The Atlanta Car and Bike Show lasts for one day only, and on a recent hot summer afternoon, the line to get in snaked for hundreds of yards through the carpeted interior of the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta. Inside the cavernous hall, live hip-hop thundered from a stage as thousands of black Atlantans meandered through the displays, scoping tricked-out cars, motorcycles and one another.
But before attendees got to the cars and music, volunteers from the Obama campaign were doing their best to make sure they spent a moment on civics. Serena Bland and her husband, Adrian, paced up and down the entrance to the hall with Register to Vote signs, urging people toward the voter-registration booth a dozen feet away. There, Anderia Bishop chatted and joked and generally poured every ounce of her considerable enthusiasm into persuading even the skeptical or indifferent that registering would be the best five minutes they ever spent. “We’re chasing people through the park,” Bishop said of her local volunteer group’s activities. “We’re going out onto the corner. This is huge. Huge.”
A young man approached the table and was pleasantly surprised to learn that felons in Georgia who’ve completed probation can vote. “If I’d a-known it was this easy,” he said in disbelief, “I would have been done!” After completing the form, Bishop folded it and deposited it in an ersatz ballot box. The sign beside it read, Voting Is a Sacred Right and a Moral Obligation.
A middle-aged woman with her daughter in tow took an application and began to fill it out. Not content with just one, Bishop asked the daughter if she was registered to vote. Clad in a velour turquoise jumpsuit (with short-shorts), wearing hoop earrings and snapping her gum in near caricature of insouciant youth, she shook her head. Bishop then proffered a clipboard, but the daughter pouted, “It’s too much to write.”
“It’s not too much to write,” Bishop replied sweetly but firmly, the clipboard still extended. “It takes a minute. You’re gonna be here while your mother’s filling it out anyway.”
With that, the young woman dropped her shoulders and, with the air of a suffering martyr, took hold of the clipboard and began to fill it out.
Bishop nodded her head in quiet triumph: add another to the tally.
As the daughter sauntered off to the bar after handing Bishop the completed form, I wasn’t sure whether I’d just witnessed the birth of a new voter or an exercise in futility. For the Obama campaign, which is undertaking the largest voter-registration drive in the history of presidential campaigns, victory may very well hinge on the answer.
In 2004 George W. Bush carried Georgia by eighteen points. Though it has been sixteen years since a Democrat last won the state, this year, to the surprise of many, the Obama campaign has announced that Georgia is one of the twenty-three states it is targeting. By the time of the convention, it will be home to 160 field organizers in twenty offices. In June, when Obama campaign manager David Plouffe came to Washington to give a PowerPoint presentation to the press corps laying out the campaign’s strategic vision for the election, he stressed that Georgia was home to 600,000 unregistered African-American voters, all of whom the campaign was going to work hard to register and turn out. “Our volume,” he said of the nationwide voter-registration program, “is going to be enormous.” (Obama will also likely be aided by the candidacy of Georgia native Bob Barr, running on the Libertarian ticket.)