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Black turnout could decide election

Obama volunteer Andrea Washington talks to Patricia Lockhart about how to help register her nephew on Sunday in Tampa.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Obama volunteer Andrea Washington talks to Patricia Lockhart about how to help register her nephew on Sunday in Tampa.

JACKSONVILLE — It was Tony Hill's job to fire up the crowd of 12,000 waiting for Barack Obama and he ended in a fury.

"Hold up your hands. Hold up your hands. Hold up your hands," he shouted last month. "This election is in your hands."

The message from Hill, a black state senator from Jacksonville, was more than cheerleading: The sea of people was largely African-American and the outcome of the presidential election in Florida could literally rest in their hands.

Four years ago, nearly 500,000 registered black voters stayed home, a significant figure considering that President George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 381,000 votes. There were 1.2-million black voters overall in Florida.

What's more, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans were not registered to vote, even though they were eligible. Today, that number stands at 600,000.

Taken together, the potential for Democrats is tremendous and the Obama campaign is aggressively trying to turn the tables.

"It doesn't take much history in Florida to know that a few extra votes can be the difference between winning and losing," said Steve Schale, Obama's campaign director in Florida.

At a rally last Saturday at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Michelle Obama appealed to unregistered black voters.

"You know people in your lives who are not registered, they are not focused, they don't think their votes will count," she said. "Well let me just tell you something, 600,000 votes can make and change the course of not just this election but this country."

During last Saturday's Jacksonville rally, people were asked to take out their cell phones and text "PLEDGE" to a special number. Those who did got an almost instant reply: "Thanks for pledging to early vote for Barack in FL. Someone will contact you soon."

Statewide, Obama workers have been dispatched to beauty shops and have hosted after-church barbecues, like one held Sunday in Tampa.

Prominent black elected officials, like Hill and state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, have gone to church services and, while barred from advocating for a particular candidate, have preached the virtues of voting.

Obama's team has also tapped community members to visit with their neighbors, thinking a known face is more persuasive than a campaign worker.

Moreover, high-profile blacks have traveled to the state and made the pitch: Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights pioneer, actor and director Forest Whitaker and the rapper Jay-Z, who performs Sunday and Monday in Miami.

Efforts to energize black voters are under way in other key states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.

In Florida, several factors accounted for the poor turnout in 2004.

"Most black people felt it was a waste of their time to vote in 2004," said Brenda Bagley, a 42-year-old paralegal who attended the rally in Jacksonville.

She was referring to the contentious election in 2000. No county produced more spoiled ballots than Duval — nearly 27,000 — and they were concentrated in black neighborhoods.

An estimated one in five black votes was tossed out in Duval, three times the rate of white votes.

Mo Hallback, 68, offered another explanation for the poor turnout. "John Kerry. What did Kerry say he was going to do for black people? Nothing."

Lisa Haggerty, who brought her 6-year-old daughter Alexandria to the rally, said Gore and Kerry did not show enough spirit.

"They gave up too easily, especially here in Florida. Obama is giving us some hope that he's going to fight back."

A consistent voter, Haggerty, 40, said she has done her part to motivate friends and family. Before last week's presidential debate, she text messaged them to watch and then vote.

Republican officials in Florida, including Gov. Charlie Crist, have made a concerted effort over the past two years to reach out to black voters, including appearing at NAACP events and creating an African-American Leadership Council, a group of community leaders from across the state.

Crist also championed a rule streamlining the process for restoring civil rights for nonviolent offenders.

But privately, Republicans concede that the black vote will go solidly to Democrats. Republicans are having more success with Hispanics.

Adrianne Marsh, an Obama spokeswoman in Florida, stressed that the black voter outreach is part of an overall effort.

"The switch is ready to be turned on," she said. "We just have to make it happen."

From the start of this year through Sept. 1, 613,680 new voters have been registered in Florida, according to figures Democrats obtained from the Division of Elections.

Of those, 109,361 are African-American, all but 3,820 of them Democrats or independents.

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

How to register

Monday is the last day to register if you intend to vote in the presidential election. For more information, visit the state's Web site at http://election.dos.state.fl.us, or call your Supervisor of Elections Office:

Hernando: (352) 754-4125

Pasco: (352) 521-4302

Hillsborough: (813) 744-5900

Pinellas: (727) 464-6108

Or call the state voter assistance hotline toll-free at 1-866-308-6739.

Black turnout could decide election 10/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 1:03pm]
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