DETROIT — Without Detroit, the 2004 election would have turned out entirely different. Democratic candidate John Kerry received 300,000 votes in the Motor City, about 15 times as many as his opponent, Republican George Bush. Though Kerry ultimately lost the election, he went on to win the state by 150,000 votes.
In this fall’s election, with polls showing a tight race between Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain, Democratic strategists have placed an unprecedented focus on registering new voters in Michigan’s largest city. Obama, the first-ever black candidate from a major party, is hoping for record turnout in Detroit, where more than 80 percent of residents are black.
Democratic volunteers have answered their candidate’s call, heading into the city to register new voters, but once they get there, they’re having a hard time finding anyone else who wants to sign up to cast a ballot on Election Day.
Along with 100 members of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, LSA junior Tom Duvall and LSA senior Lindsay Miars hit the streets of Detroit with stacks of voter registration forms on Saturday. Half the group was expected to register voters at high-traffic areas like shopping centers, liquor stores and gas stations, while the other 50 went door-to-door.
But both groups struggled to find people of voting age who hadn’t already registered. Many of those who hadn’t voiced indifference toward the election.
“It’s more challenging than discouraging when people tell you they’re not going to vote,” Miars said. “It’s harder to talk people out of their apathy than anything else.”
On Saturday, campaign organizers gave door-to-door canvassers lists of “sporadic voters,” people who haven’t consistently voted in the past eight years. Canvassers were told to talk to people in those homes and encourage them to go to the polls on Nov. 4 to vote for Obama. They were asked to knock on every door to register prospective voters, but many were uninterested or had already been approached.
When Duvall asked one man if he was registered, the man told him he was a felon.
“Actually, in Michigan, that doesn’t matter,” Duvall said.
Regardless, the man decided not to register.
“I think I already knew some people were disenchanted with the system,” Duvall said. “Especially people who have already been disadvantaged in one way. They turn cynical, and it’s highly disappointing.”
Despite the frustrations, the group said it knocked on 600 doors and registered 300 voters in the process.
Miars said she tries to explain the importance of the election and that every vote will matter. But she said most people didn’t need convincing.
“I’ve canvassed and done voter registration in a lot of different places, but I’ve never gotten such a positive reaction to Obama, even on campus” Miars said.
Nearing the Merchant Food Center on Seven Mile Road and Conant Avenue, Miars and Duvall ran into two other Obama volunteers who’d already set up in the spot. One of the volunteers told Duvall she’d been there since 11 a.m. and suggested he look elsewhere.
They chose another shopping mall and headed to Imperial Supermarket, only to find that another Obama volunteer had already turned away another group of volunteers looking to register people as they entered the store.
Duvall and Miars had more luck when they moved down to a nearby Payless Shoe Source.
Miars registered six people Saturday — all of them at the Belmont Shopping Center on Eight Mile Road and Dequindre Avenue. Duvall registered five potential voters and signed up six people who were interested in volunteering.
Desharinetee Owens, a Detroit resident who turned 18 a week ago, was the first person Miars registered. Owens was in the middle of a shift at Payless Shoe Source when she asked Miars to help her fill out a registration form.
A self-decribed “Obama believer,” Owens said she would have registered on her own, but was glad Miars was there to make the process easier.
Though the large number of volunteers converging on Detroit made it tough for volunteers to find people to register, the third time was the charm for one Detroit resident Saturday. Before registering with LSA senior Boris Sigal, the woman had told two other volunteers she wasn’t going to register.
“Let’s do this right here, right now. I’ve been putting this off, let’s do this right now,” she said prior to registering with Sigal.
Saturday’s trip was the second of four “District Invasions” the College Democrats planned for the 2008 election, and the largest event of its type. The group plans to canvass next at Ohio State University over fall break and again in Oakland County Nov. 1.