By Robert P. Helms
Nov. 15, 2016
On November 8th I cast my vote at HMS School in West Philadelphia, which is the polling place for Division 2 of the 27th Ward. I voted in good faith, even though my core beliefs gave me reservations about the US political system. I did not abstain, nor did I discourage others from voting. This was an extremely important election.
When I entered room, everything was as I expected, save for one object. There was a table with officials signing people in, and there were voting booths. But at the middle of the table were a small US flag and a Bible. The Bible was placed so that no one passing through the room could fail to see it.
I asked why the Bible was on the table. Election Judge Frances Byers told me that the flag and the Bible are mandatory and that this is a city law. That is completely wrong to me. I call it religious bigotry.
I had entered a shared civic space where every citizen who has the legal right to vote can do so without interference or intimidation. We were electing civil servants, not clergy. A great deal of energy had been invested by the Democratic Party to register people of color and of minority religions as voters. But there on the table, this theocratic night stick was staring at me. I’m atheist, but this is not just about me. What if I were Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, as are many of my neighbors? Does it mean that only Christians are members of this club that controls the balloting process? If it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean?
I called the election protection line at 866-OUR-VOTE and I was told that they would “escalate” the matter and send their watcher-people to my voting station. The person I spoke to stated that no law exists in this city that mandates a Bible on that table. Bibles are sent to each voting precinct to “swear in” the election judges and are part of a kit that goes to each polling place.
I expected that the Bible would be put out of sight during the day, but I stopped again at around 5:30 pm to find the Bible still on the table. This time I loudly voiced my objection to this violation of my rights. The poll watchers outside the school called ward leader Carol Jenkins, who backed up the election judge’s prerogative to display the Bible.
Later it turned out that City Commissioner Anthony Clark supports the practice as well. It’s an old custom kept at many voting precincts in Philadelphia, but not at others. However, this town seems to be the only part of the United States where neutral civic space is invaded by Christianity on Election Day. I checked with contacts in the Midwest, on the west coast, and even in Georgia and North Carolina –the “Bible belt” –and all of them said they’d never seen any Bibles where they vote, and that it was obviously wrong that I had been shown one at my polling station.
I asked neighbors of various religious or secular orientations how they felt, and most felt just as strongly against the Bible-pushing as I do. Some said that there were too many more urgent things going on for them to get upset about this. Of course they’ve got a point there. We don’t quite know whether this was the last US Presidential election, because the Prince of Slobs has taken over the government.
This use of the Bible is a signal to discourage non-Christian voters and to limit the level at which non-Christians may meaningfully participate in the democracy. The Bible should be kept out of sight or banished from the polling places, and nothing in this life could be more obvious.
No one has the right to peddle their religion from a position of authority in a polling place. It’s is not a matter of opinion. If the city’s election officials disagree, then they flunk the quiz; they get an F and they’ve got to go. I am not asking for the practice to be explained or justified. The practice must end immediately.