With only four days remaining before the District closes the registration books for the November election, city officials, clergymen and community organizers are scrambling to sign up some of the thousands of unregistered D.C. residents.
Their efforts may be hampered, however, by the attitudes that some Washingtonians take toward voting -- attitudes that rest on a blend of fear, misinformation and disinterest.Sidewalk interviews with District residents turned up these sample views:
Ralph Harper, 20, is a resident of Ward 7, where many low-income residents are dependent on city services. Harper is unemployed, as are 16,000 other people in Ward 7. But he has never voted, and doesn't even know who ran in his ward's hotly contested city primary race.
"There's nothing being done, and I wouldn't know who to vote for anyway," he explained. "Or how to find out about them."
Robert Gamble is 38, and a resident of Ward 1. Gamble, who is not registered, says he knows that Anderson, carter and "somebody else" are candidates for president, but he has no plans to vote.
"I don't want to put my name down on nothing I didn't know what I was getting into," he said.
Guy Hawkins, 22, who lives in Ward 8, won't register, won't vote, doesn't even want to hear about any elections. He's afraid to.Said Gamble, "If I register, I might get drafted."
Of the estimated 350,000 to 400,000 D.C. residents eligible to vote in the coming election, only 264,398 were registered as of Aug. 21, according to Delores Woods, D.C. deputy elections administrator. Only 10.7 percent of those registered voted in the Sept. 9 primary, said Woods. Even in Ward 7, where the competition was fiercest, only 25.6 percent of the registrants came out.
Community leaders are so worried about the trend that they have successfully lobbied to make the District of Columbia one of the largest cities of a national voter registration project called Operation Bit Vote.
"You've got to preach it to them, you've got to teach it to them and you've got to walk it into them," said the Rev. Robert L. Pruitt, pastor of the Metropolitan AME Church and chairman of the Operation Big Vote committee.
He meant it. Since the group of city council members, school board officials, religious leaders and community representatives announced the registration effort on Monday, a full week's worth of activities has gotten under way to entice stray voters to the polls.
Under the direction of Pruitt, D.C. Del., Walter Fauntroy and national Operation Big Vote coordinator Gracia Hillman, Big Vote volunteers will staff registration tables throughout the city, at community centers, sporting events, and in front of supermarkets.
On Tuesday, elementary school children were scheduled to hand-carry letters to their parents signed by School Superintendent Vincent Reed.
On Wednesday, a "cravan" of city concil members and community leaders was set to visit the campuses of the University of the District of Columbia to register students and staff.
Today, the caravan is scheduled to canvass the high schools, with special stops scheduled for Dunbar, McKinley and Roosevelt High Schools.
Sunday has been designated "voter registration Sunday," said Pruitt, with a rally planned to follow services at the Metropolitan AME Church at 1518 M St. NW. Under the direction of Willie Lloyd Reeves, commissioner of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2-D, citywide ANC's will register voters at shopping centers and ANC offices.
Neighborhood groups have planned special activities.
Ward 8 council member Wilhemina Rolark, who ran upopposed in the primary, will be sponsoring a 24-hour "Registron" for her constiuents on Thursday at 3119 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.
Bob King, director of social planning for the 14th St. Project Area Comittee at 2901 14th St. NW, yesterday began dotting 14th Street with registration tables staffed by volunteers.
King said that registration workers will have many misconceptions to overcome.
For examle, he said, "When we did this eight months ago, people didn't know they could transfer their registration on the spot. Many of the poor folks felt (registering) was a long process. They didn't know it took only a couple of minutes."
In the sidewalk interviews, some voters said they didn't know how to find out about the candidates, or what they're voting for.
One 20-year-old man from Ward 8 said he'd voted once, for Jimmy Carter, when he was 16 years old. "Somebody signed me up, so I voted," he said. "I didn't know anything about him then, and I don't know anything about him now. How would I find out?," he asked.He said he had never head of campign headquarters, and though he red newspapers, had never seen a profile of a candidate.
Some non-voters like Gloria Thomas gave religious reasons.
"I'm a Jehovah's Witness," said the 41-year-old Adams-Morgan resident, "and we don't have anything to do with politics at all. We don't salute the flag or vote. We don't believe that any one individual can handle the world's problems."
Fauntroy estimated that about 50,000 D.C. residents prefer to retain voting privileges elsewhere, ostensibly because other states grant them a full say in the election of members of Congress. Ward 1 Councilmember David Clark noted, "People vote when there's something to decide."
Some D.C. residents say their feelings of futility prevent them from participating in a system which never seems to provide for them.
Guy Hawkins, who said he was worried about being drafted if he registered, had other reasons for disliking the voting system. They resembled reasons given by others. "I can't get no job or money out of it -- so why should I?" g
Fortunately for the city, the majority of eligibles already are on the rolls, so the goal of the Big Vote effort will be 20,000 new registrants in the next few days. Even that seemingly modest figure "will be a Herculean task for eight days," said Pruitt on Monday.
There are still a number of D.C. voters, such as Cherry Johnson of Adams-Morgan, who always vote, rain or shine. "I heard my parents talking about it," she said. "It gives me a voice in what's going on."