City Tells Poll Workers to Keep Bibles Out of Sight on Election Day

After complaints during the May primary about the Good Book being on display inside polling places, the city has given new instructions to election workers.

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Some voters during May’s primary in Philadelphia complained about a bible on display. (Photo courtesy Jess Conda)

In May, we told you about a controversy that had developed on Primary Day after some voters noticed that bibles were on display in their local polling places. Well, the City of Philadelphia has responded by telling poll workers to keep the bibles away from voters on Election Day.

The bible is an available option for each polling place in a boxed kit that contains, among other things, posters explaining your voting rights, poll books (that thing you sign your name in), and your precious “I VOTED” stickers.

The bible is offered because some poll workers choose to use it when they are sworn in before the polls open, sort of like when you go to court and put your hand on the bible before testifying. You don’t have to use the bible, but you can.

“It’s provided only for the swearing in if [workers] choose to use it,” says City Commissioner Al Schmidt, whose office is in charge of elections in Philadelphia. “There’s no reason for the bible to be displayed on the table.”

There’s no specific law that prohibits the display of a bible at the polls — and, indeed, many polling places are actually located in houses of worship — but Schmidt confirms that the city has issued new instructions to poll workers to put the bible back in the box after it is used for the swearing-in.

Schmidt’s office only received a couple of complaints about the bibles on Primary Day, but the controversy lit up local social media.

It started when local actress Jess Conda spied a bible on display at her polling place at 12th and Wharton streets in South Philadelphia. She quickly took to Facebook to vent her frustrations.

“I just asked the woman at my polling place why the Bible is out … and she said they were told it ‘has to be there,’” she wrote in May. “That couldn’t be true, right? Everyone was very friendly, but this placement doesn’t feel right.”

The verdict on her complaint was quick, at least on Facebook. “Intimidation plain and simple,” said one commenter. “Welcome to Trump’s ’Murica,” said another.

Another South Philadelphia resident, activist and artist Elizabeth Fiend, also took issue with the bible at her polling place, which was about a half-mile from Conda’s. “This is fundamentally un-American,” Fiend told us after we saw her social media post about the bible on Primary Day.

Meanwhile, one West Philly voter really didn’t like the bible that he found. Here’s part of what he wrote online:

OUTRAGE. Voting Allowed For Christians Only… The message is clear, and bigoted, and RACIST: No Hindu voters. No Jewish voters. No Muslim voters. No Atheist Voters may participate in today’s primary election. This election is for CHRISTIANS ONLY.

If a voter does find a bible at their polling place this time around, they are free to report it to Schmidt’s office if they consider it inappropriate or intimidating. (Here’s more information about things that can go wrong on Election Day and what to do about it.) But Schmidt says he hopes that the new instructions will alleviate the problem.

“We’re doing this to avoid calls about it, because we need to focus on other problems,” says Schmidt. “Like a broken voting machine or a polling place that isn’t open on time.”

Ed. Note: This story has been updated to clarify how the city makes the bible available to polling places, based on information provided by the City Commissioners office.