'Turnout, turnout and turnout'

With tens of millions of voters casting ballots across the nation, it’s easy to assume that America’s presidential elections are complicated, impersonal exercises, framed by political strategies that aim to persuade vast, faceless swaths of the electorate. Lost in the numbers sometimes is a basic truism about politics: that even a presidential election can sometimes come down to a few votes in a few neighborhoods.

That’s what happened in Philadelphia in 2016.

Overall, Clinton seemed to do well — on paper, anyway. She tallied nearly 585,000 votes in the city — about 82.5% of the city's votes. 

Most candidates would be satisfied — perhaps hugely gratified — by such numbers. But Clinton’s votes, while certainly impressive, were nearly 12,000 less than Obama won in Philadelphia in 2008 and about 5,000 less than he racked up in 2012.

Clinton’s support also fell below expectations in Philadelphia’s suburban counties.

This year, Biden’s campaign is hoping for a windfall of votes in the suburban Philadelphia counties of Delaware, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks, where Democrats have made substantial gains in just the last two years in local elections. 

But the city of Philadelphia is still something of a mystery.

“It’s like a chessboard with each piece playing a role,” said Madonna, of the Franklin & Marshall poll.

He expects Biden to win Philadelphia and the suburbs — just as Clinton did. But to offset Trump’s gains in other parts of Pennsylvania, Biden needs to run up the score with Obama-like numbers in Philadelphia.

“The key to victory,” Madonna said of Biden, “is turnout, turnout and turnout.”

If that seems easy, it’s not.

Like many states, Pennsylvania is urging voters to cast mail-in ballots. At the same time, the old-fashioned system of opening polling places for in-person voting will still be in place — but with some potentially problematic changes.

With so many poll workers fearing the spread of COVID-19, Philadelphia drastically cut back on its in-person voting for a primary election in June. The result: lower turnout.

For the Nov. 3, election, Pennsylvania election officials promised to increase the number of polling stations in Philadelphia and hike monetary payments to poll workers. But as of last week, the proposed total of 718 polling centers was still more than 100 fewer than the city opened for previous presidential elections.

Part I of this series: Trump and Biden both need northeast Pennsylvania to win. Here's why it may be close | Kelly

Part 3 of this series:In Pennsylvania's coal country, President Trump is still seen as a savior | Mike Kelly

Are NJ ballot drop boxes secure?:Here's what election officials say

FAQs:All of your questions about voting in the Nov. 3 NJ election, answered here

Patrick Murray, who directs the Monmouth University Poll, said the lack of voting stations could lead to lower support for Biden. 

"As a pollster, we could have a very good read on what the electorate looks like, but we don’t have a good read on how the technical issues may impact how those voters behave on Election Day," Murray said. "It’s more likely to impact voters in urban communities and voters who are not used to voting by mail."

And most of those voters, said Murray, are Democrats.

Election officials are already warning voters to expect long lines at as they wait to cast ballots on Election Day. Adding to that, Pennsylvania’s election rules prohibit officials from counting mail-in ballots before Election Day. So vote tallies could be delayed for days — perhaps weeks, as they were after the June primary.

“I would be shocked if we don’t have multiple lawsuits in the state,” Madonna said. “In some respects, we’re in uncharted territory.”

Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia-based Democratic campaign strategist, said African Americans traditionally have not trusted mail-in voting. They prefer, instead, to vote in person.

“People in the suburbs are finding ways to vote,” said Oxman, who directed several campaigns for Democrats in North Jersey in previous years. “But you’re talking about Philly” — and specifically the possibility that large numbers of Black voters can’t get to the polls.

“I worry about the margin in Philly being enough,” Oxman said.

A formidable obstacle could be the pandemic and its social distancing restrictions.

“Because of COVID, Biden can’t put together the Obama field operation,” said Oxman which included hundreds of volunteers from New Jersey and New York who descended on Philadelphia in 2008 and 2012 to knock on doors before Election Day. “You can’t put an army of volunteers on the street.”

'You cannot say that your vote does not matter'

Robert Collier is not worried.

“We don’t want people to be deterred because of COVID-19,” he said.

As a result, his team is staging a series of seminars instructing voters on how to vote by mail or abide by anti-virus safeguards if they choose to vote in person. For Election Day, his team has organized a fleet of vans from area churches and is hoping several local ride services will offer discount rates to drive voters to the polls.          

Perhaps most significant — and surprising — is Collier's modest goal for an increased turnout in Philadelphia. He dreams of replicating the Obama landslide in Philadelphia in 2008. But he has set his sights much lower, claiming he would be happy if he could bring in 20,000 more Black voters.

Such a number, Collier said, would be a step toward giving Biden a powerful, Obama-like electoral bounce from Philadelphia.

“You cannot say that your vote does not matter,” Collier said. “It either counts because you didn’t vote or it counts because you did vote.”

Such is his message to voters.

For his team, Collier offers a simple mantra.

“We want to work as though we don’t have enough until we have enough,” he said.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com Twitter: @mikekellycolumn