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In Florida, black churches scramble to get early voters to polls

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Errol Thompson, a Baptist pastor in Orlando's black community, acknowledges that the excitement over Barack Obama becoming the first black U.S. president has cooled.

But with the Democratic president locked in a tight race against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Thompson still expects voter turnout in Florida for the November 6 election to be equal to or greater than it was four years ago.

To make sure of that, he and other black church leaders across Florida are organizing a mass effort, dubbed "Souls to the Polls," to get thousands of people in their flock to vote early - right after Sunday's morning service.

This weekend's voting drive carries special importance as it is the only Sunday included in the state's truncated early voting period - which begins on Saturday - after it was cut this year from 14 to eight days.

Legislators eliminated voting on the last Sunday before the election, the day black churches traditionally mobilized in a final push to get voters to the polls.

The reduction in early voting days in Florida was among several changes to election laws in this state and more than 20 others that Democratic activists contend were designed by Republican-led legislatures to suppress voting by low-income and minority residents who tend to vote for Democrats.

That - along with the opportunity to re-elect Obama, who many in the black community feel would not have been so stonewalled by Republicans in Congress if he were white - is what Thompson is counting on in his push for early voting.

Thompson said the concerns over voting issues arise as many in his community are still seething over the state government's perceived slow response in February to the killing of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in central Florida.

"It's all these kind of things that are quietly pushing people to the polls. It might not have the same exuberance, but it is a quiet determination," he said.

"Souls to the Polls" has been a tradition in the black community since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed widespread discriminatory practices that disenfranchised minority voters.

DIFFERENT VOTING HABITS

What began as an Election Day phenomenon was extended to Sundays when early voting was introduced in 2004 in Florida, a politically divided state with 11.5 million registered voters. The state has played a key role in determining the winner of recent presidential elections, most notably the 2000 race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

Early voting has been a key weapon of Florida Democrats to counter Republicans' traditional strength in voting in advance by absentee ballots, which typically are mailed in. Black community leaders say that many black voters are less trusting of mail-in ballots and prefer to cast their vote in person at polling stations.

A Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll indicates that about 90 percent of likely black voters nationwide support Obama.

So far this year, more than 1 million people already have voted absentee in Florida, with Republicans outvoting Democrats by about 54,000 ballots, or 5 percent of the total cast, despite having fewer registered voters in the state.

In 2008, 34 percent of the votes cast in Florida on the last Sunday before the election were cast by black voters even though blacks account for only 13 percent of the state's population. So many black voters cast early ballots that Governor Charlie Crist, a former Republican now backing Obama, had to order polling stations to stay open longer.

Despite the effort this year, political analyst Daniel Smith of the University of Florida said the church groups are playing catch-up after losing several months of prime voter-registration drive time fighting another state law that made it more difficult to register new voters.

"It has the potential of depressing the voter turnout and support for President Obama in his election, and I don't think that's by accident. It remains to be seen," Smith said.

Republican legislators said they wanted to shore up requirements for third-party voter registration groups to rein in fraud. Many of the provisions, including a strict timetable to return signed registration forms to election officials, were later struck down in federal court, but resulted in months of lost time for those groups seeking new voters.

'TRICKY LAWS'

Smith served as an expert in an unsuccessful lawsuit by U.S. congresswoman Corrine Brown, whose congressional district includes Jacksonville, seeking to overturn the shortening of early voting days.

In that case, Republican legislators said the new rules were necessary austerity measures due to the expense of opening voting offices in sparsely populated, rural counties.

In his ruling, federal judge Timothy Corrigan concluded that the changes in the early voting law disproportionately affect minority voters because of their tendency to vote early. However, Corrigan found no proof that the intent of the law was to suppress the minority vote.

Corrigan determined that most of Florida's large urban counties planned to utilize the maximum 96 hours of early voting allowed under the law. Those counties intend to allow voting for up to 12 hours a day and on two Saturdays and one Sunday before the election so that working people have the greatest opportunity to get to the polls without having to skip work.

Florida is one of 32 states that allow early voting. In setting a maximum eight days of early voting, Florida falls below the average of 19 days allowed by other states.

At Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in Jacksonville last Sunday, Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr. delivered a sermon in the rhythms of gospel music, exhorting his 3,500-person flock to cast their ballots.

"They passed all these tricky laws because we as a people do this Sunday early voting," McKissick said. "But tricks are for kids, and we done figured a way around that," he added, as the congregation roared in approval.

"Here's what you do," he went on, without mentioning who they should vote for. "Our plan is that all over the city, when the churches open, we all are going to get in our vans and buses and cars and we are going to the polls."

Jacksonville-area churches have rounded up 40 vans and buses to get their parishioners to the polls on Sunday. Besides churches, Souls to the Polls includes civil rights groups and unions working together to get out the vote.

It's a similar story in Miami where black churches are also organizing weekend rallies and transportation to the polls, led by civil rights activist and cable TV host Reverend Al Sharpton.

"We are going to the polls, and we are going to stay as long as it takes to show those who are trying to stop the vote that our ancestors fought to give us that you will not take our vote," McKissick told his congregation. "People died to get us the right to vote. Your vote is your voice."

(Additional reporting by Susan Cooper Eastman in Jacksonville and Michael Peltier in Tallahassee; Editing by David Lindsey and Will Dunham)

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