As crowds of people in medieval garb poured out of the subway at West 190th Street to attend the Medieval Festival at Fort Tryon Park on a Sunday, they passed a somewhat anachronistic table set up by the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan.“Have you registered to vote yet?” the blue-shirted volunteers yelled.
One elderly woman with a wreath of flowers in her hair stopped by to ask volunteer Janet McDowell about her registration form and presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s policies. “That Paul Ryan, he’s insane,” the woman said, walking off.
Several organizations in Harlem and Washington Heights are leading the drive to get voters uptown registered in time for the November elections.This year’s deadline is Friday.
“People need to get off Facebook and Twitter and fight this battle,” Harlem4Obama campaign director Chet Whye said. ”It’s not the tweet, it’s the street.”
In 2008, Harlem4Obama registered 3,000 voters 60 days before the registration deadline, said Whye.
The Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan sets up voter registration tables every Saturday at different points uptown, and its volunteers man phone banks to call uptown residents, reminding them to register and vote.
The group has registered new young voters, as well as newcomers who have recently moved to Washington Heights and Harlem and need to change their registration, said communications director Alex Luis Castex-Porter. On one September Saturday volunteers registered about 25 voters in 3 hours. Since the beginning of September, the group has signed up about 300.
Most of these organizations depend on volunteers. For the 2012 campaign, Harlem4Obama’s volunteers number around 1300. The Barack Obama Club depends mostly on its 13 executive committee members for its tabling efforts.
Harlem Pride, formed in 2010 to celebrate Harlem’s gay, lesbian and bisexual community, is using its social media networks to urge people to register and posting links on its Facebook group, said Harlem Pride President Carmen Neely.
Brandon Brice, affiliated with several political organizations including the Harlem Republican Club, has also been attempting to reach voters through social media. Brice, who most recently worked for New Jersey governor Chris Christie works with his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, to distribute pamphlets and host political speakersat events such as the African American Day Parade. Its next event, a panel discussion, will be held at Columbia University’s Uris Hall tomorrow.
“You have to go out to the people,” Brice said. “They won’t necessarily come to you.”
Not all volunteers can vote themselves. Students from the Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem approach potential voters at street corners throughout the neighborhood as part of their civic education curriculum. In bright yellow T-shirts that read, “We Can’t Vote, But You Can,” they stand at busy intersections like 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, politely but enthusiastically stopping passers-by and asking if they are registered.
Each election year, 2000 students, kindergarteners through high school seniors, provide voter registration forms under a teacher’s supervision and offer to mail the forms for residents. A street effort in early September registered about 300 voters, said external affairs manager Steven Cunning.
“In areas such as Harlem, there are very few people who exercise their right to vote,” he said.
The numbers of registered voters uptown have decreased since 2008. That November, according to the state Board of Elections, there were 378,022 active registered voters in the 15th Congressional District which includes Harlem, Inwood, East Harlem, Washington Heights and parts of the Upper West Side. As of April, however, only 296, 205 active voters were registered in the district, which after the 2010 redistricting now includes parts of the former 7th and 16th Congressional Districts.
“Some people get kind of intimidated,” said Democracy Prep 11th grader Paige Banks about standing on street corners. “It can be scary for us too.”
“There was one woman who kept asking all these questions about who we are and what we do,” 10th grader Edgar Sanchez added. “But I just told her about our school and what our mission is.”
Both students found the experience “amazing.” For Banks in particular, this experience fits her goals of becoming a political activist when she’s older.
Other uptown groups focus on informing voters of the candidates’ positions on particular issues.
Harlem Pride has created an interactive chart depicting Romney’s and Obama’s stated positions on gay and lesbian rights. As a non-profit organization, it cannot back candidates. However, Harlem Pride is “certainly happy that our current president has endorsed things like marriage,” Neely said.
Harlem4Obama supporters have also traveled to Philadelphia, where the state’s new voter ID law initially required voters to present state-issued IDs when they vote. Volunteers advised residents on how to obtain identification.
A judge has delayed implementation of the law, but the state has not decided whether to appeal the decision, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which challenged the law in court.
“If we don’t win Pennsylvania, we can put the whole election in jeopardy,” Whye added.
The Barack Obama Club also sent 50 volunteers to Philadelphia in September; they knocked on 1000 doors, placed 500 phone calls and registered 75 new voters, all of which cost about $1000, said Castex-Porter. Another group will head to Philadelphia on Sunday.
The most critical issue these organizations say, is that uptown residents vote.
“We certainly encourage everyone regardless of sexual orientation to exercise their right to vote,” Neely said. “Not all of us have had the right to vote from the beginning.”