Grassroots voter registration

The deadline for registering to vote is Friday, Oct. 8.

Apathy? That’s so September 10. Voting is what’s hot now — so hot that a voter-registration movement has spontaneously erupted locally, if not nationally. In fact, enough grassroots registrars have taken it upon themselves to help their fellow citizens prepare for the Nov. 2 day of reckoning that North Carolina officials have had trouble keeping up with the demand for registration forms.

Determination to change the present regime in Washington seems to motivate many of the get-out-the-vote missionaries Xpress spoke with. Yet seeing their apparent success in harvesting new voters, citizens on the opposite side of the political divide are picking up the registration clipboard in defense of George Bush. And the statistical trends emerging from all this newfound grassroots ardor for old-fashioned electoral politics might surprise Democratic and Republican party leaders alike.

“I’m not connected to any partisan effort,” emphasizes Asheville artist George Handy, whom many consider an avatar of the local registration revival. “This is coming through just out of my heart. When anybody starts in about the politics, I really dislike talking about that. It’s bigger than that.” Handy, who estimates he’s personally registered nearly 4,000 voters, has recruited a small army of helpers to stamp, address and distribute thousands of registration forms.

“What I love is that I can go into a K-Mart parking lot and meet people I’d never get a chance to talk to, and give them the Martin Luther King thing that one person with enough determination and passion can make such a difference, and if you take three of these applications, you’re now three times as powerful,” says Handy. And proselytizing for democracy has even taken on a spiritual dimension for Handy, who is a Buddhist. “Buddha means ‘to awaken,’ and to see people wake up to the fact that their voice is of importance — I approach it as big, big, bigger than this little political thing we’re in now.”

Handy’s chief helper — and the inspiration for his electoral activism — is his 9-year-old daughter, Tess Handy. When her third-grade class was studying King and Gandhi last spring, she asked her dad why she should care about those historical figures. In making his case, Handy found he kept coming back to the significance of winning the right to vote. As a learning experiment, the two began surveying people about whether they and their acquaintances were registered. After that, it was a short step to actually registering people themselves. Now Handy has put his sculpture and pottery on hold while he and his daughter work out of a VW van he’s converted into a rolling voter-registration office.

These days, Handy is keeping more than 120 post offices throughout Western North Carolina and Mecklenburg County supplied with registration forms, which he places in homemade Plexiglas trays marked with key voting deadlines (see box). He’s also persuaded local libraries to pull their forms out of drawers and put them “right in your face,” as Handy puts it. “When you bring a book back or check out, bang — it’s right there.” He’s even begun supplying voter-registration forms to health-food stores in 10 states.

“I’ve got 120-130 stores I go to locally, and each time I go into them they go, ‘Hey, there’s that guy with the [registration forms] — we need some more, we need some more!'” Small businesses in particular have welcomed him with open arms: “‘We’ll get this chewing gum out of the way — put it right here,'” is the attitude they take, says Handy. “I’ve had incredible hugs and tears.”

But Handy’s do-it-yourself democracy has met with a chillier reception from many of the large retail chains he’s tried to place forms in, he reports. “They’ve all said, ‘No, we can’t do it, we have to have corporate OK, and by that time it would take four weeks, blah, blah, blah. No, we can’t do this.'”

A notable exception is Office Depot. Returning to a local branch to refill his tray, Handy found that it had been replaced by a colorful one of the retailer’s own design. Handy says he’s since learned that Office Depot is now providing voter-registration forms to its customers throughout the country in these trays. (The company is partnering with Women Impacting Public Policy, or WIPP, in a “We Decide!” national voter-registration drive, according to Office Depot’s Web site.)

Blue clipboards vs. red clipboards

“We have a population of disenfranchised people,” asserts Asheville resident Marsha Hammond — and she’s devoted to finding them and registering them to vote.

“I go to the housing projects; I go to the places where the trash men drive their trucks in the afternoon. [I go] outside the Wal-Mart.”

Hammond estimates that about 90 percent of the “couple of thousand” people she’s given forms to since July will vote for Kerry.

“People are mostly eager,” she says. “Black people get it — across the board — that they don’t want Bush in office any longer.”

Hammond, a psychologist, makes no bones about her motivation for getting out the vote.

“I just can’t stand George Bush,” she exclaims. “I think he’s an idiot — he’s driving us straight into hell.” Like the other registrars, however, she says she registers everyone who’s willing, regardless of party or candidate preference. (State law forbids political discrimination when registering voters.)

But local liberals’ registration drives have sparked “a backlash from the quote-unquote ‘conservative contingency’ to also register in defense,” reports Don Yelton, a member of the Buncombe County-based conservative group Citizens For Change.

When CFC members saw anti-Bush registration activists working the long lines for Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 911 in Asheville recently, it got them thinking.

“At the [next] Citizens For Change meeting, they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to start registration,'” Yelton recalls. Members of the grassroots organization are going to stores and other locations to register voters.

“When they have their monthly meetings, they say, ‘OK, we’re going to go here, we’re going to go there, we’re going to go there’ — and they do!” says Yelton.

No more Floridas

“There are some people who feel that after 2000, voting isn’t necessarily going to speak their voice for them in the way they’d like to,” observes activist Pandora Judge. Voting advocates, however, point out that a key component of the Bush/Gore recount debacle was the fact that only 54 percent of eligible Americans had even bothered to vote — the lowest turnout for a presidential election in generations.

And this election, these grassroots registrars believe, will be different.

“We have found lots of people who have never voted before and are going to vote for the first time this year,” says Adam Cohen, the local activist who co-founded Spread The Vote, an Internet-based national effort to register and get out the vote.

A surprising number of those new registrants are young people ages 18-29. Although this group accounts for 20 percent of those eligible to vote, in recent years they’ve been the demographic least likely to actually cast a ballot. But national surveys are finding that young adults’ interest in presidential politics this year is close to the highest point it’s reached since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972, according to a recent report in The New York Times (“Vote Drives Gain Avid Attention of Youth in ’04,” Sept. 15, 2004).

Judge, who’s helping register students at Warren Wilson College and UNCA, is working with the Progressive Project. This local liberal grassroots group’s larger purpose, she says, is to try to get the left and the Democratic Party “talking and paddling the boat in the same direction when we need to.” The group’s voter-registration drive, however, is strictly nonpartisan.

“[We’re] trying to get people more involved in their democracy,” Judge explains. By early September, the group had registered more than 500 new voters at the two schools.

Apathy down, independence up

Voter-registration statistics posted weekly on the State Board of Elections Web site suggest that Buncombe County’s clipboard evangelists are indeed converting the nonvoting masses. By the first week of September, the county already had about 144,000 registered voters — a gain of more than 10,000, compared to the total number who registered in 2003 (this year’s deadline is Friday, Oct. 8).

State official Sharon Everett, who helps coordinate with the county boards, confirmed that an unexpectedly high demand for registration forms this summer from all across the state temporarily outpaced the printing contractors’ supply.

But whatever the street registrars’ individual motivations, the collective result has been truly nonpartisan: The county’s proportions of Democrats (46 percent) and Republicans (32 percent) are almost exactly what they were a year ago.

Almost, but not quite. Because the statistics also support the perception reported by several of the activists that a significant number of the people they’ve registered don’t care to be identified with any of the officially recognized parties. A steady rise in the number of Buncombe voters registering as “unaffiliated” — 21.7 percent of those registered as of early September, with Libertarians accounting for the remaining 0.3 percent — has taken a 0.1 percent nick out of the Democrats’ share over the last year alone, while whittling down the Republican contingent by 0.5 percent. That amounts to a total shift of 0.6 percent to the none-of-the-above party since 2003.

And though the numbers are smaller, there’s been a similar shift statewide, with independent voters increasing from 17.6 to 18.2 percent of those registered. But in this case, the difference has come out of the Democrats’ share (down from 47.7 to 47.0 percent), with the Republicans’ numbers slightly increasing (from 34.46 to 34.5 percent).

When told about this uptick in voters who avoid association with any party, Yelton — himself a maverick Democrat — remarked, “Even though both parties (and [both] conservatives and liberals) are out seeking registration, the people themselves are fed up with labels.”

Friends don’t let friends fail to vote

Local activist Adam Cohen is co-founder of the grassroots, Internet-based Spread The Vote. Here, in his own words, are “five simple things that everyone can do to make a difference:

1) Make sure you’re registered to vote. If you’re not sure, you can go to, and find out any information you need, in any state.

2) Vote early, on a day before Nov. 2. And if you can’t, take the day off from work or school to go vote — it’s the most important thing you’re going to do all day.

3) Take five nonvoters with you when you vote. Everyone has one issue that is important to them, such as the environment, jobs, [the] economy, education, [the] war on terrorism, Social Security, health care — pick one. Find an issue that’s important to each person and help them to vote. And if they still don’t care, ask them to vote with you because they’re your friend.

4) Hold a party. Talk about politics, talk about the upcoming election, talk about the candidates — be informed, so that people know who and what we’re voting on. There’s more to this election than the president. … County commissioners, state representatives, district judges — each one of these offices [is also] incredibly important.

5) Pass this information on to five other people.”


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