How would you respond if a stranger came to the door and started asking you personal information?
That reaction is a challenge facing people canvassing door-to-door trying to get people to register to vote this fall. Voters can be skeptical of strangers approaching their doors, and it can be especially difficult in predominantly African-American communities if the visitors are of a different race and background.
“If you have white, older gentlemen coming in (to an African-American neighborhood), they don’t really know what their agenda is,” said Steve Love, the Democratic candidate for York County Council District Three in western York County. His campaign is working to register new black voters before Oct. 4, the deadline for people to register and be eligible to vote on Nov. 4.
“I’ve had more success when they know the people in the community.”
Love, a past president of the Western York County NAACP, has relied on a group of young people he’s worked with through community programs. They’ve been taught the importance of voting, and have been working to engage their peers in civic causes.
“If it’s older folks, they’ve always, always been voting, but if it’s younger people, we sometimes have to educate them about how important voting is,” said Holly Starnes-Wilmore, Love’s youth coordinator. “It’s not lukewarm. They’re either really attached to voting or they don’t vote.”
But with younger volunteers, some of whom have been taking part in political and civic campaigns “since they were old enough to knock on doors,” Starnes-Wilmore finds they get a warm reception from friends and neighbors.
“I’ve gotten some people on the spot to fill out a voter registration card,” she said.
Love’s Republican opponent, Robert Winkler, is doing his own outreach as he meets voters around the district.
“I’m going door-to-door and I always keep a registration form with me when I do,” he said. “I do have volunteers, but I think the voters want to meet me. I was always taught to look someone in the eye and ask them questions directly.”
Winkler is scheduled to speak at a meeting of the Western York County NAACP next month, but says his campaign isn’t focused on any one area in its outreach efforts.
“I’m not just concentrating on one community or ethnicity,” Winkler said. “I’m reaching out to anybody who will listen.”
Melvin Poole, head of the Rock Hill branch of the NAACP, has led his own registration effort, holding drives to sign up a wide array of voters passing by on the street outside his Saluda Street office.
“In 2012, we registered 95 voters on the last day of registration,” he said.
He believes the key to successful voter registration depends less on the race of the person taking the information than whether they can relate to the people’s concerns.
“It’s not that they have a negative reaction to the race of the person,” Poole said, “but that person has to understand where they are coming from, what issues they face and how their vote affects them.”
Once they reach communities and age groups that haven’t traditionally voted in large numbers, the people signing up potential voters often find similar reasons for why someone hasn’t registered. Those who have been convicted of crimes believe their criminal records make them ineligible to register, and election workers have to explain how they can regain the right to vote.
In South Carolina, anyone convicted of a felony may not vote until fully serving his or her prison sentence, probation or parole. After the sentence is completed, the person may vote again. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor may vote unless they are in jail.
In other instances, voters say they don’t see any reason to vote because they don’t see how it impacts their lives or whether their vote can make a difference. In a year like 2014, when voters are not choosing a president, some people may not be aware an election is coming up at all.
“The parties don’t do a good job of informing people how important it is to vote,” Poole said. He pointed out that less than 10 percent of the registered voters in York County participated in the June primaries.
He thinks voters and potential voters need to better understand how the vote they cast can affect their lives. As an example, he cites Gov. Nikki Haley’s refusal to expand Medicaid in South Carolina, a key goal of the NAACP, after Haley won a tight election in 2010.
“If 5 percent of the vote had gone to her opposition, the medical situation in this state would be better today,” Poole said.
For others in search of votes, the barrier they have to overcome is political. Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committeeman and former chair of the York County GOP, helped author his party’s post-election study in 2012 that recommended Republicans do more to reach out to non-white voters, a key objective of the party as the country’s demographics shift.
Since then, McCall has praised the efforts of U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land to reach constituents through the NAACP, and the effect of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign. Scott is South Carolina’s first African-American senator. Making an effort is the only way to show minority voters the party takes them seriously.
“Our goal is not to bring them into the Republican Party,” McCall said. “It’s to build a rapport with them, so they’re comfortable hearing our message and sharing their interests with us.”
The party also wants voters to know it hears what they’re saying.
That may not pay dividends in this fall’s elections, McCall said, but he hopes “they’ll consider voting for us in 2016 and beyond.”
The effects of increasing voter registration rolls shows in the results organizers have seen when people from diverse backgrounds get involved in the process. In 2008, Love took part in a statewide registration campaign in advance of that year’s presidential election. That registration drive, which drew a diverse group of volunteers from around the state, showed him a way to reach potential voters that was particularly effective.
“I’ve found the most success is when we send white and black people out together,” Love said.