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Will black voters turn out for Obama?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 17, 2008 - Never, Mark Wells said, has he felt the kind of electricity about an election that he feels about this one.

"It is like a dream come true," the self-employed contractor from Pine Lawn said of Barack Obama's candidacy for presidency. The campaign, he says, has energized him, excited many of his friends and galvanized African-Americans in St. Louis in a way that politics has never done before.

"People are tired of trying to hope, and then having their hopes dashed," said Wells, stopping to talk this week on a sidewalk near the corner of Natural Bridge Road and Darby Street. "I tell them I don't care what has happened in the past, even if you think your vote doesn't count for anything. I want everybody to be there."

Even as Wells spoke, a friend approached wearing a T-shirt, jeans and a brown Cardinals baseball cap pulled tight against his ears.

Like Wells, the friend was in his early 30s, but unlike Wells, the man admitted that with the Oct. 8 deadline looming to register for the Nov. 4 election, he was not registered to vote.

Wells shook his head. "There's a lot of them, man, just like him," he said. "You wouldn't believe the number."

Wells and his friend, both African-Americans, represent the hope and the challenge of a Democratic Party working to elect Barack Obama, making him America's first African-American president.

And while Obama's message of change is sounding through the parks, churches and community buildings of the nation's black neighborhoods, the question remains: Will it be enough?

Tanesha Fields, a 27-year-old nursing home worker from St. Louis, says she hopes the support is there come Election Day, but still, she wonders.

"People are running around saying, 'I want Obama to win; I want Obama to win','" said Fields, who is black. "But they aren't even registered. Or, when it comes time to vote, they don't even go to the polls.

"On Election Day, I'll be out knocking on doors; I'm calling every phone number I have," she said as she sat on her mother's front porch in the 5700 block of St. Louis Avenue. "I'm going to get on their nerves.

"We've got to make this happen for us."

Ken Warren, professor of political science and public policy at Saint Louis University, said Obama cannot be elected without an unprecedented vote from African-Americans.

There is not another single voting bloc that votes so consistently for Democratic candidates, he said. And that will be even more true this election. 

But while Warren, who is white, has heard all of the talk about historic push to register African-American voters, he is not sure how significant that will be.

"You can force people to register by cornering them in a supermarket, but that normally has not paid off," he said. "Getting people to register is fairly easy, getting them to act on that registration is very, very tough."

Warren also said it has been historically very difficult to get black men to vote. "Black males do not vote in anywhere near the numbers of black women. They don't think it's cool for some reason; they are very much withdrawn from the system."

There is no question that Obama's candidacy has energized African-Americans, but just how much remains to be seen, he said.

Warren said he believes that even motivated African-American voters could opt to stay away from the polls if they begin hearing that Republican Sen. John McCain has a lock on the state.

How many African-Americans actually go to the polls, he said, may depend in large part on "the word on the street" about Obama's chances in the days directly before the election.

Patrick Green, a self-employed businessman from Pine Lawn and Obama campaign volunteer, says he has seen enormous enthusiasm from white and black voters alike during this election year.

Green, who is white, said voter registration efforts have reached out into many of the same places as before -- churches, social events, grocery stores -- but they also have gone into areas not typically considered prime spots for voter enthusiasm, like nightclubs and bowling alleys.

"We've even had people walking through Forest Park looking for people to register," he said.

Unlike Warren, Green says he believes the work will make a significant difference in black voter turnout.

He said he recently registered a 90-year-old African-American woman who promised that she would vote for the first time in her life this November.

"For whatever reason, she felt like this was the time that she wanted to vote, that she wanted to participate."

Census tract maps from 2004 -- the most complete available -- show large areas of the city of St. Louis and predominantly African-American neighborhoods of north St. Louis County with high percentages of unregistered or inactive voters (voters who have moved or whose registration otherwise is no longer active).

Typically, the numbers of unregistered or inactive voters were between 40 and 50 percent of those who would be eligible, but many areas were 60 percent or greater. While that shows enormous potential, it also shows how daunting the challenge is.

In the city of St. Louis, almost 203,000 residents are registered to vote, which represents an increase of 17,000 since February. 

At the same time, more white areas of west St. Louis County and south St. Louis County typically show registration at 80 percent or more of eligible voters. More affluent areas like Des Peres, Creve Coeur, Sunset Hills, Clayton and Webster Groves often show percentages of 90 percent and more registered voters.

St. Louis County election officials do not have any numbers on new registrations. They say that the total number of registered voters in the county has fallen slightly, from 670,000 in January to about 668,000 now, but that number will go up in the next few weeks. County election officials are planning for 725,000 registered voters; if that happens, it will be the most since 686,000 four years ago.

A drive through predominantly African-American neighborhoods in St. Louis and St. Louis County reveals few political yard signs or bumper stickers.

Sheila Little-Forrest, president of Afro World Hair and Fashions at 7276 Natural Bridge Road, says that may simply be because many residents don't know where to find campaign materials.

Little-Forrest  says her shop is one of the few in the area that sells Obama campaign buttons, T-shirts and other election paraphernalia. She said campaign workers also use the shop as a staging area for weekend canvassing and registration efforts.

She said volunteers from her shop alone have registered about 500 new voters.

"People want change," said Penny C. Williams, a nurse from St. Louis County. Williams was buying Obama buttons this week at Afro World. "It starts with friends and family, but you watch it spread throughout the entire community."

The Missouri Democratic Party hopes to register 75,000 new voters in advance of the election. But party officials won't be any more specific about which voters they are targeting.

Claudell Webb, 41, of Ferguson, said the So Flyy Hair salon where he works has been abuzz with political talk. Everyone, he says, is excited about Obama and his chances, proudly showing off a Barack Obama shirt. 

"These last few years have been hard on everybody," he said. "The economy is so messed up.

"Two of my kids get to vote for the first time this year. My grandmother is 73 years old and she has never been this excited before. I think she has only voted a couple of times in her life. She's already talking about making arrangements for somebody to pick her up and take her to the polling place."

Webb disagrees with those who say black people will not get out the vote for Obama -- in St. Louis, in Missouri and around the nation.

Turnout among blacks, he predicts, "will triple" from 2004. It's a big boast, he says, but this is a big election.

"This is a big thing, especially in the black community."

Nearby, Joseph Lewis, 66, carried a bag of groceries toward his home on Grimshaw. No, he admitted, he had not voted in many past presidential elections. But he is voting this time.

"I couldn't see much of a difference before," said Lewis, who is black. "But now I can."

Still, the question lingered in the St. Louis air: Can Obama win? "I don't know about that," the retired laborer said. "It'll be a draw down. There's a lot of people just not ready yet.

"The time is due, but whether people are ready or not, that's another question.

"I guess you could say I'm kind of on the shaky side."

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