Pastors at the Polls? Meet Ohio’s Election Protection Squad

After the most tense election season in generations, clergy members are being trained and deployed to defuse potentially violent encounters on Election Day.

By Nicholas Casey

From across Ohio, ministers, chaplains and social workers who have volunteered to deploy to the polls dialed in to a videoconference to hear nine hypothetical situations they might encounter on Election Day, from people refusing to wear masks to politicians pressuring those in line to vote for them.

Then the callers were confronted with one final scenario that troubled them the most.

“Voter A comes to the line carrying a handgun: What do you do?” asked the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, a minister and the executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Justice of Ohio.

Ohio’s clergy are at the forefront of an unusual effort to ensure an orderly election. This year, voting rights groups are recruiting them from around the state to head to the polls — even asking them to wear their clerical garb at polling stations — in an effort to calm a polarized electorate as it casts ballots in the most tense election season in generations.

They’re called the “peacemakers.”

“A guy once came up to me and pointed a gun in my face and said, ‘I need food,’” said Ms. Van Becelaere, recalling an incident from years back when she worked in a soup kitchen. “I took a deep breath. I said we had food, and welcomed him in. Pretty soon the gun was at his side.”

Experiences defusing situations like that, Ms. Van Becelaere said, could prove useful again.

The loudest alarm bells in recent American elections have had to do with foreign interference from countries like Russia. Voting rights groups have campaigned against identification requirements and voter roll purges that have disenfranchised voters. Poll monitors have tried to ensure ballots were counted accurately and have assembled legal teams to investigate irregularities.

These problems still exist, but the possibility of violence this Tuesday is a new and real concern to many. President Trump has refused to say whether he would accept an election loss, and during the first debate in October, he called on the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for attacking peaceful protesters, to “stand back and stand by.”

This has left voting rights groups treading a fine line in their efforts this year: They want voters to feel that they are unlikely to encounter problems or intimidation, but that if a conflict does arise somewhere, there is a plan to confront it.

“One thing we know to be true is that intimidation can be as much psychology as physical action,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Ohio. “What we don’t want is people to expect intimidation and skip out on voting.”

It’s not only clergy members who are part of the effort. After anti-abortion groups began harassing people casting ballots early in October, the Election Protection coalition, a nonpartisan group in Ohio, began recruiting musicians to create musical distractions at lines where tensions were building. The group may even hire magicians to that end.

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