Where the voters aren’t

by Jordan Green

We zeroed out. Flopped.

That’s right, two hours into our voterregistration drive in front of Compare Foods Supermarket at SouthEast Plaza in Winston-Salem we had exactly 0 completed applications in the bag.

Chad Nance, editor of the online Camel City Dispatch, and I decided to initiate the drive to make some kind of civic contribution in this election season, take the political temperature in the community and promote our respective publications. We chose SouthEast Plaza because it has a low-price grocery store that draws from a racially diverse population base — Hispanic, black and white — in a decidedly working-poor area. Nance, who worked on NC House candidate Ed Hanes Jr.’s campaign during the primary, said the numbers confirmed what I had suspected — that this was an area with low registration.

We weren’t the only ones working the lot. A prostitute dressed in a dark brown blouse was making her way across the hot expanse of parking lot as I pulled in, having landed a customer.

“That woman has a hard job,” Nance told his son, who had finished his first week at Wiley Middle School.

“One of the two oldest professions in the world,” he added. “That and mercenaries.”

We had a stack of YES! Weekly newspapers and fliers for the two publications. Nance had meant to bring T-shirts to give away as rewards. But we didn’t get that far.

Some people smiled and proudly informed us that they were already registered. Others said the same thing, but less persuasively so. I alternated between Spanish and English with people who looked Hispanic, experimenting to see which approach would garner the best results. Many people just said no. One woman said she was in a hurry. A stoutly built man who definitely looked Hispanic waved his hands in a blocking gesture and exclaimed, “English only.”

Surely, some of these were undocumented immigrants who were not legally eligible to vote. I can only guess whether any were US citizens who begged off because of fear. Perhaps they were worried that the document would be used to track down and deport undocumented family members. Perhaps they were unclear about who is legally allowed to register and the reward of getting to vote was outweighed by the risk of inadvertently violating the law. It is a Class I felony to falsely attest that you are a citizen on a voter registration application.

There were other excuses from people who would have no worries about deportation.

One elderly African-American man with a tattoo on his neck told me he couldn’t register because he didn’t have his ID with him. I mentioned that I didn’t think that was necessary. (In fact, if someone doesn’t have a driver’s license or other ID issued by the DMV, they can write the last four digits of their Social Security number.) I gave up when he told me that he lived in a nearby assisted-living center, and that he had recently fallen and broken his glasses, so he couldn’t see very well.

A weathered white man with white hair and wearing an earring smiled as I approached him near the entrance to the grocery store.

“I can’t,” he said. “I’ve got a felony.” I told him I didn’t think that should be a problem. While the man was in the grocery store I consulted a pamphlet put out by the NC Board of Elections for citizens conducting voter registration drives. One of the qualifications to register to vote is that you “not be a convicted felon still in custody, on probation, or on paroled.” But it goes on to say that “once released from custody, probation or parole from any federal or state jurisdiction, citizenship is automatically restored and you are eligible to re-register to vote.”

After the man came out of the grocery store, I chased him into the parking lot and read the guidelines to him.

“That’s alright, man,” he said. “I don’t want ’em to find me.”

Our effort was nonpartisan, and we didn’t mention either of the presidential candidates by name or even remind anyone that there was an election coming up. Based on race and income, I suspect that if they had been registered many of the people we talked to would have been likely Obama voters. The fact that they don’t even seem to have a passing interest in the election must be grim news for the Obama campaign.

The Obama campaign has been virtually invisible in East Winston — precincts where the candidate carried upwards of about 95 percent of the vote four years ago. People I know are scratching their heads as to whether the campaign is too incompetent to find black voters, are deliberately trying to distance themselves from this constituency or are just indifferent. For all I know, they may have already written off North Carolina but will win reelection without this state. Or maybe they’re focusing their resources on boomer women in suburban communities like Kernersville and Gastonia, and their strategic retreat from the inner city will prove to be a masterstroke of electoral brilliance.

It’s fairly evident that neither of the presidential campaigns are talking to the folks that shop at Compare Foods in southeast Winston-Salem. So far, it appears that they’re not voting because neither campaign treats them as if they count.

I’m not sure the working woman we encountered was the kind of entrepreneur to which the Romney campaign wants to court through their “we built this” theme. And, realistically, it would probably have been folly for the Obama campaign to reach out with a plan to lift people out of poverty. Because if there was a plan, why wasn’t it been in place over the past four years?