As the presidential election looms, some 41,000 black voters in Philadelphia who used to be registered to vote are off the books now, and leaders in Philadelphia’s black community are scrambling to get them registered so their voices will be heard come November.
“We’re concerned that people may think elections may go a certain way, and too often people think that one vote doesn’t count,” Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the NAACP’s Philadelphia chapter, told NBC10 this week. “It certainly does.”
Muhammad said he recently met with elections commissioners and discerned the drop in registered voters. He said a larger decrease showed among black voters, who make up 44 percent of the city's population.
Muhammad said the local NAACP is joining forces with several other organizations now to try to get unregistered voters – particularly those who are black and Latino – registered ahead of the election. He said he attributes the hefty decrease in registered voters to people moving or registrations expiring – but he acknowledged apathy may be playing some role, too.
“We’re not going to let apathy win the day,” Muhammad said.
To complicate matters, some activists across the nation involved in the Black Lives Matter movement spoke out recently, saying they plan to abstain from voting for the next president, because they don’t believe their voices or votes matter. Asa Khalif, a vocal member of the local Black Lives Matter contingent, said he doesn’t plan to abstain from voting, but he knows people who do.
“I believe it is a privilege to vote,” Khalif said. “The right to vote is covered in the blood of our elders. Many of our elders were beaten and killed for that right … I plan to exercise my right.”
Khalif said he couldn’t put a number to how many activists he’s heard won’t vote.
It’s “more than a handful,” of people, Khalif said.
By and large, though, more than a dozen people interviewed in Philadelphia neighborhoods on Thursday rejected the notion that their votes don't count and said they plan to exercise their right at the polls in November.
“Listen, that’s democracy that men and women fought for … they got us to this stage,” said Tyrone Lawrence, 56, of Germantown, as he sold newspapers along Washington Lane in West Oak Lane. “When you don’t vote, it seems like you don’t care. It seems like you’re turning your back on people and your country.”
Lawrence echoed Khalif, saying people died for the right to vote, so he always goes to the polls. He also works at the polls in his neighborhood each election, sometimes outside and, more recently, on the voting machines. He said the turnout is generally good as his polling place. He pointed out the irony of people protesting, yet not exercising their right to vote.
“If it doesn’t matter, why you complaining?” Lawrence asked. “What you’re saying is in vain.”
Francine Lawson, 45, who grew up in North Philadelphia and lives in Logan now, agreed.
“I just think it’s immature for them not to vote,” she said. “Today I feel like we have to. It’s a must.”
Standing outside a corner store in North Philadelphia, Eddie Dejesus was bothered by the idea that people who have the right to vote wouldn’t take advantage of it. Though he’s lived in the United States since he was a child, the 44-year-old from the Dominican Republic isn’t a citizen, so he can’t vote.
“If I was a citizen, I’d do it right away,” Dejesus said as he found shade under the awning of Valdez Grocery at 6th and Tioga. “Maybe they want to do it because it’s good. It’s the future.”
Across the street, Carmen Espinal, 58, sat outside a rowhouse with her granddaughters and said that as long as she’s been in the United States – she moved from Puerto Rico almost 30 years ago – she’s made sure to vote whenever she has the chance.
“If it wasn’t for people voting, there would be nobody up there,” she said, her teenage daughter translating. “When you don’t have your vote, you can’t say anything.”
Calvin Baker, 28, said he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton, but that he anticipates a different America after the election, regardless of who takes the Oval Office. “I think this world is changing a whole lot and people don’t understand, so they go out and do violence,” Baker, a hairstylist from Germantown, said as he waited for the bus at Stenton Avenue and Washington Lane. “I really think the world is going to change.”
In Logan, John Damota, Eric Morrison and Bo Booker all said they planned to vote, but got into a spirited debate with each other about how much their votes truly count.
“I’ll vote, but no, I don’t think it matters,” Damota, 34, who grew up in the tough neighborhood and works as a plumber. “I’m a minority, and I think minority opinion doesn’t matter these days. Maybe if I had some money, my opinion would matter.”
Damota doesn’t think the feeling of disenfranchisement has everything to do with race, though.
“I don’t think it’s a race thing,” he said. “It’s an income thing.”
Damota said he fell victim to violence on the same streets where he lives last year when someone opened fire on a block party not far from his house, shooting him. He said vacant lots that cover massive swaths of his neighborhood just north of Roosevelt Boulevard tell him that politicians stopped caring about Logan – if they ever did.
“We can’t even get a councilmember on the phone. This [lot] has been abandoned for years,” Damota, who has a 14-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 7 and 4, said. “I feel bad, man. My kids gotta grow up with this.”
Morrison, 46, who’s also from Logan, had a little more faith. “I know that every little vote counts. I’m a little smarter than that,” Morrison said. “I’m going to try to make it matter.”
Booker, the elder of the group at 61, said he’s been voting all his life. He doesn’t fully trust the system, he said, but he thinks it's still important to exercise the right.
“I don’t believe it don’t count,” Booker said. “I know a vote not used doesn’t count. I’m voting Democrat. I’ve got no problem letting you know.”
Muhammad, of the local NAACP, said he hopes people will realize their votes do count sooner rather than later, and people will register and go to the polls in November.
“I would hope that they would be able to see that their greatest impact will be made when you put your vote in that ballot box,” Muhammad said. “If enough people go to the polls on one day, you’ll send a signal to the government. They will hear your demands.”