Election Brings Out Uncertain First-Time Voters

BY N’JERI EATON //

While African Americans are turning out to the polls in record numbers in support of Sen. Barack Obama, several first-time voters’ inexperience is causing them anxiety.

In Richmond, the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church offers its multi-purpose room as a polling place. The room is long, narrow and dimly lit. Framed posters of W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr. line the walls in cheap plastic frames. Unlike the polling places of El Cerrito with their predominately white and Asian residents, almost all of the voters at Bethlehem Missionary were African American.

There is another marked difference between the polling places of Richmond and El Cerrito. At St. John’s Community Center in El Cerrito, voters walked in and out with determined steps, proud do their part in the democratic process. The voters at the 596 Richmond precinct weren’t as jubilant. Several voters struggled with walkers and pronounced limps as they entered the church. Others seemed unsure, even hesitant as they approached the voting booth. Their faces were grim and serious as they entered the polling place, with the exception of their children who cheerfully chatted about “President Obama.”

Woodrow Russel Jr., a full-time glamor photographer by day and campaign volunteer by night, was running around the room, consulting with voters. He noticed that many people seemed confused by the voting process.

When Russell finished his ballot, a woman next to him asked for his help. He recognized her from his neighborhood. He described her as someone who was “down on her luck.” According to Russell, she had a problem with drugs and is currently in a treatment program. “It was amazing to see her come down to the polls, in her condition, and still manage to get to herself down here to vote,” said Russell. This was the first time the woman had ever voted and she had problems with the ballot. “She didn’t even know how to fill out the ovals,” Russell said. The woman was determined to vote for Obama, but didn’t know anything about the other elections or initiatives on the ballot. She told Russell to help her fill out the whole ballot; she wanted to vote the same way he had.

Before he was able to finish helping the woman, another voter approached Russell. The man blamed his uncertainty on the glasses he left at home, but it was clear to Russell that he was similarly uninformed. “He was kind of embarrassed,” said Russell. Besides his choice for president, the man had no interest in filling out the rest of his ballot. “I told him, actually everything on here matters,” Russell said. They spent the next few minutes going through each proposition and measure, with Russell explaining the potential impact of each one.

Russell fears that first time African-American voters across the country are facing comparable issues, being intimidated by their ballots. He suggests each county encourage poll workers to be more accessible to voters who are having issues with their ballots. “I was glad to help,” said Russell. “But what they really need is someone who is educated and will float around the room to each voter.”

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