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Where church and state intersect
A look at Voter Registration Sunday
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They had a place to express themselves at the 11 a.m. worship at Greater Gaines Chapel A.M.E. Church on May Street.

The patriarchs in their Sunday best and matriarchs in white from head to toe sat in the front rows. The rest of the pews were filled with spirited singers of all ages. They didn’t hesitate to gather around the altar to pray for personal victories on health, family, and financial issues.

Like some 300 houses of worship across Chatham County, this service progressed into another type of forum: Voter Registration Sunday, when the people of the church and issues of the state intersect.

A clerk was called to to make weekly announcements about upcoming Bible studies, prayer meetings and rehearsals. But they also asked someone to deliver the clarion call: “Register to Vote.’’

“It’s time to get fired up,” Israel Small, a member of the Savannah Branch of the NAACP told the congregation. “This is probably one of the most important elections we have ever had.”

Small delivered a laundry list of what potential voters needed to do to get ready: Register to vote; get a state ID card if you don’t have a driver’s license; vote by absentee if a senior citizen, a member of the military; or out–of–town student; register if you’ve completed probation or parole in the criminal justice system.

That registration drive was launched during a community partnership announced earlier this month by Richard Shinhoster, first vice president of the Savannah NAACP and Constance Cooper, president of the  Savannah chapter of The Links, Inc. Those groups recruited some 15 civic and fraternal organizations to boost registration rolls in Chatham County.

Then the Rev. Bernard Clarke of Greater Gaines Chapel took the microphone and made a fiery appeal.

“I know people don’t like for us to talk about politics in church but the crucifixion was politics,’’ Clarke said. "Let’s make sure we are voting. Ask yourself what would Jesus do? And, I’m going to make a bold statement and say Jesus would be voting for Barack Obama. He’s trying to help people who don’t have any money.’’

Asked why the group targets minorities and African–American churches in particular, Shinhoster says those groups represent more than 50 percent of the residents in Savannah. They are often disenfranchised and don’t always receive all the necessary information in time to take action before the general election.

Cooper says, “We aren’t telling people who to vote for. We want to educate them about how to be better educated about the process.’’

A database established by the NAACP identified some 37,000 potential unregistered voters in Chatham County, Shinhoster says the Savannah chapter decided to register at least 3,000 of them and so far 1,500 new people have been registered. The deadline to register is Oct. 9.

Shirley James, an organizer of the project and the publisher of The Savannah Tribune, also launched an email campaign asking for volunteers to assemble documents needed for the canvass, such as absentee ballots.

Days later, a group of professional women — many retired and others who took time away at their lunch breaks — gathered around a conference table in a back office at NAACP headquarters on MLK Jr. Blvd. They were surprisingly quiet and outsiders who entered the room were hushed.

“We’re counting,” said Shevon Carr, a community volunteer. In the assembly line, the women counted out 10 forms explaining the acceptable types of state issued ID cards at the polls; 10 absentee ballots for students and members of the military; 10 voter registration forms for new voters; and 10 copies of the rules they’d need to consider during the voter registration drive.

Those packets were placed into clear plastic bags and distributed to churches, nursing homes and NAACP chapters at Savannah State University and Armstrong Atlantic State University. If citizens don’t have rides to the registration office on Eisenhower Drive, Shinhoster says, NAACP members will “gladly to carry them. Call our office at (912) 233–4161.”

The groups are also targeting potential voters such as Uzomah Ewo and Arthur Polote.

Ewo, 18, an incoming freshman at Savannah State University, had planned to register before she left home in metro Atlanta. But, as the deadline approached, she decided to register in Chatham County.

“It was easy,’’ says Ewo, after she presented her state issued student ID card to Chatham County officials and completed the form.

Polote, on the other hand, says he’s had recent troubles with the law and he won’t be allowed to register because his probation doesn’t expire until November. “I wanted to register but I can’t,’’ he says.

According to state law, ex–felons must complete terms of their probation or parole before re–instating their right to vote. Students who attend state universities can use student ID cards when they register to vote for the first time.

At the voter registration office on Eisenhower Drive, Sandra Williams, director of voter registration of Chatham County, says  “We’ve had people come in all year.’’

She hasn’t seen any long times since the start of the recent voter registration campaigns. “They had a major drive yesterday but we haven’t seen any paperwork that yet. A good number of people registered in 2008, (the last general election) and they are still eligible.”

If there is a rush, Williams says her office has doubled its order of voter registration applications, “so we’d be prepared in 2012.’’