When the Virginia NAACP convenes for its annual meeting in Virginia Beach tomorrow morning, delegates will begin adding up some figures that Democrats, Republicans and independents believe could be crucial to the 1980 presidential election.
The issue is black voter registration and whether Operation Big Vote -- a nationwide effort by 70 black organizations including the NAACP -- was able to stem the tide of black voter apathy in selected parts of Virginia.
Operation Big Vote was started in an attempt to reverse a trend that began a decade ago: the decision by black voters to stay away from the polls. In 1976, according to Big Vote officials, only 49 percent of all registered black voters participated in the presidential elections.
This year Big Vote officials targeted 17 states, primarily where the drop in black voters seemed largest, and pledged to increase the number of registered black voters by 20 percent.
In Virginia, Operation Big Vote concentrated on the Richmond and Tidewater areas, where registration reports are mixed.
The NAACP also launched a separate voter registration drive in Virginia, instructing local leaders to report registration efforts. Those reports are among the facts and figures that will be presented at the state convention tommorrow.
So far, there are no hard figures for Virginia or the nation on the success of the black voter drive. But Big Vote and NAACP officials are optimistic.
"It's really, realy hard to say yet what has happened in the target states," said Operation Big Vote official Gracia Hillman. "Initial reports indicate that we did meet our goal of a 20 percent increase in the numbers of blacks registered in some areas."
During the final week of registration, workers canvassed black neighborhoods and provided babysitting and transportation to and from registration centers. They plan the same activities to get black voters to the polls Nov. 4.
Election officials report that voter registration lists did swell during the final weeks of September -- but whether blacks came out in record numbers may not be known this weekend -- perhaps not until after the election.
Michael Brown, political action chairman of the Virginia NAACP, said early signs in the Old Dominion indicate that there is good news -- and bad.
Brown predicts big gains in the cities of Lynchburg, Roanoke, Richmond and the counties of Greenville, Fairfax and Louisa. He acknowleded, however, that in spite of Operation Big Vote, Tidewater lost about 10,000 voters while the nearby predominately white area of Virginia Beach gained almost 20,000.
"I would say that most of our drives were highly successful," said Brown. "What remains now is the need to get those people out to vote.
"Our hope is that during the final two weeks of the campaign, the candidates will address those issues that stimulate black voters to be active." c
While the NAACP and Operation Big Vote are officially nonpartisan, NAACP officials admit that they have been reminding potential black voters of gains made for blacks during the Carter administration.
"We tell them to look carefully at the platforms of both parties, to look at how the churches are behaving, we remind them that the right wing is supporting Reagan," said Brown. "To blacks that is really frightening."
"We are on the fighting edge of getting a federal black judge here in Virginia," Brown says pointedly. "There are new types of job programs for blacks. We need to have somebody in the White House who is going to address black issues."
But Republicans say they are not giving up. They have organized a committee called Blacks for Reagan-Bush, which is primarily asking black voters to reexamine their traditional loyalty to Democrats.
"Carter does not really have anything positive to offer the black community," asserts Phyllis Barry of the Republican National Committee. "He has no record to stand on.
"The greatest obstacle we have to overcome is just the problem of being Republican. But that shouldn't be so hard this time."
Historically, black voters have overwhelmingly supported Democrats. But the Democrats say they are not taking the black vote for granted.
"We have been working with the black voters leagues around the state," says Joe Cowart, press secretary for the Virginia Carter-Mondale campaign. "My sense is that blacks will be very active in this election -- as they have been in the past [in Virginia]."
Cowart says he expects defections to the Republican or independent candidates to be insignificant in Virginia.
"The Republican's are so elite here," Cowart says. "It's strange how much more elite they are in Virginia than anywhere else."
But Brown of the NAACP acknowledges that it will take more than nostalgia and the promise of a black judge on the federal bench to bring out black voters in great numbers.
"Jimmy Carter has not lived up to all his promises," Brown admits. "The blacks helped elect him and he owes something to the blacks.
"We are extremely concerned that black voters might go fishing on election day."