Black community leaders prepare for Election Day glitchesby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
The prospect of the first African-American president, Democrat Barack Obama, is expected to help drive voters to the polls in record numbers. That's especially the case in communities of color.
Community leaders say they're excited by a new political enthusiasm among young African-Americans, but they're also preparing for glitches on Election Day.
St. Paul, Minn. — Vanessa Levingston has scoured the blogs suggesting that voters could be turned away from the polls -- simply for wearing political paraphernalia.
In Minnesota, that's true: State law prohibits people from wearing political accessories in the polling place.
Levingston, a St. Paul mother of three, has noticed that Obama T-shirts have become a bit of a fashion trend.
"People are excited," she said. "They want to wear their shirts. A lot of them, it's going to be their first time voting. And they don't know that you can't wear that on Election Day to the polls. Or a button. Or a hat. Or Obama pants."
Levingston and her mother have even discussed standing outside of the polling places to hand out plain-colored clothing. Voters wearing Obama shirts could borrow T-shirts supplied by Levingston as they go in to cast their votes.
The T-shirt swap is just one example of how African-Americans are trying to protect their vote.
"We've got to be proactive," said Rev. Devin Miller. "Everything that comes out, we've got to have an answer."
Miller, a longtime St. Paul activist, said he and a number of other St. Paul black community leaders are also considering handing out jackets or coveralls on Election Day. Miller said they would make sure to stand 100 feet away from the polling place to make sure they're complying with Minnesota election laws.
On a recent afternoon, Miller bumped into Levingston at the Golden Thyme coffee shop on Selby Avenue. The talk quickly gravitated to Election Day.
He said many community leaders are on alert after the Florida voting fiasco of 2000 -- followed four years later by electoral foul-ups in Ohio.
Miller knows of a lot of young black voters who can't wait to mark their ballots. And he doesn't want to let this opportunity slide.
"You have first-time voters, or voters that have been disenfranchised from the last two elections, that are now saying, 'This is my last shot. If we don't get it right this time, I may not vote again,'" he said. "So when we look at it from that perspective, we have to -- especially in communities of color -- we have to do all that we can to embrace this new crop of voters."
Across the country, black leaders say they'll be on guard for glitches on Election Day.
The NAACP plans to have up to 750 lawyers on call that would be dispatched to precincts across the U.S. if problems arise next Tuesday.
They've also banded with other groups to promote a nonpartisan hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, where voters can report problems.
The NAACP is also educating first-time voters on what to expect, said national spokesman Richard McIntire.
"Once you're in line, we encourage folks to stay in line, and to bring things to help pass the time comfortably," McIntire said. "If you are in line prior to your polling location closing, you do have a right to remain in line until you have access to the voting booth."
Around this time in every election cycle, people need to wade through a lot of myths and misinformation, he added. Some are wondering if they can still vote if they're behind in their child-support payments, or if they've lost their homes to foreclosure.
The answer to both questions is yes.
And similar questions are also popping up outside the black community, said Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a left-leaning advocacy group that's working on a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote drive.
"Oftentimes, those problems are the result of more confusion at the polls than outright voter suppression," McGrath said.
His group is arranging for translators and drivers to assist Hmong voters in the metro. So far, TakeAction has registered 2,000 new Hmong voters for next week's election.
The group is also recruiting and training election judges on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Four years ago in Red Lake, a partisan poll watcher was ejected in response to complaints that he was intimidating voters and judges.
About 12 percent of Minnesotans are people of color. Community organizers say that's enough of a presence to make a difference in a tight election.
Vanessa Levingston said her 19-year-old daughter, a college student in Florida, is proud to cast her first ballot.
"The main thing I told her to do is just to make sure you get out there and you vote. Take 50 people with you, and make sure they vote, too," she said with a laugh. "No excuses. That's the main thing, no excuses."
And that's why Levingston is also telling first-time voters to leave their political T-shirts at home.
- All Things Considered, 10/27/2008, 5:20 p.m.