This I Believe

Jeff - Yellow Springs, Ohio
Entered on August 25, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

CONTINUING ADVENTURES IN ACTIVISM

On a crisp, fall afternoon in October, 2004, I was in Las Vegas working on a last minute get-out-the-vote campaign. While I was officially non-partisan about the actual election, (the truth being I wasn’t spectacularily enamoured with either candidate for President that year), I’d become tired of hearing about the awful voter turnout numbers in the U.S. In America, it’s typical for less than 50% of the people to vote in any given election year, which puts us at just about the bottom rate for any westernized nation. I believe a strong Democracy is one of participation.

Because Nevada was a swing state in 2004, several campaign volunteers were scouring the upscale Vegas neighborhood I had started working that day. So I decided to redirect my efforts to a housing project in a mostly poor, African-American neighborhood near the strip. The residents of this project actually seemed happy to see me. They were friendly and politely listened to my spiel about voting. However many told me they probably wouldn’t vote due to past hassles involving long lines and other problems. In short, many people seemed to feel their votes wouldn’t be counted anyway. I started to realize that perhaps these issues should be seen in a larger context of equality and justice, but more on this later.

I’d been interested in grassroots community organizing since I went to college in 1990. Campus activism was exciting, and for the first time my involvement was desired. I built houses for Habitat for Humanity and planted trees for the American Free Tree Program. On these endeavors I usually seemed to end up working with people who were only there to serve their court-ordered community service. They always looked at me like some kind of idiot for spending my Saturday doing this stuff as a “volunteer.” But I had my reasons. Johnny Appleseed was seen as an eccentric too, yet now his life is celebrated in community theater performances across the country.

I became involved in voting issues in 2000. My concern initially was that 18 to 34 year-old Americans had even worse voter turnout numbers than the dismal national figures previously mentioned. I was hoping for a big turnout that year, similar to 1992, when MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign inspired young people to vote in record numbers. In 2000, however, most young people I met viewed politics with suspician, and if anything were supporting Ralph Nader because they thought of him as an outsider, a rebel. I told them that politicians typically address issues related to the actual voter. For example, because senior citizens vote early and often we tend to hear a lot about Medicare and prescription drug prices. This little speech earned me a vacant stare on at least one occasion from a 22 year-old college student.

Despite the higher turnouts of 2004, I had started noticing some disturbing trends in Las Vegas that fateful October. Unprecendented voter registration drives had signed up millions of new voters in the U.S., yet long lines, reported intimidation tactics, and general confusion made it difficult for thousands of mainly poor, urban, and minority folks to exercise their voice. Since to enfranchise means literally “receiving the right to vote,” to disenfranchise must mean the opposite. This can occur directly, as was the case with the Jim Crow laws; or indirectly, as many believe happened in 2004. Therefore, I have decided to focus on helping the disenfranchised get their electoral empowerment back. And despite recent finger-pointing in the press about 2004, this is a bi-partisan problem, after all, county election boards are made up of both Democrats and Republicans.

Flash Forward to November 7, 2006: My dream is that we have unprecedented voter turnout for a midterm election, particularily in urban areas. My dream is that the media can proudly report that we have had a fair election; with adequate numbers of voting machines in our cities, and provisional ballots provided to anyone who couldn’t make it to the ballot box. If we can meet these formidiable challenges, Democracy will win by a landslide this November, which to me is infinitely more important than any individual race. This I Believe.