MACON, Ga. — Phillis Malone had never gotten involved in voter registration drives before.
But this summer, when the Macon chapter of the NAACP asked her to help sign up new voters through Habersham Music, the Pio Nono record store she owns, Malone couldn't say no.
"I just wanted to do it because there needs to be a change in this country," she said. "The only way you can change things is to vote."
Malone said she helped add about 100 voters to the Georgia rolls in a little less than two months. A few were white. Some were Hispanic. But most of them, she said, were black.
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Malone played a small part in organized efforts across the state this year that have boosted the number of newly registered black voters to nearly 240,000, almost 30 percent more than were registered in the 10 months before the 2004 election. Black voters now make up close to a third of Georgia's registered voters. How they turn out in this election — where they're expected in substantial numbers — could decide the state's presidential pick and the U.S. Senate race.
As of Friday, 35 percent of more than 1.76 million Georgia voters who'd cast ballots early were black. That number is a good bit higher than the proportion of black voters in past presidential elections here, where they have made up less than a quarter of the electorate, according to political scientists.
"There's some room to grow there," said Mike Digby, chairman of the department of Government and Sociology at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. "I would expect the black voter turnout is going to wind up being higher."
That's important because black voters overwhelmingly pick Democrats — to the tune of more than 90 percent, political experts say. And Barack Obama's historic symbolism to African-Americans could push that percentage even higher this year. A surge in black voters could make Obama the first presidential candidate from his party to win Georgia since Bill Clinton eked out a plurality in 1992.
For many black voters, the impetus to participate has been excitement over Obama's candidacy. That's coupled with a more general dissatisfaction over the economy and Republican leadership during the past eight years. Together, that all fuels expectations of very high black-voter turnout — perhaps enough to decide the state.
Black turnout that boosts Obama likely would trickle down the ballot. That would be a boon for U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a conservative Democrat in a tight race with Republican challenger Rick Goddard. Although a poll conducted last weekend put Goddard within four points of Marshall, it also showed the congressman leading his opponent 9-1 among black voters. The implication: If more black residents vote, Marshall won't face so close a race.
If large numbers of black voters boost Obama and Marshall, they'll also undermine the re-election efforts of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. The Republican, whose re-election looked like a sure thing six months ago, is now trying to fend off a full court press from the national Democratic Party and his challenger, Jim Martin.
Conventional wisdom suggests an influx of black residents voting for Obama won't help the Republican Senate incumbent.
"It is really hard to imagine what the Obama-Chambliss voter looks like," Grant said.
If one in three Georgia voters who turn out is African-American, "it is a very good thing for the Democrats," said Chris Grant, a Mercer University political science professor. "You would go from under-performing to over-performing. And if it happens, Georgia will definitely be picked up for the Democrats."
There's a history of voters choosing candidates who share their ethnic or religious identity when they're on a major presidential ticket for the first time, Grant said. It happened for Catholic voters and John F. Kennedy in 1960, Italian-Americans and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Jewish voters and Joe Lieberman in 2000.
Al Tillman, the president of the Macon chapter of the NAACP, has seen the increased interest among black voters. Local members worked over the summer to register new voters, a standard part of their mission.
However, Tillman said he was struck by the number of local "mom and pop" businesses — barber shops, Habersham's record store, day care centers — who for the first time also got in on the act. They signed up more new voters than his organization did, Tillman said.
"Everybody was interested in registering people to vote during this particular election," Tillman said. "It makes our job not as hard now. For the most part, we haven't found that many people that are not registered to vote."
(Matt Barnwell reports for the Macon Telegraph.)
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