When Voter Turnout Soars

Americans facing another presidential election year bemoaning low voter turnout could take a lesson from rural North Carolina.

Residents of the tiny textile-mill and farming towns south of Winston-Salem have recently gone to the polls in such droves that some precincts recorded 90 percent participation -- a whopping 35 percent over the national average.

In the state's central sandhills region, Moore county voter registration has more than doubled since 1988.

These newly franchised North Carolinians, mainly factory workers and service providers for the local tourist industry, aren't just voting for a face on a billboard.

"We're going to the polls to address things like water, roads, street lights -- all the things that matter in a community," said Brenda K. Brown, a 43-year-old mother of three children.

They're going because they now realize what a difference elections can make in their everyday lives, according to Brown and other local citizen activists.

Indeed, across the country, voter turnout is heaviest when people make this connection-between community conditions and the ballot box-said Maine Secretary of State Bill Diamond.

Maine leads the nation with 85 percent of its eligible voters registered. Diamond gave credit to state programs that encourage participation in government and allow even the homeless to vote using a park bench or a bridge as an address.

"We want to reconnect our citizens with the government that represents them. That doesn't mean just voting on election day. It means getting involved in local issues-having some say in how your community operates," said Diamond.

In the sandhills area of North Carolina, Brown and her neighbors have a history of being left out of government decisions. Until recently, many of their towns had few paved streets, and residents often lacked running water or indoor plumbing.

The only voting records they were setting were at the low end. Before 1990, fewer than 30 percent of these North Carolina natives even bothered to register, let alone vote, said Jesse Wimberley, a fifth-generation resident of Aberdeen.

The statistics began to change, though, as people started linking their votes to their day-to-day needs, he said.

For dozens of communities throughout an area the size of Massachusetts, the catalyst for change has been the Piedmont Peace Project, a multiracial grassroots organization based in Kannapolis. Organized in 1985 by Linda Stout, PPP brings low-income residents together in rural counties where the Ku Klux Klan at one time wielded power.

As the daughter of a tenant farmer and mill worker, Stout grew up surrounded by the invisible walls that often separate poor people from the middle class. Her objective was to help the poor break through the barriers to a more decent standard of living.

The majority of the Piedmont Peace Project staff comes from low-income areas. When they are invited into a community -- and they never go in uninvited -- they begin by pursuing concrete goals: garbage dumpsters, stop signs, streetlights.

Voting is one of their tools, not a goal in itself but a part of the process to bring long-term change through political decisions, said Wimberley, a PPP field organizer since 1988.

When Brenda Brown and her neighbors asked the Piedmont Peace Project to come to Jackson Hamlet, they were destitute and facing drought. Their community was supplementing its domestic supply with water purchased from Pinehurst, its neighbor. Pinehurst leaders threatened to cut off the extra water until the community paid a $40,000 debt, Brown said.

The PPP staff offered Jackson Hamlet no immediate answers, she said. Instead, they asked the residents to list their ongoing community problems in order of importance.

"They made us look up and see that water is just one of our problems, although the one most in our face," said Brown.

For the first time in her life, Brown became active in her community. She began attending meetings and voicing her opinions. She registered 40 voters in her town of 350 residents.

In August, Jackson Hamlet won $850,000 in federal funds for water and sewer systems. Buoyed by their success, several residents of the region's historically low-income communities are now seeking appointment to the Moore County Water and Sewer Authority and other boards responsible for providing their services.

"We're learning how to get things done just by becoming involved. It's given me a sense of caring I never had before," said Brown, hired this year as a field organizer with the Piedmont Peace Project.

Jackson Hamlet's success followed similar victories in similar small communities. In 1989 in Midway, senior citizens were tired of burying their garbage in their backyards and catching rainwater in buckets for bathing. They began showing up at public meetings and speaking out, said Wimberley. They began registering to vote-and voting.

In 1990, Midway won a $600,000 million federal Community Development Block Grant for a water system. The town also has a garbage dumpster provided by Aberdeen, its neighbor.

"People have to see that the reason they don't have dumpsters or running water is because the resources are going somewhere else. They are voting to end the 'somewhere else,'" Wimberley said.

The tangible link between daily needs and the ballot box may be more obvious in rural areas, resulting in the generally higher voter turnouts in rural states, said Cory Fong, election administrator for North Dakota.

North Dakota's 463,000 registered voters statewide are fewer than in many American cities. But an average of 71 percent of those eligible show up at the polls because they feel directly involved in their government's decisions, Fong said.

"Government is a part of our everyday life. We can walk down the street and talk to elected officials. We can argue with them publicly -- go have a beer with them," Fong said.

In North Carolina, the Piedmont Peace Project has focused its efforts on the state's Eighth Congressional District, represented since 1974 by Bill Hefner (D-Concord). In 10 years the project has registered 15,000 people and delivered around 40,000 voters to the polls, said Wimberley.

Hefner acknowledges that voter participation has risen-exactly during the period of activism by the PPP. But he views this mainly as a coincidence, said Sandra Latta, a Hefner aide in Washington.

She said the voters have turned out in growing numbers because of compelling issues -- like the closing of a local appliance plant in 1992 and the Gulf War a year earlier-not because of the Piedmont Peace Project.

"You will probably hear the Piedmont people say they changed the Congressman's mind, but we honestly can't think of an example where they did," Latta said.

The Piedmont people, meanwhile, see no coincidence in either the burst of voter participation or in what they reckon as a shift in Hefner's own voting patterns in Congress.

Citing the Council for a Livable World's review of congressional voting records, Wimberley said Hefner's climbed from zero percent to as high as 83 percent on causes of concern to PPP.

For Brown, Wimberley and hundreds of others newly engaged in their communities, solving one problem simply paves the way to tackling another.

Their most recent challenge is a $70 million highway bypass near Pinehurst to allow golf carts to travel safely from one country club link to another. To clear the way, developers might have to destroy 30 homes and 10 businesses in low-income communities.

The residents want to make sure that this becomes an issue in future elections.

"We're not going to go away. This is a long-term process. It's a day-in day-out struggle," Wimberley said.

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