It is lunchtime in Petersburg and Alice McAlexander and David Nibert are on the prowl. The two Obama campaign staffers have come to the campus of Virginia State University, a historically black college that is still overwhelmingly African-American. Armed with clipboards, they fan out across the scrub lawns between the red-brick halls. “Are you registered to vote in Virginia?” shouts Nibert, clad in flip-flops and a red Obama T-shirt. The VSU students, in mottled hoodies and low-slung denim, look on curiously, but by the end of an hour-long blitz the two operatives have helped a clutch of teenagers negotiate the mauve text of the Virginia voter registration application form. “I’m excited about voting,” says one of their conquests, Davina Pitts, an 18-year-old psychology student.
The Commonwealth of Virginia, lodged above the Carolinas on America’s Atlantic coast, has not voted for a Demo cratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. (Historically, the “Solid South” of the United States was a blue stronghold, but when the Democrats announced their support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s the former Confederate states switched allegiance.) As recently as the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning that the state was forfeit to the Republicans.
But things have changed in recent years. Virginia has elected successive Democratic governors since 2002, and in 2007 the party won a majority in the state senate. Says Dr Dirk Philipsen, a political scientist at VSU: “Virginia is now absolutely in play.” With 13 electoral college votes, a higher number than all but 11 other states, it is more than just a potentially rich prize for the Democrats. The Old Dominion may be the place where the presidential election is won and lost.
In 2004, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning the state was forfeit to the Republicans
Demographic change in the suburbs of Washington, DC is one factor in Virginia’s shifting political make-up. There, the sprawl has brought an influx of liberal-minded voters to Virginian boom towns such as Woodbridge in Prince William County. However, the change in the hue of the state from Republican red to a pregnant purple is also a result of the increasing political engagement of its large African-American population. As Harry Lewis, the black owner of a real-estate appraisal firm in the state capital, Richmond, says: “Obama is a very intelligent young man. He’s got all the qualifications to be president. He’s a black man, and he ought to be supported.”
African Americans, who comprise 19.9 per cent of Virginia’s total population of 7.6 million, generally vote Democrat. However, Obama’s candidacy has created a new wave of enthusiasm among black Virginians that extends well beyond traditional party allegiances and youthful idealism.
In Chesterfield County, Sandra Noble, a 59-year-old grandmother and the former principal of Harrowgate Elementary School, is one of many professional African Americans who are looking forward to the election. “I’ve been listening and watching since the beginning of the campaign,” she says. “I think Obama is the one to make the change. Something is changing, and our youth is changing. The higher levels need to take control to meet the needs of what is happening today.”
If McCain wins, Noble says, “I would feel highly disappointed. I would feel people had not been putting in their whole spirit. I would feel it would be due to the fact that those who could have voted did not.”
Elsewhere, Taniki Boyd, a black single mother from Richmond, is also gearing up for 4 November. “I’m looking forward to it,” says the 28-year-old administrative assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I just hope it’ll be a fair race.” Boyd, whose daughter Maria is three years old, is backing the Democrats because she hopes their proposals for social reform could improve her standard of living. “I am a single mother and sometimes I find it hard,” she explains. “Do I come to work or do I stay with the child? And as for health care – it’s getting outrageous. Sometimes I have to choose between food and medicine.”
But converting African-American enthusiasm for Obama and his message into returns at the ballot box is a substantial challenge for the Democratic campaign. In a picture that is repeated across America, black involvement in politics in Virginia lags behind that of whites. In the US, citizens must register before they can vote, and in 2004 only 64.4 per cent of blacks had done so nationwide compared to 67.7 per cent of whites. Voter turnout is lower, too, with 56.3 per cent of African Americans casting a ballot on polling day, compared to 60.3 per cent of whites. As Dr Pamela Reed, a diversity consultant, says: “A lot of African Americans think why even bother, their vote doesn’t count.”
Moreover, in a society like Virginia’s, which is still heavily racially segregated, there remains a deep undercurrent of resistance to involvement of black Americans in the political process. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s theoretically swept away the legislative bars, such as literacy tests, that Southern states introduced to circumvent the 15th Amendment of 1870, which forbade the government from preventing a citizen from voting on grounds of race. However, under a system where federal elections are administered by states, and run by individual counties themselves, vaguely worded regulations are still bent to discourage African Americans from voting. As Kent Willis of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says, the election architecture is a “crazy quilt. No two registrars do their job the same.”
When I visited King Salim Khalfani, the barrel-chested executive director of the Virginia state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), he explained that the authorities try to discourage black voters through the way polling stations in poor, minority neighbourhoods are run.
“You have to be part of the decision-making process,” said Hasan Zarif. “I’m not just voting because I’m voting, but because my vote counts”
“There’s always a line, and the workers are elderly,” he observed, speaking in a room at his Richmond headquarters lined with state law reports. “Sometimes we have to wait. They put hurdles in our places; for instance, they have police officers and police cars in black polling places. That’s a deterrent. The perception is they’re the enemy.”
For Khalfani, the intimidation of African-American voters is an unwanted hangover from Virginia’s past. “It’s this sense of history,” he argued. “Race is the most dominant factor in the society. Virginia is the first state. They made people into property in the Virginia constitution. This is where it all began, where Thomas Jefferson, hailed as a father of the nation, bedded down with underage African girls. This was a breeding state, and their main crop was African people. They stole us from Africa and put us on the plantations. We built this for free.” As I prepared to leave, the NAACP executive’s rhetoric began to soar. “There’s a lot of blood in these red bricks,” he said. “We’re still second-class citizens in this society. We are still fighting the Civil War here.”
And yet, despite all the obstacles, if a campaign is able to mobilise historically disengaged African Americans, the payback could be enormous. This is particularly true in Virginia, where there are 360,000 unregistered black voters, substantially more than the 260,000-vote, 8 per cent margin by which the Republicans won in 2004.
Early on, the Obama campaigners realised that black voter registration could give them a substantial advantage on 4 November. But it was the campaign’s record fundraising that allowed them to undertake expensive voter registration activities to try to alter the political map in states previously thought to be unobtainable, such as Virginia. “The guy’s got money,” says Dr Daniel J Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond. “He can take a shot at Virginia.” In May, Obama’s campaign launched Vote for Change, a 50-state registration drive in pursuit of new voters, with lavish internet hype and large-scale events across the United States. However, this process remains an infantry war, particularly in poor minority communities, with junior staffers and volunteers as its foot soldiers.
This was immediately apparent when I visited the Virginia headquarters of the Obama campaign in the Fan district of Richmond. In a backstreet, a red-brick warehouse had been converted into a hive of political activity. Volunteers’ feet pattered on the stripped wooden floors, chasing down the statewide 6 October deadline for voter registration in front of a huge monochrome portrait of the Great Leader. Elsewhere I saw Alice McAlexander, the campaign organiser I had met earlier, dressed in denim shorts and with a telephone glued to her ear. She sat before a trestle table laden with cans of Diet Coke and laptops emblazoned with Obama ’08 stickers. “Registering an unprecedented number of new voters is critical to our success here in Virginia,” Ashley Etienne, a campaign spokeswoman, told me. “In this state we have had an unprecedented outreach to African-American voters.”
Hearing my British accent, Tam Muir, a Scotsman from Edinburgh who had used his holiday to come to Richmond to volunteer for the Obama campaign, introduced himself. “I’ve been following Barack Obama from ’04,” he said. “I felt the time was right.” The idealism was palpable, but the atmosphere at the headquarters, beneath sugar paper posters and hand-painted murals, was more playroom than war room. At the blunt end of the campaign it seemed like a student-run junket, with a few harried grown-ups toting BlackBerries in the midst of a sea of flip-flops.
However, it cannot be denied that voter registration has achieved results in Virginia. According to the most recent figures from the state board of elections, there has been a net increase of 283,695 registered voters since the beginning of this year. In Richmond City alone, where the population is 57.2 per cent black, the increase of 11,673 since 1 January represents more than 10.4 per cent of the total number of registered voters. “It’s been overwhelming,” said Garry E Ellis, the state voter registration co-ordinator, as he showed me around the board of elections office in Richmond’s gridded downtown area. And, pointing out mailboxes that were overflowing with forms, he said: “Our processing centre is handling thousands of applications.”
The increases in African-American voter registration in Virginia are even more startling given that they have been achieved in spite of the state’s draconian felon disenfranchisement law. The Virginia system, which in the US is matched in severity only by Kentucky’s, declares that anyone with a felony conviction is banned from voting for life without a special grant of clemency from the governor. This creates a huge pool of disenfranchised citizens, the vast majority of whom have served their prison time and are living freely. For example, at the time of the 2004 election there were 35,172 prisoners in Virginia compared to 297,901 ex-felons.
The bulk of Virginia’s prison population is black, and today 20 per cent of African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men, the figure may be well over a third. Although I was aware of these statistics, the human cost of the felon disenfranchisement policy did not strike me until I spoke to Hasan K Zarif, a 57-year-old African American who was convicted as a young man in 1974.
One-fifth of all African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men the figure may be well over a third
“It was concerning an incident that happened while I had been drinking and going through tough times,” he explained. “I had lost a brother and grandfather. I was going through some mental problems, I was not aware of what was going on and I shot someone. At the time I was convicted, in the 1970s, African Americans did not receive fair trials. You had a state-appointed attorney who just went through the motions. They were mostly farces. All of your information is going to be supporting the Commonwealth case.”
Zarif ended up serving 17 years in Virginia State Penitentiary, and as a felon he was stripped of his right to vote.
“When they convicted me I felt my life was completely over,” he continued. “I had never voted before. As I was in prison I realised I had lost being a citizen, being a contributing member of society, being able to elect officials. I realised I had lost a great deal. I decided if I was ever released I would do whatever I could to regain my right to vote. I became a model prisoner, went to school, got a college education.”
However, under Virginia law the restoration of his rights was a tortuous process. “I had to finish the 17 years in prison,” he recalled. “Then I had to get off the parole. After 12 years I was discharged. That enabled me to start the clock ticking. Then I had to wait an additional five years. After 34 years I was able to get the documents together. I put together a mountain of information. I presented as much information as I could present to them. The requirement was three letters. I had 20.”
Finally, on 6 August 2007, he had his rights restored by the governor, Tim Kaine. “It felt like the greatest gift you can give,” said Zarif who, on the cusp of his sixth decade, will be voting for the first time in a presidential election. “You have to be a part of the decision-making process,” he said. “I am not just voting because I’m voting, but because my vote counts.”
The evening after the lunchtime voter registration drive I had another opportunity to see the role of race in Virginian politics at first hand when I returned to VSU for one of its regular “Hot Topic” evenings. To publicise the event, Dirk Philipsen, the white professor I had interviewed earlier, had superimposed his face on to J M Flagg’s 1917 recruitment poster of a finger-pointing Uncle Sam. Beneath the figure the legend read, “I want you NOT to vote.”
As I watched, Philipsen addressed a packed crowd in the university’s Foster Hall. “The road to the White House runs through Virginia,” he said, reminding the students of their importance in the election. “Everything that is good happens because people do things. History shows that you can make a difference with your friends and families if you know what you are talking about.”
Philipsen, in jeans and a navy blazer, then asked the overwhelmingly black crowd who did not want them to vote. There was a pause as drumbeats and cymbal smashes from the band practice outside crashed in on the night air. Then someone shouted, “The man. The white man.”
In the final analysis, it is still unknowable whether the Democrats will be able to turn Virginia blue. Large-scale voter registration, not only by the Obama campaign, but also by other groups such as the Community Voting Project and My Vote Will Count, is changing the state’s demographic make-up, and drastically increasing the involvement of African Americans. Yet there is always an element of uncertainty as to whether newly registered voters will turn out at the polls. In 2004 many thousands of those signed up in voter registration drives, including P Diddy’s widely ridiculed Vote or Die! campaign, stayed at home on polling day. As Daniel Palazzolo says, “If Obama is to win in Virginia, the African-American vote has to come out for him.”
If it does turn out on polling day, the result will be historic. For then Virginia, the former slave state that calls itself the Mother of Presidents, and has sent eight of her sons to the White House, could well end up holding out a guiding hand to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to a black man from Hawaii.
Simon Akam is a Fulbright Alistair Cooke scholar at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism