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'There's a momentum'

Community leader Shirley James wasn’t shy this year about sharing her belief that every eligible voter in Chatham County should exercise their right to vote.

While she had worked to organize members of the Savannah Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, her sorority, church and other civic and fraternal groups to vote before the Nov. 6 election, she also reached out to ordinary people.

Take Franklin Thomas Draper, of Garden City, for example.

The 76–year–old barbershop assistant at the Ruffhouse Presents Main Attraction Barbershop on Habersham Street wore a four–year old Obama campaign button to work. His boss, Dwayne Ruff, said he had been pushing Draper to get registered.

“You can’t be wearing that button if you don’t vote,’’ he told him.

James, who was getting her hair cut, chimed in.

“Did you vote last time?’ she said she asked him.

Draper said he hadn’t voted since 1978. He wasn’t registered and didn’t think he could register because he didn’t have a state–issued photo ID card. He said he thought the state requirement was “discriminating against the elderly and people who did not drive.”

James found Draper’s answer unsatisfactory. She convinced him that if she brought the necessary paperwork to him he could become a registered voter.

Together with Ruff, Draper completed his voter registration papers in time to vote early. James arranged for volunteer workers at the Savannah Branch of the NAACP to give him a ride to the Chatham County registrar’s office.

“Of all the things I’ve done during this election, I’m proud of this the most,’’ James said.

Friday morning, Draper was ecstatic. “I voted,’’ he said.

The smile on his face showed just how much he appreciated the efforts of Ruff and James.

“I feel like a citizen now,’’ he said, adding he learned that his government issued Medicaid card and photograph he carried in his wallet was enough to prove his identity.

James wasn’t the only patron of a local barber shop pushing reluctant eligible voters to go to the polls.  Barbers Kevin Williams and Ronald Collins of Boys II Men on Bull Street said they also “stayed on’’ another reluctant voter until he registered and voted.

The man who does odd jobs around that business declined to allow his name to be published. “I voted and my wife did too,’’ he said.

Collins said he was surprised about the older man’s initial attitude given the fact that African–Americans were once disenfranchised in the South and discouraged to exercise their voting rights.

“I thought he’d be telling us to vote. It was in the reverse,” Collins said.

No matter who wins, the 2012 presidential campaign ignited a push for early voting across Chatham County. But the numbers of early voters this presidential year were smaller than in 2008 in part because state law makers in Georgia reduced the number of early voting days from 45 to 21 days.

As of Oct. 31, 21,194 people in Chatham County had participated in early voting, said Sandra Williams, Chatham County Registrar. Williams and officials from the county board of elections did not have immediate numbers on the demographic breakdown.

During the 2008 general election, the Chatham County Board of Elections said 47,419 people of all races and ethnic groups voted early.

But by all accounts, African–Americans made a significant presence in the early voting lines for the general election. Many of them said they wanted to avoid the expected lines on Nov. 6.

For African–Americans, voting this year seems significant, said Richard Shinholster, the vice president of the local NAACP chapter.

He said he remembers a time when voter apathy in the African–American community in Chatham County was so prominent that NAACP leaders hosted a burial parade downtown.

“We were burying apathy,’’ he said.

Something changed.

“A lot of people are going to vote. I really think there is an excitement in the black community. This year African–Americans are not apathetic. There’s a momentum.’’

Asked if President Barack Obama’s candidacy has something to do with that, Shinholster said, “Is the sky blue? People are excited about the president and his politics.’’

Many of the voters in line wouldn’t say who they were voting for. And, they didn’t complain about the length of the lines because they expected the lines would be longer on Nov. 6.

“I’m dodging the longer lines on Election Day,’’ said Savannah banker Patrece Grant, who also encouraged her college-aged daughter to vote via absentee ballot.

“I just wanted to get it over with,’’ said Donika Golphin, an unemployed customer service representative. She said she hadn’t participated in early voting before but said “the times are different. I’m pulling for the person who is trying to help people like me.’’

Others say they had a sense that if they didn’t vote early they’d have a problem on Election Day. Margaret Deher, a 67–year–old retiree, moved to Savannah from Massachusetts and she feared that Georgia’s requirement for voters to have an identification card would be hardship. She was used to a system that required her to tell poll workers her name and no more.

Voters Roger Moss, artistic director of the Savannah Children’s Choir and Jack Penchoff of the communications department at the Savannah College of Art and Design, stood in line twice before they were able to cast their ballots.
“I’m more engaged in the electoral process,’’ Penchoff said.

They were seasoned voters. But  A’lexia Jenkins, a 19–year–old first time voter and freshman at Savannah State University, found it difficult to control her excitement and was critical of her peers who aren’t as excited about the electoral process.

“All my life I’ve heard about the struggles of African–American voters. I’ve talked to several people from my generation and they aren’t going to vote early because of the lines. But you stand in lines to buy shoes on sale,’’ she says she tells them.

“Get a priority,’’ she said.