They want you: activists pound the streets for voters
PHOTOS BY LINCOLN ROSS BARBOUR
If it seems like every time you turn around there's a table with someone eager to register voters, you're not imagining things.
"I got seven calls today from groups wanting to do voter registration," says Sheri Iachetta, Charlottesville registrar. "That's unheard of. We're running out of forms."
That's quite a contrast to the ever-declining rates of voter participation in the 20th century. Americans have become increasingly lazy about exercising the right that was the impetus for our country's independence.
In the 2000 presidential election, 51 percent of the voting age population went to the polls– which means 100 million Americans who could have voted stayed home. And presidential elections are always higher turnout events than, say, City Council elections, where a mere 28 percent of the registered voters– the number who voted in this year's election– can determine the city's future.
"What do you do to turn around the apathy and cynicism we've seen in young people in the past 40 years?" asks Ken Stroupe, whose job at UVA's Center for Politics is to focus on young voters, starting at kindergarten.
"We don't have a gene that tells us to go to the polls," says Stroupe. "Civic engagement is a learned activity."
With the October 4 registration deadline looming, the big question is, will all these efforts to register voters pay off at the polls?
Stroupe is dubious. "If voter participation is higher than in 2000, being candid, I don't believe it will be the result of voter registration efforts."
It's trendy to talk about registering to vote, especially for 18-to-24 year olds, Stroupe says. But the number of people who say they're going to vote is much higher than those who actually show up at the polls.
"They lie," he says. "It's the equivalent of New Year's resolutions."
So why are all these groups registering voters?
They have their reasons.
The Center for Politics' Ken Stroupe sees "unprecedented" efforts to get people to vote in this year's election. But he believes it'll take more than "Rock the Vote" and other corporate marketing efforts to get people to the polls.
Anne Brown, right, makes sure Marguritte McClain's paperwork is in order before Election Day.
Voter Education Registration and Mobilization (VERM)
Her day job is executive director of Charlottesville's Public Housing Association of Residents. That made helming VERM's registration committee a natural. "There are a lot of issues that affect low-income folks, and that's the population we work with," says Brown.
The idea for VERM came from housing activist Joy Johnson, says Brown. "It's not just about getting registered. The bottom line is, we want people to get to the polls." Because Brown wants them to know what to do when they get there, VERM has prepared, with the help of Charlottesville spokesman Maurice Jones, a public service announcement comparing the machines to ATMs or cell phones.
During the City Council elections, VERM provided rides to voters. "We're absolutely going to do that again," says Brown.
VERM's agenda is issues, not candidates, says Brown. "And there are huge issues regarding Section 8 housing, living wage, and affordable housing that affect the folks we serve."
Brown believes people are realizing that without a vote, they have no voice in what happens. She's determined to make sure they get their two cents in.
Americans Coming Together
"We're citizens concerned with the direction the country is going," says Lisa Thomas of the nonprofit she compares to Moveon.org. "We don't endorse candidates, but we can give $2,000 to a candidate."
In particular, Thomas is concerned about environmental issues and the growing number of people without access to healthcare.
She's registered voters at the City Market, Pantops Shopping Center, and the Estes IGA on Cherry Avenue.
"At Estes, you won't believe the percentage of young black males who can't vote because of felony convictions," she says. She puts the number at 70 percent. "It's shocking, and it's sad."
The group she's found most apathetic about registering? Young women in their twenties. "That's really sad," says Thomas.
She considers Charlottesville one of the most politically active cities in the country, where almost 75 percent of those registered went to the polls in 2000.
So why sit at a table trying to register voters? "To publicly remind people a presidential election is coming up," Thomas says simply.
League of Women Voters
Okay, it's no surprise to see the League out trying to register voters, and Dalebout is the chair of the voter's service committee.
The League is working with VERM and signing up voters at spots like the Gravity Lounge, PVCC, and the International Residential College at UVA.
"Nowadays, it's so simple," she says. "People who register voters don't have to be deputized."
Like others, she worries that citizens' enthusiasm for registering won't carry over to actually making it to the polls. "Hopefully, all these people investing energy to register voters, after October 4, will turn their attention to getting people to vote," she says.
Dalebout echoes a familiar refrain. "I think there's never been more at stake in an election this year– although that may be personal," she admits.
She voices the League of Women Voters' perspective: "It's our privilege and responsibility to vote."
But again, there's the personal. "I think it's appalling and shocking so few citizens get to the polls and exercise their right to vote," she says.
League of Women Voters
Their suffragette great-grandmothers would be horrified. Bender, chair of the League's women's issues committee, is talking about apathetic young women who refuse to vote.
"We've always done some voter registration, but this year there's a more intense effort because it's a presidential election," says Bender. "Before, we didn't have this data showing the under-vote in young women."
What troubles Bender is what that means for leadership in women. "Voting is one sign of civic engagement," she says. "It's a small step to becoming involved."
She's working with VERM to make sure voter registration efforts are coordinated so they don't overlap at public events. And no public event is too mundane for a table– including all UVA football games.
"If you don't register, it's the end of the story," says Bender. "Then it's getting to the polls."
Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice
Susan Oberman is convinced that people are registering to vote in record numbers. "It's very exciting," she says. "[Registrar] Sherri Iachetta began organizing in March. Her people go three times a week to events. They've done a phenomenal job."
And Oberman is impressed with VERM's efforts to coordinate with all the individual groups so that every event is covered– and to organize transportation on Election Day.
"I've never seen it like this before," she says. "I think the American people may be waking up to the threat we're experiencing to our rights as U.S. citizens."
Oberman says, "CCPJ, bottom line, brings a global perspective to the community. Voter registration is only one part, and it's all connected. If ever there was a justice issue, this is it."
She'll hit the Vegetarian Festival September 25 and then switch gears. "From our point of view, after October 1, mobilization is the only way to go."
One thing in particular disturbs Oberman: "We as Americans are quite uninformed of the history of the struggle to gain the right to vote for so many."
The topic at the CCPJ's October 2 salon: "Election Deception: Never Again."
UVA Student Council
The university has its own coalition of organizations getting out the vote called "2004 in 2004." It includes the University Democrats, College Republicans, Center for Politics, and Student Council.
The latter's president, Noah Sullivan, says the group is not only trying to register 2004 new voters, but also is stressing absentee ballots for students registered in their hometowns.
"College students put things off," he says. "Maybe they wake up one day after the absentee ballot deadline." To combat that, the coalition is buying ads and flyers to let students know about deadlines.
Sullivan is pleased that groups on Grounds like the Democrats and Republicans are working together to get out the vote. But will 18-to-24-year-olds be the demographic some believe could be this year's swing vote, much like "soccer moms" in 1992 or "NASCAR dads" in 2000?
"I think students are much more personally affected by events," says Sullivan. "They may have friends or family affected by the war in Iraq. Many students are from Northern Virginia, and may have had parents who died on 9-11.
"There are a lot of issues that have ignited a lot of passions on both sides of the aisle," he says.
UVA Student Council
The 21-year-old American politics major challenges his peers' reputations as voting slackers. "It wouldn't surprise me if that had changed from the past," says Alex Stolar, 21, who's chair of the Student Council's legislative affairs committee. "Our age group does more community service," he points out. He expects that evidence of civic involvement to play a part in voter turnout.
"Today's issues definitely impact our lives. Everybody wants a good job, a good education, and for the government to listen to our needs. The best way to get the attention of legislators is voting," says Stolar.
He cites terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the economy as big issues for college students. "There's a lot of anxiety about being able to get into grad school or get a job," he says.
From watching the news, students know "this is a very serious time," says Stolar, adding, "Things have changed since the 2000 election."
UVA's Center for Politics
Molly Clancy isn't buying the notion of disenfranchised, nonvoting youths. "It's a good myth," she says, "but after 2000, people realized how close the election was and that their votes really matter."
After all, her boss, Larry Sabato, wrote a book, Overtime!, about that nail-biter. Now, Clancy is working with the "2004 in 2004" UVA coalition. "It's unbelievable," she marvels. "We don't have to harass people to get absentee ballots."
The plethora of voter drives is not limited to this college town. "I don't think it's a Charlottesville bubble," says Clancy. "We're working with Harvard, Vanderbilt, and 20 other colleges. They're seeing drives like we are."
Clancy, 23, UVA class of 2003, is barely out of college herself. As someone in the 18-to-24 demographic, she believes September 11 was a turning point for college students. "Most of these people were in high school during 9-11," she explains. "It sticks in their minds."
And of her mission to get out the young vote, she vows, "Wherever the students will be, we'll be."
92.7 KISS FM
Every Friday, this radio station has been going to local parks for a live broadcast and to register people to vote. Pourquoi?
"We're trying to bring it to them rather than have them jump through hoops," says morning DJ Michael Knight. And the station wants to show it cares about the community, he adds.
Since starting in August, 92.7 has registered around 50 people, estimates Knight. "It's definitely beyond our expectations. And it gets people to realize their rights as citizens."
Is there any difference between this year and elections past?
"Definitely," Knight says. "You can feel it in the air. More people have a vested interest in this election. It definitely has a different feel from what we've had in the past."
Careful readers may have noticed that some of the VERM members belong to groups often characterized as "lefties." So where are the "righties"?
Charlottesville Republican Party head Bob Hodous says his group isn't involved in any significant effort to register voters. His Albemarle counterpart, Keith Drake, says Republican volunteers or those in leadership roles always have registration forms with them– and they sign up voters at the Albemarle County Fair.
"I think registering to vote is such a basic responsibility that people know how to do it without the help of a political party," says Drake. "It's not the primary focus of a political party."
Albemarle County Registrar Jackie Harris says a lot of churches are having registration drives.
Let's hope they don't get into the same tax-exempt-status hot water Jerry Falwell finds himself in for using the resources of his Thomas Road Baptist Church to endorse President Bush.