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DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Helping voters one door at a time in Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE

The drone of democracy in my native North Side warmed my heart. Vans circled the blocks, picking up senior citizens and those with disabilities for early voting. One of them was Darlene Whitelaw, 54, who needed assistance because of a stroke. But she was determined to strike her personal blow in the presidential election. “It’s my duty,” she said slowly.

Holding Whitelaw’s hand to vote was Edward Jude, 58, a block captain for Wisconsin Jobs Now, an economic justice group deploying early voting vans. He is also walking the streets on a personal mission to persuade people to vote, telling ex-felons they can vote if they are no longer on probation or parole. One surprised ex-felon who voted “was one of the happiest guys I ever saw,” Jude said. “I’ve gotten about, 50, 60 people to vote off the street, just because they needed education.”

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In this battleground state in a deadlocked presidential race, efforts like Jude’s make my old neighborhood Ground Zero for whether President Obama or Mitt Romney wins the White House. The Obama campaign boasted this week that its ground game in Wisconsin, backed by labor and community groups and college students, is producing dramatic results. It claims a 2-to-1 advantage in early-voting ballots being cast in wards won by President Obama in 2008 over wards won by John McCain. Neil Albrecht, executive director of Milwaukee’s election commission, said the city will shatter 2008’s record of 32,000 early votes. In 2008, early voting comprised 12 percent of ballots cast, boosting turnout to 80 percent. Milwaukee gave 78 percent of its votes to Obama over McCain.

The enthusiasm of seniors was only half the story. “I was driving in a ward with a high crime rate and saw a young man knocking on doors,” said Wisconsin Jobs Now volunteer Kambi Washington, 32. “He had a big leather jacket. He looked like a gang banger with two cellphones and his pants sagging. But he was politely urging people to get on vans and vote now.”

There were several young men who looked like him, fanning out over the North Side, from the League of Young Voters. When I arrived at the league’s office Wednesday afternoon, 30 young men and women were getting final instructions on a leaflet drop to remind people to vote. Many were high-school dropouts, scuffling for GEDs. Several others had done jail time.

Shamir Maloney, 22, who did time for selling drugs, said, “I was walking one block that was madness, with fights breaking out. I kind of walked sideways to them, held up a voting sign, and said, ‘I see you all fighting, but why don’t you try to actually fight for something?’ They laughed but I actually got a couple of them to vote.”

Montreal Robinson, 22, who did five years for armed robbery and cannot vote because he is still on probation, said, “One lady said she didn’t believe in voting. I told her, ‘I’m a felon. Please vote for me.’ She said she would.”

This touched a deep chord in me, as the league’s office was across the street from where I got my start in journalism four decades ago in an inner-city writers’ workshop. Back then we thought we could change the world with pen and paper. Today, despite widespread despair and a city that has only 45 percent of black men employed, these young adults were trying to change it with the ballot.

“My favorite day was when me and a female canvasser were in Wauwatosa last year educating against voter ID laws,” said Marshall Trudo IV, 19. “There was a white guy who had barking dogs and at first didn’t want to open the door. But we had a real good five-minute conversation. He saw people like me in hip-hop clothes, enunciating properly, speaking intelligently on the issues.

“He smiled when we left. He actually said, ‘It’s great to see you out here.’ ”

The middle-class campaign rhetoric and traditional pleas to vote from black ministers often miss people like Trudo. But with every knock on the door, he becomes the fresh face of democracy.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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