A limousine arrives at the Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, New Jersey, in this 2015 file photo. Credit: Mike Segar / Reuters

BALTIMORE, Md. — Older voters worried about safely getting to the polls next month while dodging the coronavirus will have a stylish, unconventional transportation option: A free limo ride, courtesy of funeral homeowners in Baltimore and around the country.

Local funeral home directors say they hope to transport up to 21,000 people in Baltimore to voting booths for the Nov. 3 election, part of an effort by the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association to offer rides to as many as 300,000 people nationwide.

The initiative is not new, said Hari P. Close, the organization’s national president and owner of Hari P. Close Funeral Service in Northeast Baltimore. The organization has driven people to the polls in Baltimore for 25 years, Close said, and the service peaked with about 300,000 rides nationally for the 2008 and 2012 election victories of President Barack Obama.

That figure dipped to about 80,000 four years ago, Close said, and now a concerted effort is being made to deliver more voters than ever to polling places. The program is geared primarily to people aged 55 or over, but will not deny any request for service.

“Now we’re the above-ground railroad to get people to the polls, no matter where they stand on issues,” Close said. “Whether I agree or disagree is not important. The point is they need to exercise the vote. I know people in my family history that have been denied the vote or lost lives trying to vote. This is a privilege as well as a responsibility.”

Although a recent Goucher College poll found that 48 percent of Maryland likely voters plan to vote by mail, 51 percent still plan to vote in person.

Close has asked funeral homes to not schedule funerals on Election Day in order to focus on getting voters to the polls. Most of the efforts nationally are for Nov. 3. A small number of funeral homes plan to make transportation available for early voting, but not in the Baltimore area, according to spokesperson Jalila Larsuel.

The initiative will take place in cities including Baltimore, Miami, Detroit, Los Angeles and Kansas City, among many others, according to a news release.

For generations, Black funeral homes have helped fueled voter registration and turnout. Transportation is even more of an issue this year, Close said, as people fear contracting COVID-19 and may have to travel farther due to a more limited number of polling places.

Close stressed that the limousines, sedans and other vehicles used will be sanitized inside and out before and after voters get in, with masks required for drivers and passengers alike. Vehicle capacity will be limited to allow for social distancing, he said.

The group will also offer disinfected chairs for seniors that might not have a way to sit in potential lines at the polls.

Ride sign-up information can be found at nfdma.com under the “Limos to the Polls” tab.

Carmalita March-Harris, the vice president of March Funeral Homes, March Life Tribute Center and Marshall-March Funeral Homes, with locations in Baltimore, says her family’s business has participated in the program for as long as she can remember.

“It means leveling the playing field and allowing all people an opportunity to do one of our rights as Americans, which is voting,” March-Harris said.

She said expectations for demand for the service this year are hard to gauge.

“We expect everyone wants to participate, but the fear of COVID is real,” March-Harris said. “We as an organization want to make sure that we’re taking the safest approaches to anyone that we’d assist in helping to vote.”

The limousines — Mercedes Sprinter Model Vans and sedans — will only transport people within the same household, she said. The business also held voter registration drives Oct. 12 and 13 at its West and East Baltimore locations, she said.

As for other transportation options, Uber and Lyft are offering discounted rides to the polls.

Story by Ben Leonard

©2020 The Baltimore Sun

Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.