Voter registration not enough

By Ed Brock

Tony Brown didn't vote before last year.

"My mother said I had to go down and vote," said the 30-year-old College Park man, "because of my kid's future."

That's the kind of turn around that Clayton County officials are looking for here.

Two weeks ago Congressman David Scott, D-Georgia, was speaking at the annual banquet for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was deeply concerned about reports that Georgia has been consistently one of the lowest three states in voter turnout for the past three decades.

And Clayton County is near the bottom for voter turnout among the Atlanta metro counties, Scott said.

"It is a great challenge and a great opportunity," Scott said.

In the 2000 election, only Fulton County's 65.06 percent total turnout was lower than Clayton County's 66.66 percent, according to figures from the Georgia Secretary of State's Office. Fulton, Cherokee, Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Douglas, Forsyth and Rockdale counties had turnout percentages in the low to mid 70s and Fayette County had 83.21 percent turnout.

Among Clayton County voters, males in the "other" ethnic category (including Asian and Hispanic) between the ages of 18 to 24 had the lowest turnout with 28.95 percent. Black males in the same category were second lowest with 34.44 percent followed by white males in that age category with 39.11 percent. Older people in all ethnic categories and females in all categories had higher turnouts.

In the last two elections in Clayton County, only some 29 percent of the 120,000 registered voters actually voted in the July primaries, said Annie Bright, director of Elections and Registration for Clayton County. Only three percent of the voters turned out for last Tuesday's special election on continuing the school Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, Bright said.

Bright said voter registration is high in Clayton County and getting higher, but the problem is follow through on election day.

"Whenever somebody comes in to be deputized (for election registration) I tell them to encourage people when they come to register not just to register, but to come out and vote," Bright said.

Low voter turnout is almost a tradition in Georgia, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate that has been performing its study for the past 28 years.

"Georgia has for a long time ranked near the bottom," said Curtis Gans, the committee's director.

By "near the bottom" Gans means 48th or 49th in the nation.

In fact, Gans said that in the last two national elections, of the 11 states with lowest voter turnout in 2000, seven were Southern or border states. In 1996 eight of the bottom 11 were Southern or border states.

There are two primary reasons, Gans said.

"Southern states still tend to have more rigid registration requirements than other places," Gans said.

For example, Gans said the 30-day before elections cut off period for voter registration, while shared by some other states, is also more liberal in other states. Some allow registration up to or at least much closer to election day.

Another problem is that there is more poverty in the Southern states, Gans said.

"Poor people vote the least," Gans said.

But the biggest problem nationwide is not just getting people registered, but getting them to vote. Addressing the poverty issue, greater civic education and strong civic institutions are some ways to reverse the problem, Gans said.

Scott said no group is better able to take on the issue in Clayton County than the NAACP since it has a tradition of promoting voter rights.

"Now the issue is not getting the right to vote, we've got the right, but to remind our people of the sacrifices, the blood sweat and tears," Scott said.

The NAACP and black elected officials should lead the way in Clayton County both because African Americans are the majority in the county and because voter turnout is low in the black community, Scott said. But the issue crosses all racial lines and is one of "community need," Scott said.

Schools, churches, the media and other community groups must also join the effort.

"We can no longer be satisfied to be last in voting," Scott said.

Along with education, community leaders have to look at the mechanics of voting, Scott said. For example, living in a suburban county means most Clayton County residents who commute to jobs in the city have only a narrow time window in the morning and evening to get to the polls.

"Early voting can turn that around," Scott said, adding that he is doing all he can to educate people about early voting.

That process allows people to come to vote up to a week before the election for any reason.

But since other suburban counties also have higher turnout percentages, Scott said Clayton County must also overcome two mental roadblocks to voting. Those are the belief that an individual vote doesn't count and the "What's in it for me?" attitude.

In answer Scott cites the old saying that "The squeaky wheel gets the oil."

"The way you squeak is by your number of people at the polls voting," Scott said.

A high voter turnout gives Scott more pull in Washington to get funding for programs such as the proposed Atlanta-Lovejoy commuter rail service. But if the turnout percentage stays low he has less pull.

"I think we have to do a better job of communicating to our constituents just what is in it for them," Scott said.