As Monroe County election officials prepare for a rush of early voters Saturday, local church officials are doing what they can to encourage residents of one Key West neighborhood to show up and vote.
A total of 7,141 absentee ballots have already been received, Assistant Superintendent of Elections Joyce Griffin said, about half the number requested by mail and sent to voters. And voters who will be out of town have also been showing up at the election offices on Whitehead Street.
"We began voting over-the-counter absentee since Thursday," Griffin said.
Voters will have a long ballot to study. It includes presidential, congressional and state legislative contests, as well as school and mosquito board races. A series of state constitutional amendments are on the ballot, as well as proposed charter amendments for the city of Key West.
Although local election officials are encouraging voters to turn out, and accommodating them as much as possible, there are some concerns about turnout among local clergyman.
The Rev. Darryl Robinson, president of the Interfaith Ministerial Alliance of Key West and Vicinity, along with other clergymen, has organized a "Souls to the Polls" rally and march 1:30 p.m. Sunday at historic Cornish Memorial African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church at Whitehead and Angela streets.
Robinson said the nonpartisan rally will give basic facts to voters, who are then invited to march or be bused to the Supervisor of Elections Office to vote. Early voting starts Saturday, and the next day is the only Sunday on which it's offered this year. Early voting runs through Nov. 3, a Saturday.
"There has been a systematic effort across the country to suppress the vote of African-American, Latino and other communities," Robinson said. "We are coming to cast our vote as people of faith who are prayerful for our city, state and nation; participatory in the democratic process that many laid down their lives [for] so that we would have the right to vote, and publicly witness to our community that voter suppression efforts have not diminished our enthusiasm nor dampened our resolve to fully exercise our fundamental right as American citizens to vote for the persons and issues that are so crucial to our common destiny."
Robinson said he and other clergymen were dismayed by Gov. Rick Scott's push for restricted early voting days, which led to a clash with Elections Supervisor Harry Sawyer, who is retiring.
Sawyer said the Legislature-approved change violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act because it was not pre-cleared by the federal Department of Justice. Monroe is one of five Florida counties the Department of Justice monitors due to a past history of voter discrimination. The other four counties are Hillsborough, Collier, Hendry and Hardy.
Scott said the new early voting schedule, already enacted elsewhere in the state, was designed to cut down on voter fraud. Eventually Scott won out.
But local clergy and civil rights advocates are still smarting from the feud.
"We think it is a matter of concern for people in the African-American and Latino communities," said Robinson, pastor of Big Coppitt First Baptist Church. "We want to incite enthusiasm to overcome these efforts. It has been a contentious problem with the governor."
Meanwhile at Sawyer's office the staff is busy getting ready to receive voters.
The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday through the following Saturday.
Griffin said she and other workers are receiving inquiries, for the most part, on the constitutional amendments up for a vote.
They refer those voters to websites offering nonpartisan information on those and other issues.
"It is for information and education," Robinson said of his rally and march. "It is simply to help voters understand the issues. The secondary purpose is to encourage early voting."