- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Jessica Harrison and Taiba and Masooma Munir were catching more than sun rays as they lounged on a bench at Potomac Yard Shopping Center during a balmy Sunday afternoon.

They also were catching potential voters.

The dark-haired, youthful trio is part of massive voter-registration drives taking place across the battleground state of Virginia and elsewhere in the country.

“I sit down with my cousins and friends and try to explain that one vote will make a difference, especially in the state of Virginia,” said the 21-year-old Masooma Munir.

Every vote counts indeed. In Virginia alone, state elections officials ordered an additional 200,000 voter-registration forms last month, citing shortages in some parts of the Old Dominion.

Democrats traditionally have looked to new voters to push them to election victories, and with this year’s presidential contest so close between Democrat Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, the get-out-the-vote efforts of every hue and stripe are even more critical.

Earlier in his campaign, for example, Mr. Obama predicted that his supporters would register enough new younger and minority voters, particularly in the South, to give him the edge he needs in the Electoral College.

One report on the surge of new voters since January estimates that more than 280,000 people registered in Virginia, where Mr. Obama hopes to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture that red state’s votes since 1964.

No doubt an army of paid workers and volunteers will be on hand at the Congressional Black Caucus’ 38th annual legislative conference, starting Wednesday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, to register voters - perhaps during the presidential debate-watch program slated for Friday.

Voter registration is deemed so important to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that one of the first actions of its newest (and youngest) president, Benjamin Jealous, was to launch the “Upload to Uplift” online voter-registration project on his first day on the job, according to the Washington Afro newspaper.

An estimated 8 million blacks have not registered to vote, but Mr. Jealous told the Afro, “This year we’ve seen an unprecedented lack of funding for paid voter registration. It’s way off.”

Some black leaders, like political scientist and commentator Ron Walters, are concerned that Mr. Obama’s campaign organization is not funding traditional groups to register voters and get them to the polls.

In his syndicated column, Mr. Walters writes: “I think that the Obama campaign, when all is said and done, should be more than something we can point to with pride insofar as he ran a good campaign. This campaign will have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, most of which will have gone into the white community. Is that also something we should be proud of?”

That disparity does not appear to dissuade some of Mr. Obama’s black supporters, who are volunteering and taking off from their jobs to travel to swing states not only to register new voters, but to promote his candidacy during these last 40 days of the campaign.

Jessica, Taiba and Masooma said they have earned $8-an-hour for the past three weekends from the nonpartisan MoveOn.org voter drive, but Jessica said that “might as well be volunteering.”

However, she feels “very strongly” about the economy and the outcome of the election and is hoping for “someone who will bring change.” So catching some rays on a mall bench instead of a beach blanket is worth it.

“Personally, I’m for Obama, but I’m not working for Obama,” said Masooma.

She said she hopes she is helping “a lot of middle-class people who don’t have time to go register to vote by being out here” at the mall with her clipboard and forms.

Meanwhile, voting rights activists are worried about voter tampering, suppression and intimidation, not to mention equipment failures, at the polls when new registrants show up for the first time.

Many are concerned that with so many new voters, state and local election boards may not be able to handle the anticipated huge turnout, and long lines may force some voters to give up and go home.

Last week, voting rights advocates were upset when reports circulated about Michigan Republicans’ plans to challenge voters’ addresses based on foreclosures, which affects minority voters in greater numbers, according to Dick Prince’s “journalisms” column. Those charges were denied, but the concern and countercharges continue.

Republicans, energized since the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as Mr. McCain’s running mate, are redoubling their voter-registration drive efforts, too. Jessica, Taiba and Masooma said they believe most Republicans already are registered.

Most of the young voter-registration workers I noted walking in pairs throughout the busy strip mall in Potomac Yard this weekend said that, although they were engaged in a nonpartisan effort, they support Mr. Obama’s candidacy.

Taiba, a 19-year-old student eligible to vote for the first time, said, “I got more involved [in the campaign] because of the atmosphere around my college campus. If you don’t do anything, you can’t complain.”

The young women said they had no respect for Mr. McCain because he selected someone they say has no experience for a running mate.

Most of the people the trio signed up in the Richmond Highway and Springfield areas of Northern Virginia appeared more excited about Mr. Obama, they said, but those in the Clarendon area of Arlington support Mr. McCain.

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