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In the face of political violence, one group recruits 'poll chaplains'


We're going to start by taking note of how many times this week we saw examples of what many observers have called a breakdown in political and social norms. There was politically motivated violence. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband was brutally attacked in their San Francisco home by a man demanding to see her. There was a surge in racist and anti-Semitic messages on Twitter after the takeover by Elon Musk, a self-described free speech absolutist who says he wants to loosen the rules about what can be said on the platform. And of course, this follows days of anti-Black gestures and anti-Semitic rants by the music artist Kanye West, who was dropped by one of his business partners because of them.

And just last night, a federal judge refused to bar self-appointed heavily armed individuals from patrolling outdoor ballot boxes in Arizona, just as multiple national security agencies warned that domestic violent extremists across the ideological spectrum pose a heightened threat to the midterms. In a few minutes, we're going to talk about how extremist politics are playing out in Brazil's presidential election. But first, we're going to talk about ways some here in the U.S. are trying to counteract these trends. And we're going to start with a group of clergy who are recruiting faith leaders to act as a calming force at the polls this year.

The Reverend Barbara Williams-Skinner is the coordinator of a group called Faiths United to Save Democracy. Her group is recruiting faith leaders across religious traditions to serve as what she calls poll chaplains. I asked her how this would help in an environment where large numbers of elected leaders are accommodating and validating election deniers, even those who show up armed at ballot boxes.

BARBARA WILLIAMS-SKINNER: We are in a what I call a three-alarm fire in our democracy. If you have enough people who are being elected and many of them are not only perpetrating and believing and repeating long enough over and over and over the big lie, but they are actually running on it and will maybe rule on it, I think the lie has been repeated more loudly than the truth. That is the reality. We can't dissuade someone from something they deeply believe. What we have to do is fight to make sure those laws don't cripple us or put us back before the civil rights movement or the 1965 Voting Rights Act is no longer reality. I believe that when we get to that point, not only are we not a democracy, but it's not a safe place for anybody of any race.

MARTIN: On the ground, I mean, do you have a sense of where your folks will be deployed?

WILLIAMS-SKINNER: Well, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights received over 200,000 complaints in the last election, largely Black, Brown and low-income communities. And so we looked at the data for those polling sites. But then we also received from the secretaries of state and the county clerks in each of the polling areas in our 10 states early voting sites for 2022. We matched those and identified the polling site that had problems in the past. So it's usually the vulnerable, the elderly, the poor who are being attacked. So we have the list of all the polling sites, and now our state leads. We have a state lead, mostly pastor, who've been working with us. They're very experienced, and now they're ready to be deployed. So beginning Monday, they will be out there connecting and supporting.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend Barbara Williams-Skinner. She's the coordinator of Turnout Sunday and Faiths United to Save Democracy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.