African-American Voter Forced to Swear on Bible Before Casting Ballot in Midterm
"did anyone else have to swear on a bible that their address was correct before they were able to vote? just wondering, because i did," Philadelphia voter Lindsay Granger wrote on her blog after voting in last Tuesday's mid-term election. "i had to lay my palm on the good book and state my name and address before i was allowed to sign my name in the voting log and enter the booth. they called it an affirmation. i call it creepy… and a little offensive…"
Granger notified VotersUnite.org last week after the incident which, she told the non-partisan election watchdog organization, made her "extremely uncomfortable because i'm not a Christian, and when i brought that up I was told to do it anyway."
In her blog item, Granger, an African-American, admitted to being "hypersensitive" given "the historical context of black people voting in america".
When informed of the incident, Bob Lee, the Voter Registration Administrator for the Philadelphia City Commissioners, confirmed to The BRAD BLOG that Bibles are, indeed, included in the package of election materials provided to each polling site, but says no such oath is required before casting a vote.
The incident reportedly took place at Philadelphia's Ward 15, Division 01 polling place at Trinity Baptist Church on Poplar Street. It was Granger's first time voting at that precinct after having moved recently from another area in the city.
Lee conceded that, based on Granger's description of the incident --- which he hadn't heard about until we contacted him for comment --- it sounded like the election board at the precinct "needs some training"...
He says that few voters had complained about the bibles at polling places in the past, though "occasionally" his office will receive a complaint about one being placed on the voter sign-in table.
"The bible has been there for ages," he explained. "I think it's there for when the board is sworn in to take an oath before opening the polling place, that they're going to carry out their duty in a non-partisan manner. It's in every polling place in the city. It's included in the election pack."
Granger's brief report to Voters Unite noted that she'd never been asked to swear on a bible --- or at all --- in previous elections. "When I voted in 2008 in a different precinct in Philadelphia (not at a church), that was not the case. My voter registration card was sufficient."
She was also concerned that other voters may have had to go through the same process. "The Bible was sitting out in the open, and the procedure wasn't done in secret, which leads me to believe that I am not the only person who was asked to do that," she wrote.
Granger told The BRAD BLOG that the forced use of the bible "was sort of a tag team situation." She was told by a female African-American poll worker that she had to sign an "affirmation", since it was her first time voting at this polling place. Lee explained that that part of the process was "routine". But then, Granger described, "a white woman pointed to the bible" and a "white man was in charge of the log book."
For the record, Granger didn't identify anything about either her own race, or that of the poll workers, in either the complaint sent to Voters Unite or in her blog item describing the incident, though she did blog that due to "the historical context of black people voting in america," she was "hypersensitive about being made to feel uncomfortable at a polling place."
Given the years-long, well-orchestrated campaign by Republicans and their sympathizers targeting African-Americans for voter suppression, she has good cause for such "hypersensitivity". Therefore, we broached the subject ourselves with Granger in order to identify both her race and that of the poll workers at her precinct, in the event that it might have some bearing on what happened last Tuesday after more information is gathered.
Lee says that Philadelphia has had very little trouble over the years with such targeted voter suppression campaigns. Though when they do occur, it's almost always from "outside groups," he says. "We have very few challenges, other than we've had these people in suits, in various cases, standing 50 feet away from the polls telling people 'you need an ID to vote so you might as well go home'".
He also recounted an incident in 2004 when, just prior to Election Day, a representative from the Republican State Committee "comes in and drops 63 requests for changes to polling place locations on behalf of Republican candidates for Congress." They wanted the polling places moved at the last minute, "all in minority areas", on the alleged basis that the sites were not accessible for disabled voters. "I knew it was bullshit right away," Lee, a Democrat, said, based on the areas the Republicans were targeting. One requested site change, for example, was "to a church four blocks away with 12 steps leading into it. I looked at it and could tell it was bullshit."
As to challenges to voters at the polling places themselves, however, the election administrator explained anyone can challenge a voter's right to vote as "based on identity or maybe citizenship." But, he says, there are a number of ways for voters to respond to such challenges, none of which require swearing on a bible.
"If there's a new address, you write your new address and you sign [the affirmation] and the judge signs and that's it. There shouldn't be a bible involved in it," Lee said. Based on Granger's written accounts and the additional details we provided from her, Lee said he felt the incident was "not racist, but this board needs some training."
When voting for the first time at a new polling place in Philly, voter registration records are flagged to note the voter requires either ID of some sort or a signed affirmation attesting to residence before voting in the event the voter doesn't have any ID on them. Forms of valid ID include a drivers license, a voter registration card, or a number of other documents which provide identification, Lee explained.
"i'm not a christian, so why should i have to swear on a bible? would i have been struck down if i lied about my address? doubt it," Granger wrote on her blog. "the bible doesn't mean anything more than a qu'ran or a torah or a bhagavad gita to me. if anything, i should swear on a constitution or something."
"voting is a civic responsibility, not a religious one...and isn't there supposed to be separation of church and state? maybe some people (ahem, christine o'donnell) don't think so, but i feel like the idea behind having to swear on a bible (or any religious document) in order to vote is not okay. what if i had refused? would i have been denied the ability to vote?," she asked rhetorically.
When we asked if Granger's refusal to swear on the bible along with her signed affirmation could have been used as grounds to keep her from voting, Lee said, "No, we'd never keep anybody from voting. Not for religious reasons for god sakes. We have a difficult enough time getting folks to come out and vote in the first place!"
As to whether a refusal by a poll worker to swear on a bible would disqualify them from serving at the precinct on Election Day, Lee admitted he hadn't thought about it previously. "You're right," he said, "what if someone is Jewish, or something else, and doesn't feel comfortable doing that?"
While Granger's was the only complaint we've heard, to date, of a voter being forced to swear on the bible before voting in Philadelphia, there were at least four other complaints, at four different polling sites in the city, about the bible being placed visibly on the check-in table, often next to the American flag. A database of Election Day problem reports called into the 866-OUR-VOTE election protection hotline run by a consortium of civil rights organizations details voters who called in to say the visibility of the bible on the check-in table seemed "inappropriate" or made them "uncomfortable". (See here, here, hereand here.) Lee acknowledged his office had received two such complaints this year, but says they are very rare.
After further investigation and discussion with the Judge of Elections (an elected position in Philadelphia) at Granger's polling place, Lee says he believes she was the only voter asked to place her hand on the bible there before being allowed to vote. "From what I can gather from the judge, they didn't do it any other time of day," he explained, and it was done by another poll worker while the Judge was busy with another matter. Lee adds that he's asked the Judge to put the bible away, in the future, with the other materials after election officials are sworn in in the morning.
Clearly though, the incident was an unsettling one for Granger who had only hoped to exercise her franchise along with millions of other voters last Tuesday.
"the more i think about it, [the] more skeeved out i become," she concluded her blog item. "not because it's the bible and i'm not a christian, but because something feels inherently wrong about having to swear on something to be able to vote."
"maybe knowing the historical context of black people voting in america, i'm hypersensitive about being made to feel uncomfortable at a polling place. or maybe my personal history of ignorant people saying ignorant things about my lack of religion has caused me to have visceral (often negative) reactions to most things religious. whatever it is, it's so not cool… but it so didn't stop me from voting."