“If you don’t vote, you’re not free.” That’s what John Hayes was told one day by a young woman who was only 8 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.
“If you need a reason to vote, think of the people who died so you’d have that right,” says Hayes, who’s now president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP, which is heading up a voter-registration drive.
“Look to the history,” urges Hayes. Think of James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who was killed at the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Think of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black Vietnam vet killed while protecting his mother from gunfire during the march. And white Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo, killed by Klansmen while helping transport marchers back to Selma. And don’t stop with these American examples either: Hayes also mentions Poland’s historic turn to democracy — led by factory worker Lech Walesa — and the ongoing fight in Serbia, where voters are demanding that Milosevic step down and recognize the winner of that country’s Sept. 24 election, Vojislav Kostunica. “Millions of people put their lives on the line for the right to vote,” says Hayes.
Then (after apologizing for “preaching”), he notes that here in America, voter apathy has set in. In Buncombe County, voter turnout has been low for years — less than 20 percent in recent primaries and only 61 percent in the 1996 presidential race. The numbers are even lower among minority populations, such as the county’s burgeoning Hispanic, Russian and Ukrainian populations, says Hayes. “People assume we’re just registering black people [to vote]. But it’s for all of Buncombe County,” he emphasizes.
To accomplish its mission, the NAACP has taken voter registration to the people, setting up a table at the downtown Asheville Transit Center one day, at the Deaverview Apartments in West Asheville on another, and even at an Asheville High School football game on a Friday night, says coordinator Josephina Matty. “The first step in getting people to vote is getting them to register, and we want to target the areas that have had low voter turnout in the past,” she explains.
The organization has also enlisted others, such as Housing Authority officials and UNCA students (who registered voters at the Woodbridge Apartments). As of Oct. 4, such joint efforts had netted close to 500 newly registered voters, Hayes reports.
“We all have this one goal: getting people registered. Then, we want them to make informed decisions,” Matty adds.
She tells of one West Asheville resident who complained to her during a recent registration drive: “Why should I vote? [Elected officials] don’t care about me.” The man complained about the lack of sidewalks in his neighborhood, but Matty told him, “If you don’t vote, [city leaders] won’t know you’re there.”
Voting, she argues, ultimately has an impact on every aspect of our lives. For Matty, issues concerning children and education are paramount (a mother of two, she’s been active in the Vance Elementary PTO). For elderly residents in Buncombe’s assisted-living and nursing-home facilities, Medicare and prescription drugs are probably key issues. “Pick the candidate who suits you and your needs,” Matty urges.
But first things first: You have until Oct. 13 to register to vote (or let the Board of Elections know if you’ve moved, which could affect where you go to vote, says Hayes). Then, get out and do it by the evening of Nov. 7. If you can’t vote that day, the Board of Elections is offering No Excuse, One-stop Absentee Voting this year, he adds: From Oct. 16 to Nov. 3, registered voters can cast their ballots early, at the BOE office on College Street in downtown Asheville (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday), or at satellite voting stations at the Weaverville, Black Mountain, Enka-Candler and South Buncombe library branches (11 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays).
To help those in need of transportation to and from the polls, the NAACP will be renting vans. “If you’re coming home from work and need to vote — no excuse: Drop by the Board of Elections office [or your precinct], and we’ll get you home. Just call if you need transportation,” urges Hayes.
Call the NAACP branch office at 281-3066. For more voter information, call the Board of Elections at 250-4200, or visit their Web site at bcboe.org.