FEEL The POWER!
When speaking with Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP), you quickly learn the importance that the organization places on individuals empowering themselves through civic participation. The 22-year-old non-profit, nonpartisan group carries out part of its mission through coordinating the high-profiled Unity ‘O4 Civic Engagement and Voter Empowerment campaign.
The Unity ‘04 Campaign is supported by a network of 130 organizations ranging from the African Methodist Episcopal Church to the Haitian Women of America. Their goal is to register one million new voters, knowing that U.S. Census Bureau figures reveal that most registered voters do vote. During the 2000 election, for example, 86 percent of registered Whites voted, followed very closely by 84 percent of registered Blacks.
Unlike the lynches, cross-burnings, and other terrorist tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan, Black America’s currently potent adversaries use more sophisticated techniques to minimize Black political influence. Campbell, NCBCP’s Executive Director and CEO, says that the 21st century barriers to full political participation include cumbersome election processes and felony disenfranchisement.
In the 2000 election, Florida really opened our eyes, says the native of Mims, Florida. “We made sure that we did all that we could to turn out the vote, but we forgot to make sure [officials] counted all the votes,” she continued.
For the 2004 election cycle, the NCBCP has in place the Know Your Rights - Election Protection Campaign. The program involves lawyers and law students researching, then educating people on how the election process works in their state.
Through the program, voters learn about registration and voting requirements, deadlines for registration and absentee voting, and accessibility to polling places for the elderly and disabled. The organization also has teamed up with the Tom Joyner Morning Show to provide voters a national hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) to learn where to register to vote and report voter intimidation.
The rules that prevent nearly 13 percent of the African-American adult male population from registering to vote because they are ex-offenders also concerns the NCBCP. According to Representative John Conyers (D-MI), given current rates of incarceration, the government will disenfranchise three in ten of the next generation of Black men at some point during their lifetime.
Since the NCBCP is a non-profit organization, it cannot lobby for Conyer’s Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act that would restore voting rights to ex-offenders in Federal elections, but it is educating people on the issue. “We educate people through forums, panel discussions, and town hall meetings,” says Campbell, whose group has relied more on community organizations versus entertainers to energize our community.
"The practice of many states denying voting rights to former felons represents a vestige from a time when suffrage was denied to whole classes of our population based on race, gender, religion, national origin, and property,” says Conyers. He pointed out that the country has eliminated those practices.
“History shows us that the whole process of denying ex-felons voting privileges had more to do with denying [Black] people the right to vote than criminal justice issues,” added Campbell. Four states with small non-White populations, do not disenfranchise felons at all: Maine (97% White), Vermont (97% White), New Hampshire (96% White) and Massachusetts (85% White).
In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, the process for an ex-offender to regain his or her right to vote is often harder than finding a job. In eight states, an ex-offender needs a pardon or order from the Governor. In at least 16 States, the only method provided by Federal law for restoring voting rights to ex-offenders is a Presidential pardon. Some states don’t restore an ex-felon’s voting rights even after completion of his or her sentence. “Denying a person the right to vote after they have served their time goes against the whole concept of rehabilitation,” argues Campbell.
U.S. Census Bureau figures also reveal that older Americans, homeowners, married couples, and people with more schooling, higher incomes, and good jobs are most likely to vote. Young voters, those in the18-35 year-old group, are the least likely to vote.
Since the youth vote makes up nearly one-half of the Black voting age population, this group also greatly concerns the NCBCP. However, unlike many others, Campbell does not see our youth as simply apathetic. “For the most part, young people are not being taught civics in school. Therefore, young people don’t know how the system works and that is why they are not engaged in the process,” she reasoned.
Based on the NCBCP’s belief that youth do not “have all the information they feel they need to make good decisions,” the NCBCP started the Black Youth Vote program. The program utilizes peer-to-peer training to transfer information and train young people to lead their own efforts. “Young people being empowered with leadership opportunities help us build leadership succession [capabilities] for our community,” added Campbell, who once served as director of Youth Services for Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.
Among non-voters, one in five tell the Census Bureau that they do not vote because they are “too busy.” However, Campbell adds that many people do not vote because they do not believe that either of the two major polity parties adequately addresses their interests. “There should be more opportunities for more voices to be heard,” she says.
Ironically, at least two of America’s staunchest allies have more than two major political parties. The United Kingdom has three, including the Liberal Democratic Party (see American Politics: A British View by Liberal Democrat Charles Anglin on page 27). Canada has six, ranging from the French-speaking nationalist, Bloc Québécois, to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance.
Despite the shortage of viable alternative political parties in the United States, Campbell says “we as a community can come together and make sure our voices are heard.” For Campbell, registering to vote and voting is only part of the solution.
She encourages American Blacks to become “fully engaged in the process,” which includes holding elected officials accountable, knowing how to affect policies as they move from committees into law, and developing new leaders to succeed the old. By being fully engaged, she says “the voter has just as much power to influence legislation as they do in choosing their elected representative.