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Pastors at the Polls? Meet Ohio’s Election Protection Squad

It’s not only clergy members who are part of the effort. After anti-abortion groups began harassing people casting ballots early in October, the Election Protection coalition, a nonpartisan group in Ohio, began recruiting musicians to create musical distractions at lines where tensions were building. The group may even hire magicians to that end.

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In North Carolina, the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty group, organized 5,000 clergy members across the country to assist voters ahead of the Nov. 3 election, a group it calls the “prophetic council.” Last weekend, when a conservative group threatened to send operatives to follow a community leader in Greensboro, N.C., whom they accused of voter fraud, pastors were sent to ensure she was not harassed, according to the Rev. William Barber II, a minister with the group.

“We didn’t engage in an escalating way; we know how to do it,” he said.

The Ohio clergy members got a taste last weekend for the tensions that may be ahead in the city of New Philadelphia. A Unitarian pastor was sent to the town, 50 miles south of Akron, after armed Republicans and Democrats congregated near an early polling site. Both sides eventually dispersed and fired no shots.

During the training, Ms. Van Becelaere outlined techniques to de-escalate other conflicts that might arise. Offer water to someone who is getting angry, she said. If a group comes to harass people in line, try singing “Happy Birthday” loudly to create a distraction.

The pastor played an instructional video on how to corral people who are intimidating voters by surrounding the aggressors in a horseshoe shape, shielding voters while giving the intruders a way to easily leave the scene.

As representatives of the clergy, the pastors hope they will be more easily trusted by both sides than the partisan election monitors who might also be present on Election Day. And unlike the police, who might be called to arbitrate a dispute, many of the pastors have experience disarming violent situations without the use of weapons.

During the training, Joseph R. Henry, a retired chaplain in Cincinnati, recalled a time in the 1970s when he was doing charity work as a seminary student, and a man grabbed him by the tie and threatened to throw him over a railing. By staying calm and not fighting back, Mr. Henry said he was able to defuse the situation and escape.

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