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  •   In Georgia, Carrying on a Tradition of Apathy


    By Caroline Daniel
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 7, 1998; Page A12

    ATLANTA—On the outskirts of Atlanta's baseball stadium is an area called Summerhill, a cheery name for a run-down neighborhood where even the dry cleaners' is grimy and boarded up. The area is home to a housing project of small, neat beige houses surrounded by metal gates. But these can't keep crime at bay. "Last week some drug boys hanging out in the park put a bullet through a man's house here. It could have killed someone in there," said Jacqueline Jackson, 47, a self-employed African American.

    She voted for Bill Clinton both times and thinks "the Democrats should be sticking with him." But she said she doesn't tend to vote in other elections. "You get to the point when you are not even bothered with this mess. They're just going to put in who they want.

    "The only time they come here is when they want to be elected. I asked my son [who is 27] if he was going to vote and he said, 'Why should I bother?' "

    Not once in Georgia's history has a majority of its citizens voted in an election. In 1996, it ranked as the sixth-lowest state for voter turnout. Yet it is not one of the lowest states for voter registration. Instead, Georgia's problem has been nudging people from the books into the booths.

    There are a record number of contested races this year in Georgia, including a Senate seat, 11 seats in the House, the governorship and hundreds of other state offices. But even this has not stirred voters to action. In July's primary elections, one-quarter of registered voters – a miserly 16 percent of those eligible – voted, a record low. In one county race, for state senator, a candidate won by just one vote.

    Earl Shinhoster, coordinator of voter education at the state Elections Division, calls this turnout "unconscionable when we have so many seats vacant." The depth of apathy is "baffling and disconcerting," he said.

    Voters interviewed in and around Atlanta offered various reasons they have turned off and not turned out for elections. Typically, high- and middle-income black and white people were more likely to say they would vote in November than low-income people.

    East of Summerhill is the South DeKalb Mall, in black, strongly Democratic territory. It is a bleak, gray mall – a place for shopping, not hanging out. Marion Crawford, 78, a black Atlantan, said she doesn't know whether she will vote. "Sometimes I get so disgusted with politicians."

    Jeffrey Jones, 35, a manager at Payless ShoeSource in the mall, said he usually votes only in presidential elections. "I feel like the president is the number one, and everything should flow from him." He blamed his decision not to vote in other races on "laziness" and the fact that he is "quite happy about the way things are."

    Fhanteria West, 19, sipped on a drink as she waited for a friend. She said she had not registered to vote. "I haven't given it much thought."

    The Million Youth Movement is trying to reach young, apathetic blacks such as West. The group planned a range of activities in Atlanta from Sept. 4 to 7, such as a hip-hop talent show, designed to attract young black Americans to what it calls "God-centered activities." The movement also hopes to register 10,000 Atlantans ages 18 to 24 in the coming months.

    "A lot of young people are disconnected from their history," said Dennis Rodgers, national chairman for the group. "Those aged under 33 were not born in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed. It has never been articulated to them what voting can do."

    State Rep. Douglas Dean (D), an African American who has tried to revitalize the Summerhill neighborhood, said, "There's a lot of disillusion at the political process and confusion about who represents what in government. When people do not get services from their elected officials, they feel let down, so apathy sets in. From a black perspective, we still have not been able to turn politics into resources for our community."

    But not all blacks are disaffected. Alfred Byrd, 65, a dapperly dressed contractor from Stone Mountain, just east of Atlanta, said he "has voted in every election. It's one of the only rights I have in this world."

    And the mood is more upbeat at Chapel Lake Estates, south of the city in the second-most affluent black area in the nation. The sign at the entrance reads: "We're not just building homes, we're building lifestyles."

    The quiet neighborhood atmosphere is broken by the sound of gospel music coming from the garage of Andre Todd, 40, a lieutenant in the county fire department. He supports the Democrats and intends to vote in November. "The big issue is the state of the economy."

    Just as a number of black Democrats interviewed in the Atlanta area said Clinton's problems would have little impact on their voting, so, too, did white Democrats.

    Gilda Morris, 49, who always votes, said Clinton's actions "do not affect how I feel about the party. I don't think what he has done will hurt the Democrats any more than Ken Starr will help the Republicans."

    Lydia O'Nan, a senior who lives near Emory University, agreed. "I think that he acted as an individual. Because he happens to be a Democrat does not mean I won't vote for other Democrats."

    What is having a bigger effect on her decision to vote is the fact that the Democratic candidate for Senate has just been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. She said, "I'm not going to vote for anyone who argues for the NRA."

    But the attitude was distinctly different in a Republican enclave in north Fulton County, where residents were more likely to display signs saying "Security by Ackerman" than political placards, and a mood of righteous indignation at Clinton was palpable.

    People here called him "a bad role model," and "our first white-trash president." They gave Clinton no credit for the economy. "Business has done it," one said.

    The GOP in the Atlanta area is trying to ensure that this anger translates into higher Republican turnout.

    "Georgia is settling very fast into a two-party system. For the first time ever, people requested nearly as many Republican ballots as Democratic ones," said Shinhoster at the Elections Division. "The Republicans are energized. It may create a larger-than-usual number of people voting in November. It may not bode well for the Democrats.

    "I want to be optimistic that we may set an all-time record, either in high participation" – or, he added with a rueful laugh – "in low participation."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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