What are you doing next Tuesday? If you’re one of the 143,278 registered voters in Chatham County, then in theory visiting your polling place will be on your to-do list Nov. 7.
In reality, if you’ve voted at all in the last several elections, that voting activity is the best predictor of whether you will cast your ballot next week. Your voting history is also affecting what’s been turning up in your mailbox and in your voice mail for the last month.
Even if you’re registered to vote, if you haven’t voted in a while then you probably haven’t heard from many candidates. That’s because political types are spending their time and money trying to influence repeat voters instead of persuading occasional voters or non-voters to change their ways, while local “get out the vote” efforts are spotty.
That in turn means little effort is spent on courting the next generation of voters and elected officials, adults aged 18-25.
“We spend very little time trying to coerce new voters to the polls,” says Dave Simons, a Savannah political consultant who works for candidates for regional and local offices, mostly Republicans. “Ninety-five percent of my effort is geared towards targeting active voters.”
First-time political candidates often tell Simons they want to contact every potential voter during their campaigns. “They always start out with this idealistic game plan to reach out to every house. They really believe it when they start. That’s where I come in. There’s no way you can do that, time-wise or money-wise.”
When J. Craig Gordon, 29, launched his successful campaign for state representative earlier this year, his intention was to blanket the 162nd District, which encompasses much of central and southside Savannah.
“We couldn’t afford to mail to everyone so we said, we’re going to mail to people who have a track record of voting, and we’re going to knock on doors to everybody,” Gordon says. Team members worked hard to contact all 27,255 registered voters in his district but found the task to be bigger than they could handle. “We tried to reach everyone but there’s just no way possible unless we started to campaign almost a year out.”
Gordon’s campaign captured the attention of enough voters in the district for him to win the three-candidate Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote, but that percentage represents only 1,855 voters. In District 162, only 16 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the July 2006 primary, which roughly mirrored voter turnout throughout Chatham County for that election. (Gordon’s success in July will send him to the state capitol in January since no Republican candidate ran for the position.)
What will voter turnout be like on Nov. 7? According to Simons, turnout for a gubernatorial race is typically about 50 percent of registered voters. In a presidential election year, the rate increases to 70 percent.
“There is an overall apathetic attitude towards voting in the United States,” says Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson, “and Savannah-Chatham County is a reflection of that condition. People tend to vote their emotions. When there are highly controversial or emotional issues on the ballot, the percent of people who vote go up, although it still pales in comparison with other countries.”
Mayor Johnson describes the base of the community that usually votes as “senior citizens, middle aged professionals, and a small segment of young adults. Young people and poor people generally don’t vote. They have a lot to say but what they say usually shows an alienation or distrust of the political process. They feel their vote doesn’t make a difference so they don’t vote.”
Much of the effort in recruiting young voters seems to be focused on registration rather than mobilization, or getting them to go to the polls. At both Armstrong Atlantic State University and Savannah State University, new students, most of whom are freshmen, receive “motor voter” registration applications during summer orientation.
At Armstrong the students turn those cards in to the university, who forwards them to county or state election agencies according to Bill Kelso, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs. In past years Armstrong has sponsored candidate forums, and there are “pockets of students who are politically active,” Kelso says, but there is no university-sponsored effort to encourage student voting.
Andrew Brown, 20, the president of College Republicans at AASU, disagrees with Mayor Johnson’s assessment that young people don’t vote, but concedes that “Young voters are really hard to pin down on anything. A lot of people that are young are uninformed and don’t find that voting is that important. It’s depressing to see that a lot of people just don’t care. Going door to door, a lot of people say ‘I don’t vote. I don’t care.’ If you take a back seat to that, at some point something will occur where a major decision will be made” by people who were chosen by a minority of the electorate, he notes.
At SSU, the student chapter of the NAACP registered 197 new voters during their summer orientation registration effort. Shed Dawson, Jr., faculty advisor for the SSU chapter, says getting students motivated to register is the biggest challenge in the summer, when there are no other political activities on campus. Closer to election day, the NAACP hosts candidate forums, but “if they don’t fill that form out in time then by the time they get interested it’s too late for them to vote in that election.”
Simons says student voters are not a priority for his clients. “Young people, like military people, often come from another place. If they have an inclination to vote they vote back home. How much time can I spend trying to convince 18-25 year olds to vote? It’s high risk. When I look at a standard state house race, to mail to these new people that we don’t know if they are going to show up, why not just go after the people you know are going to vote?”
Historically, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters have led “get out the vote” efforts in Savannah and elsewhere. Both groups have active chapters in Savannah but their recent election season efforts receive tepid reviews, especially regarding their success with young voters.
“The NAACP does a good job in the African American community, but in Savannah it has waned from their heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” says Simons. “They have their candidate forums, but their political muscle is somewhat deterred because more independent-minded voices in the black community are out there.”
As an undergraduate, Charla Hall, 28, now an attorney at Oliver, Maner & Gray, was vice president of the Yale University chapter of NAACP, but has not participated in the Savannah chapter since moving here in 2003.
“I think younger people are concerned and want to do something,” says Hall, “but I don’t think the NAACP is what they identify with. That’s what their mothers or grandmothers are involved with.”
Hall says that young African American adults have not connected effectively with the NAACP regarding current community issues. “That’s part of the reason why we started Coastal Networking Group,” an organized monthly social for African-American young professionals which formed earlier this year. Hall and Gordon were among the organizers of the group, which brought together 30 or more people for monthly happy hour events, and spawned a monthly dinner club for more focused topical discussions.
Dawson’s SSU student chapter has worked with the adult NAACP chapter on joint projects, including a voter registration drive in the public housing neighborhood Yamacraw Village. He credits the decrease in young adult NAACP activism after college to the pressures and distractions of the work world. Once out of college “no one is pushing them to get involved,” he says. “While on campus you’re constantly exposed to it in the classroom or around campus. When you graduate you have to do it on your own.”
Richard Shinhoster, First Vice President of the Savannah NAACP chapter, disputes the assertion that his group is missing the connection with younger voters, noting that in addition to the SSU student group, an NAACP chapter at AASU was recently organized, and that in the past two years, involvement by younger voters in the NAACP’s Education, Registration and Mobilization efforts is on the increase. The NAACP does not release membership information but Shinhoster describes the group’s roster as “significantly larger” than the 42 members of Savannah’s League of Women Voters, whose most visible contributions to the local election scene are the candidate forums they sponsor, according to Simons and Gordon.
Statewide, the League of Women Voters is collaborating with schools to conduct mock elections to instruct children on the importance of voting. “Civics education is not given a priority,” says Jennifer Owens, Executive Director of the Georgia chapter. “That’s where we have lost the battle and we’re trying to make it up right now.”
“When I was a boy it was at a time when voting, for black folks, was a challenge at best. You were told you needed to vote in every election,” says Mayor Johnson. “I’m not sure that kind of message is being given our young people, although from time to time there is a breath of fresh air.
“When they look at these old men and women making the kinds of decisions they’re making I can’t question why they’re cynical,” Mayor Johnson says. “The sad part about it is without their involvement they can’t change it. Their apathy leads to the status quo. In the civil rights era, it was led by the old people, but the young people were the foot soldiers that made the difference.
“Personal interaction with young people, that’s what it takes,” concludes the mayor. “Interacting with mentors and people of vision and initiative.”
Gordon sees low turnout among young voters as “an attrition thing. You may have two or three generations that don’t vote. It’s our job to start the new generation of voters.
“I think parents that vote have kids that vote,” he concludes. “I remember going to the polls with my mom. That’s kind of all I know -- when it’s time to vote, you vote."
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