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Groups hope for huge black voter turnout

Black leaders and activists are hoping for a record turnout of black voters at the polls this year after thousands of black votes were thrown out in the 2000 election due to balloting errors.
/ Source: Reuters

Black leaders are claiming success in their efforts to register new voters after the 2000 election debacle in Florida and are focusing now on getting them to the polls in next month’s presidential election.

Various black voter registration drives were mounted following revelations that thousands of black votes were thrown out four years ago due to balloting errors.

“Political scientists have underestimated the level of desire for change in the black community,” said Benjamin Chavis, a co-founder of the group Hip Hop Summit Action Network.

Chavis, a former director of the NAACP, said the group has helped sign up more than 2 million people to vote.

“If we have a record turnout in key swing states, it’s going to make a critical difference,” he said.

To that end, not only have long-standing rights groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference registered black voters, but new groups have targeted segments of the population that have not previously voted in strong numbers.

The hip hop group co-founded three years ago by music mogul Russell Simmons has been hosting forums at which rap singers such as Ludacris and Jay-Z urge black and Hispanic young adults to vote.

And this month, the group kicked off two month-long bus tours in the Midwest and South to raise turnout. Organizers are also planning a blitz of e-mails, phone calls and public service announcements in hip-hop media.

More blacks registering to vote
There are other signs that turnout efforts are paying off. In Georgia, new voter registrations among blacks have risen this year, from 10,587 in January to 29,055 in September, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

About 36 percent of new Georgia registrants for the month of September were black, added Cara Hodgson, a spokeswoman.

Organizers, noting that turnout has generally been rising, are hoping to spur even more voters to the polls. In November 2000, black voter turnout was at 54.1 percent, up from 50.6 percent in November 1996, according to the Census Bureau.

Since blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic, any increased turnout is expected to favor the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry. In 2000, less than 10 percent of blacks supported George W. Bush.

Activists plan to monitor voting
Black activists also are planning to monitor precincts on Election Day to record voting irregularities.

“We don’t want George Bush to get re-elected,” said the Rev. Willie Bolden, assistant to the SCLC’s president. “We are not going to let up.”

The SCLC, for example, plans to monitor Florida’s Duval County, where it says 27,000 black votes were purged in 2000.

The hip-hop campaign is aimed at getting younger blacks involved. “I think more people are registering because of the celebrities getting involved,” said Lanier Sims, 29, who runs a family excavation business in Covington, Georgia. “It’s not a bad tactic.”

His wife, a 23-year-old oncology nurse, notes a big push to get out the black vote on the local level. “We do not vote as we should, and there’s no excuse for it,” Bionca Sims said.

While experts project higher voter turnout next month among the general U.S. population, some see catalysts for especially strong black participation.

“Given the fact that there is a strong anti-Bush sentiment in the black community and what happened in 2000 with questions about black votes not being counted in Florida, you have the ingredients for a larger black turnout,” said Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.

To get out the vote, the SCLC has stepped up its organizing at U.S. college campuses, and recently sponsored a “Democracy Behind Bars” drive to register jailed blacks who are eligible to vote.

“The issues are putting our people back on the street,” said Brenda Davenport, director of programs and community outreach. “We’re looking at a high level of poverty. Our people cannot afford housing or health care.”

Republicans have charged that Democrats take blacks for granted and have called on well-known figures such as boxing promoter Don King to help sway voters with messages of economic empowerment.

Though Sims is a registered Democrat, the business owner is undecided on the presidential race. “My father always said he made more money when Republicans were in office,” he said.

But count his wife in the Kerry column. “I wasn’t a big advocate for the (Iraq) war and now the (U.S.) death toll is greater than 1,000,” Bionca Sims said.