As election heats up, so do voter drives

It all started with a dinner conversation. Genevieve Humenay and Michelle Johnson were talking about the low voter turnout in the 2000 presidential election, and someone mentioned that several precincts in Lansing reported lower than 50 percent turnout of registered voters. They decided that instead of just talking about it, they were going to do something about it, and that’s when Lansing Voters Matter was born.

The group is one of several working locally in what might be an unprecedented effort to get out the vote for the 2004 presidential election, particularly among minorities. The registration deadline is Oct. 1.

Humenay, Lansing Voters Matter public relations director, said her group will focus on registering and educating voters in the 20 precincts that reported low voter turnout. Humenay said the group doesn’t focus on the issues of the election but instead on helping individuals understand the registration and voting process, and why it is important to them. She said there isn’t much information on why voters in these low-income areas aren’t participating more.

When the issue of geography and income level is brought up, a hidden code of race begins to emerge. In a report entitled “The Long Shadow of Jim Crow,” published by the NAACP, reference was made to Michigan State Rep. John Pappageorge’s (R-Troy) remark in the Detroit Free Press: “If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we’re going to have a tough time in this election.” The report also noted that blacks comprise 83 percent of Detroit’s population.

Both Democrats and Republicans make assumptions about race that may not always be accurate, said political analyst and Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner. “African Americans and Hispanics are largely taken for granted by the Democrats, ” he said. But he also noted that there is a growing group of fiscally conservative upper middle class blacks.

The Lansing chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute is targeting blacks aged 18-34 in a voter registration drive. Chapter president Paula Simon said they are “educating our minorities, and first-time voters in layman’s terms. Our goal is to put it on paper, so you can understand it at a glance.”

Simon is concerned about voters who have recently moved, or first-time voters who will be required to show identification at the ballot box. Part of the concern, said Alaina Beverly, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is the leeway given to the poll workers in deciding what constitutes valid identification.

“Poll workers get to use discretion as to what type of ID they’re going to accept or what is inadequate,” Beverly said. “I think the case will be that when discretion is going to be introduced, it acts to the detriment of black and brown voters.”

She cites historical examples of poll workers administering literacy and character tests to determine an individual’s right to vote. Poll workers decided who would be tested, and the power was often used to keep minorities from voting.

Beverly said the NAACP has set up a toll-free number (866-OUR-VOTE) that people can call to report polling problems, which will be investigated.

“You don’t get another shot,” Beverly said. If the poll worker determines the required identification is not enough, she said, “They take your ballot, they just won’t count it, and they won’t tell people that it won’t be counted.”

The intricacies of the voting process are what hold some minorities and low-income people back, said Liza Rosen, director of the Lansing office for the Public Interest Research Group’s Community Voters Project. Rosen said they encounter many people who tell them, “I don’t know how to register, where to register, or when the election is.”

One group they’ve found facing intimidation is convicted felons. Rosen said they are having success in educating and registering the group. “We’ve registered a lot of people who when they finished their sentence were told they do not have the right to vote, when actually they do.”

Rosen says the Community Voters Project has a goal of getting 20,000 people registered in Michigan and has already collected over 15,000 of those registrations since setting up in June.

The success of the program has been somewhat dampened by a criminal investigation. Ingham County, Meridian Township and City of Lansing clerks’ offices determined that at least some of the voter registration applications turned in by the group were forgeries (see accompanying story).

Still, the setback hasn’t dampened the registration workers’ attitudes. Mwabeni Indire has been registering voters for several weeks. He says they encounter frustrations from some people but mostly have a very positive feeling about the experience.

“Some people see the clipboard and assume we’re working for a credit card company,” Indire said. He also hears messages of frustration from people who have voted. Indire said he’s frequently heard people tell him, “I do all this voting, and I see no changes.” But when he is successful in registering an applicant, it is satisfying. “I’m giving people the chance to empower themselves, and that’s the most rewarding part.”

Getting people registered doesn’t mean they will come out to vote. Joel Kuiper is spearheading a free concert at The Temple Club in Lansing’s Old Town Sept. 24 and 25 (see story on Page 15). Kuiper says the goal is to bring out young people, get them registered and encourage registered people to vote. “One hundred million people didn’t vote in the last election,” Kuiper said. “I would bet that half of them are registered.”

Some groups, like Moveon.org, are working to build relationships with voters to get them to the polls. Moveon had its first Lansing meeting for the Leave No Voter Behind initiative on Sept 15. The group — known nationally for using e-mail distribution lists, e-mail campaigns to state officials, and high-tech-distributed call centers — is resorting to traditional grass roots methods of canvassing door to door.

Moveon’s canvassing is focusing on educating voters, not registering them, but it is one of the few groups putting major emphasis into getting voters to the ballot box in November. Moveon official Mariah Fairchild said the group has aims to contact swing voters three times: first at the door, second through calling and building a relationship, and third on Election Day to encourage them to get out and vote. The group is already organizing volunteers to offer rides and temporary babysitting so parents can go out and vote.

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