By Avis Thomas-Lester and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
EZ Street, a disc jockey at the WKYS radio station in Lanham, had an urgent message for his listeners yesterday: "You've got to register to vote today!" he said during a broadcast from the Prince George's County Board of Elections. "This is it. This is the deadline."
Maryland hasn't supported a Republican candidate for president in two decades, and that the state will go for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on Nov. 4 is considered a virtual certainty. But that didn't stop hundreds of organizers -- partisan and otherwise -- from rushing to register voters before yesterday's deadline.
At First Baptist Church of Glenarden, members filled out voter registration forms between worship services Sunday. On-air personalities from black media giant Radio One registered voters Monday at the Mall at Prince George's in the Hyattsville area. Yesterday, Democratic leaders wooed shoppers at Forest Village Park Mall near District Heights.
Party activists said they were seeking to capitalize on the excitement created by the Obama candidacy, particularly in Prince George's. With an eye not just to this year's contest but also to other elections, they aimed to register many people who might not have cast ballots for years or decades.
"We have found an opportunity here to draw people into the political process the way we never have before," said Sheila Stewart, director of news and public affairs for Radio One in the Washington area. "We have found so many people who were eager to participate."
Since last year, the number of registered voters in Maryland had increased 6 percent, or almost 190,000 people, to 3,298,344, as of the end of last month.
In Virginia, the number had risen 7 percent, to 4,892,034 voters, as of Sept. 30. In the District, when the rolls closed for the party primaries, there were 31,000 more registered voters than at the same point before the 2004 election, an increase of 8 percent.
Alisha L. Alexander, the Prince George's elections administrator, said the county registered 60,000 voters in 2004. There have been nearly 40,000 registrants this year, and she said the number is expected to rise sharply once the surge of applications from recent days is processed.
The Rev. Granger Browning, pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, said his church has sponsored voter drives for months. "The right to vote has been something, especially for African Americans, that people literally died for, and now that we have that right, we know it is important for us to exercise our citizenship," he said.
Anticipating a large turnout, Prince George's opened the election office on Saturdays in September to accept voting applications. Officials at motor vehicle offices and post offices said yesterday that they were also inundated with people registering.
Former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele (R), a backer of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), agreed that an interest in seeing Obama win the White House has catapulted many blacks into the political process.
"A rush to make history or be a part of history . . . is the underlying motivator, but certainly that is coupled with concerns about the economic news we've had to deal with in the last few weeks, as well as sentiments about the war," Steele said. "Now, of course, the test to come for both parties is to get those voters to the polls on Election Day."
Rosella Martin of Bowie brought her grandson, Godoyannick Seri, 18, a freshman at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., to cast his absentee ballot at the county election office in Upper Marlboro. When she was his age, she was accompanied by her grandfather to register.
"My grandfather lived during segregation down in Pomonkey, in Charles County," Martin said. "He told us that for years, blacks didn't have the right to vote. He always told us that he wanted us to take advantage of the opportunity to vote to make the world better for the next generation."
Staff writers Tim Craig and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.