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Scenes from a Registration Drive

Voices for Working Families hits the streets and encounters both apathy and enthusiasm.

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TUESDAY, OCT. 19

1 P.M.

Voices for Working Families has organized its biggest press conference to date for this afternoon, on the steps of City Hall. Mayor Ray Nagin is a no-show, but the group is showcasing an even more potent newsmaker: Hornets star Baron Davis. A small crowd is gathered and most local news organizations are present, though the reporters seem to mainly come from the sports beat. Voices' Louisiana executive director Herbert Dixon gives a brief speech explaining the group's cause. "We're here to assist working families, the single moms, the disenfranchised," Dixon says. "That's our mission, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in our American democratic process."

Dixon quickly turns the podium over to Davis, who is dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with one of the hipper 2004 election slogans: "Vote or Die," the brainchild of rap mogul P. Diddy. Signs declaring "Vote or Die" have been plastered on areas surrounding public housing developments throughout New Orleans.

Davis' remarks are brief. "I want everyone to go out and vote this year," Davis says. "A generation ago, Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders fought for us to have this right. African Americans need to respect this right, respect Dr. King's legacy, and let their voices be heard."

His remarks seem unscripted, but they speak to the Voices for Working Families' primary message of voting-as-empowerment. The group delivers door-to-door brochures with facts such as this one: in 2000, 9.7 million African Americans, 7.2 million Hispanics and 2.7 million Asian Americans did not vote. Meanwhile, 20 percent of African Americans, 18 percent of Asian Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics do not have health-care coverage.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 45 percent of registered African Americans did not vote in 2000. Louisiana has the second-highest rate of registered black voters in the nation, just a fraction below Mississippi and the 50 percent mark.

A smattering of applause follows Davis' speech. He's quickly whisked in front of a row of television cameras. Reporters lob a few questions about voting, and then start asking about the Hornets.

THURSDAY, OCT. 21

9:19 A.M.

Nobody in Vickie Galbreth's van can figure out what the beeping noise is all about. "A light's supposed to come on when it makes that dinging noise, but I don't see a light," Galbreth says.

The van rolls from the Voices headquarters at Crowder and Morrison boulevards in eastern New Orleans, toward the Ninth Ward -- the day's target for canvassing homes. Galbreth pulls over at the first exit, and a slam of the back tailgate stops the beeps.

It's early, but the feeling in the van is friendly and upbeat. The crew includes four field workers, all wearing trademark Voices red T-shirts: Galbreth, Crystal Ferguson, Byron Evans and Alfred Churchill. Media consultant Jeff Menendez is also along for today's ride. Churchill's mental map of city blocks helps direct the van toward today's destination on St. Claude Avenue.

The local office of Voices for Working Families -- a nationally funded 527 group that began operations in New Orleans in June and also works in Baton Rouge and Shreveport -- now boasts a staff of 25 field workers. The period for voter registration has ended in Louisiana, so the groups are now concerned with follow-ups and voter education.

"The point we really have to work on today is making sure people know the election is on a Tuesday, not a Saturday," Galbreth says.

As the van veers down Almonaster Avenue, Galbreth asks, "Did y'all see us on TV the other night? Baron had our red shirt all draped around his neck; they look really good on television. We need to get him out knocking on doors, too."

Galbreth then calls headquarters. "Don't y'all eat all my strawberry shortcake before I get back!" she jokes into the phone. "We're coming back before we head to City Hall to kick off absentee voting."

Everyone in the van is voting absentee, which begins today, to ensure they'll have Election Day off to assist with helping voters get to the polls.

9:47 A.M.

Galbreth parks her car at the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Congress Street. Evans and Churchill take out lists of registered voters provided by Voices' national office. They're distributing "pledge cards," which ask that registered voters pledge to vote on Nov. 2. Also on the cards: boxes to check off degrees of involvement, from merely voting to bringing four others to vote, to volunteering with Election Day mobilization efforts. When completed, the pledge cards will be torn in half. One part stays with the potential voter as a reminder; the other goes back to Voices, complete with a number to be entered into a phone bank staffed at the local headquarters. Phone bank workers will call the names on the list to remind them to vote.

Today, Evans takes odd-numbered addresses on the lakeside of St. Claude Avenue; Churchill crosses the street to tackle the riverside. Galbreth and Ferguson will talk to people on the street.

Ferguson approaches a group of construction workers. A sweaty man drops his shovel, wipes his brow and silently begins filling the pledge card. Ferguson thanks him, reminds him to "please go vote," and the group continues.

A trio of young women passes. "Ladies, are you registered to vote?" Galbreth asks. The tallest one, dressed in white high-heeled boots and an American flag headdress, stops. The others keep walking. "Where are y'all going?" asks Galbreth, now also sweating.

"We're late."

"Late? Late for a date? Don't you realize that this is serious?"

"But I already voted," the tall woman explains.

"No, that was local. This one's bigger, and it's on Tuesday, Nov. 2," Galbreth says.

The woman fills out her pledge card. "Thank you, sweetheart," Galbreth says.

9:56 A.M.

"I always vote," says a man sitting on his porch, phone in hand, as several red shirts approach. The man fills out his pledge card, but assures the group again, "I always vote."

A middle-aged man in a faded shirt and tie -- the only white person encountered by the group this morning -- is passing by. He silently nods approval at Galbreth. "Tell everyone you know to go out and vote," Galbreth says. The man walks on, now with Voices' literature in hand.

A series of unanswered knocks follows. Galbreth begins to stuff Voices literature into mailboxes. Evans objects. "You are not supposed to do that, Vickie," he says. "You're not supposed to put stuff in their mailbox."

"What are you talking about?" she asks.

"You can get in trouble with that, Vickie, I'm telling you," Evans says.

Evans examines his list and determines a number of errors. Menendez pulls Evans aside to quietly inspect the names.

After the two talk, Menendez is asked if the group is worried about any Election Day concerns similar to the alleged dirty tricks of Florida in 2000. "Oh, the red shirts are going to be at the polls, too," he says. "We'll be there, watching."

10:09 A.M.

"Yo, you get recognition for this?" one man asks suspiciously as his older friend begins to fill out the pledge card.

"No, it's just a pledge that you'll vote," Ferguson explains.

The other man, Percy Wallace, checks the box saying he pledges to volunteer four hours with Voices.

"What are you doing, man?" Wallace's friend asks.

"Maybe I will go and volunteer," Wallace says.

"Man, I can't lie that much," the younger man says.

"Well, I am going to vote," Wallace says. "I'm going to help turn this thing around."

Churchill works down his list. He now stands directly across St. Claude from the rest of the group. Galbreth wants to head back to the van now and move it, to save a longer walk later. Churchill shrugs it off and resumes his task. "That's nothing but exercise," he says of the walk.

The group laughs with Churchill, the oldest and clearly a revered member of the group.

"We're all a family now," Galbreth says. She explains that her daughter Denise became involved with Voices when Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summit came to town in June. At the time, Galbreth says, she was at home, "doing my Martha Stewart thing," when her daughter asked her to get involved. She readily agreed.

10:32 A.M.

Churchill says his voter data is accurate but it's not stopping him from running into some bad attitudes. His sheet has "NOT VOTING!!!" scrawled across it. When asked about the entry, he explains, "That lady there shouted ŒI'm not voting!' at me." He points to a woman sitting on a porch. "I said, ŒAlright.'"

"It doesn't bother me none," he adds. "They're entitled to that. Not voting is in the Constitution, too, right?"

11:01 A.M.

The group is back at headquarters, enjoying the air-conditioning and Galbreth's strawberry shortcake. Most are in a hurry to eat and go downtown to City Hall for absentee voting. Gwen Carriere, the director of the New Orleans office, skips the treat and keeps working at her desk.

Carriere took a leave of absence from a school job to fill this position. She's worked with Voices state director Herbert Dixon on numerous campaigns and civil rights issues. "We feel very positive about this election," Carriere says. "We will have more people vote in Louisiana this time than have ever before. The registrar's office is just swamped with new voters. It's great."

Carriere says the 2000 voting incidents of Florida served as big motivators for groups like Voices for Working Families. She's concerned that the upcoming election won't be problem- and litigation-free. But as of Oct. 22, Voices has seen 7,042 citizens newly registered to vote. The group estimates it has contacted 71,952 voters and visited 106,084 homes. "When I was 21, your parents would tell you, 'You must go vote,'" Carriere says. "And we did. And that's what we're hearing this time. The older generation is telling the kids, 'You are going to vote this election.'"

Voices for Working Families volunteers help Edith Smith - to City Hall for absentee voting. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Voices for Working Families volunteers help Edith Smith to City Hall for absentee voting.

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