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Politics Mondays: Are You Wasting Your Right To Vote? by John Gullion

Back in March, Jesse Jackson stood in the pulpit of Brown A.M.E Church and delivered a fiery message before helping lead thousands across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In essence Jackson told the listeners not to disrepect the efforts of those who bled on that bridge, of those the marched all the way to Montgomery, of those who died for the right to vote.

"It you're not registered to vote, don't march across that bridge," he said.

Impassioned words in March often don't mean much in June at the polls. Though many local politicians are hopeful for a strong turnout for the June 1 primary, the trend around the nation and around the Black Belt is an apathetic voting populace.

"Voter apathy is a challenge in a great many elections. You would think here in the Black belt that voter apathy wouldn't be an issue all," District Attorney Ed Greene said. "I would like to think that people would vote very well. The so-call experts seem to feel like there's no burning issue, that there may not be a real turn out of voters."

Most of the candidates running in the June 1 primary register voters at every event. They need as many voters, as many of their supporters at the polls as possible.

"We're holding voter registration drives," said Selma City Attorney Jimmy Nunn, who is running for District Judge. "We're trying to encourage people to get out and vote."

He isn't the only one.

Everywhere I go I have voter registration cards," Circuit court Judge Marvin Wiggins said. "Every picnic, every cookout, we're doing everything we can to try and register people."

But what's the problem? Why do politicians have to beat the bushes get people to exercise the most basic and important of democratic rights?

Michael Jackson, who is opposing Greene in the district attorney race says voters are frustrated with the system.

"They think politicians are feeding them a bunch of BS," Jackson said.

Wiggins adds that he thinks the political season began too soon.

"It just appears so far away. A lot of the candidates started (campaigning) so early," he said. "We're trying to energize people ourselves."

To some degree, the efforts of local leaders and important visitors like Jackson have helped. Wiggins says he's met many energized voters and Nunn says he thinks there will be a strong turnout at the polls.

But even in the best elections, there is still a large number of the populace that don't vote. Here in the heart of the Black Belt, where the voting rights movement began, that seems especially sad.

"I believe it would be disrespectful here or anywhere not to vote. It's such an important right," candidate for District Judge Bob Armstrong said. "It's such an important thing to have a voice in who leads us, we need to have good people leading us."

"This is where it all began this is where the struggle began this is where many people lost their lives," Nunn added. "The people of today (ride) on the backs of our civil rights leaders, it's a privilege."

Wiggins added that he and the younger voters of the benefactors of many years of struggles.

The incumbent District Judge Nathaniel Walker describes himself as a child of Selma. He participated in the Bloody Sunday March and the March to Montgomery as a teen. He says it can be frustrating to see people ignore the rights that were so dearly paid for.

"I remember the billy clubs, the horses, the tear gas, the bullwhips (and) the cattle prods. I went to jail a few times," Walker said. "This whole thing about voting rights has been dear to me most of my life. It is frustrating... it bothers me sometimes."

Wiggins seems amazed by those who don't share his passion for what he calls, "the driving force in me to vote."

"It's taken for granted by so many. They buy it, they sell it and they give it away so easy," Wiggins said. "Voting is their voice. They don't understand how important locally good officials are."

For many of the candidates, their political interest is a family affair. Armstrong's son Bob will be old enough to vote for the first time while Jackson said he follows the example of his mother.

"My mom, she always voted, as long as I can remember," Jackson said. "When I turned 18, it was expected for me to get registered and go vote. She always call me on election day."

"It's just understood. He's registered and he'll vote, of course, this time. He'll vote every time because you need to make it a priority," Armstrong said of his son.

But instilling that responsibility in others is the hard part.

"You have to be sincere and honest with them, you have to give them some hope," Jackson said. "The process of voting gives younger people a forum where they can be taken very seriously."

According to Greene, many experts feel it takes a major issue to bring voters to the polls.

"The so-call experts seem to feel like there's no burning issue (this year). That there may not be a real turn out of voters," he said. "That's an indictment of our society as a whole. Our whole democratic society is based on an informed and involved an electorate."

Come June 1, the primary election will happen. Whether the polls are full or empty leaders will be chosen, changed or re-affirmed. Whether or not the majority of people seem to care the process will continue.

"In our government, we change government, change philosophy (peacefully)," Greene added. "I think that is the mark of the goodness of our society.

Maybe this June more of the electorate will come out and get a glimpse of that goodness.

Note: This article first appeared in The Selma Times Journal

Copyright 2004 Selma Newspapers Inc. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 3, 2004

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