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Black Leaders Urge Greater Vote Turnout

Motivated by unpleasant memories of the 2000 Florida recount, black leaders determined to boost voter turnout this fall are enlisting hip-hop artists and community organizations in campaigns to register millions of new voters.

"The mobilization of young voters is the revolutionary concept this year," said Maya Rockeymoore, vice president of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (search).

Rockeymoore said the foundation is reaching out to younger voters through registration and educational initiatives at historically black colleg2001, is sponsoring youth empowerment "summits" around the country, headlined by artists such as Will Smith, LL Cool J and Beyonce, with a goal of getting 2 million young people registered to vote.

The group used the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's legislative summit this week to kick off plans for a bus tour later this month through the South and Midwest. On Election Day, the group plans to have buses with hip-hop artists on board taking voters to the polls.

Registration and get-out-the-vote efforts topped the agenda at the foundation's annual summit. The organization is nonpartisan, but all the caucus members are Democrats. Both President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic challenger, were invited to speak at the conference's final dinner Saturday night, but only Kerry accepted.

Anger over the Florida recount that gave Bush the presidency resonated throughout the conference. After Bush took office, federal civil rights monitors concluded that the ballots of black Florida voters were disproportionately tossed out in an election plagued by faulty machinery and ballot problems.

"(Florida) isn't something that needs to be talked about," said Donna Sandiford, 39, a faculty administrator from Washington. "It made all of us realize in the black community that there had been a consensus that my vote doesn't count, when it really does count."

Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., who represents Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where many of the 2000 problems occurred, said that election "is still fresh in people's minds, and they will be motivated to do the right thing."

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, said those struggles should rekindle a sense of social responsibility among black voters, after what happened in Florida.

"The vote is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have," Lewis said. During this election year, we have to send the strongest possible message and mobilize and get people out to vote like never before."

The foundation is part of the "Unity '04 Civic Engagement and Vote Empowerment Campaign," a nonpartisan network of 130 African-American organizations aimed at increasing the black vote this year. Unity has been around since 1998, but organizers say this is the most aggressive effort yet, with a goal of registering 1 million new voters.

The campaign has highlighted Southern states, where 55 percent of the nation's black population live.

Energizing black voters could be beneficial for Kerry, especially in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Recent polls show blacks preferring Kerry over Bush by an 8-to-1 margin.

Exit polls from 2000 show that 90 percent of blacks voted for Gore, and at least 83 percent voted for President Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, 57 percent of voting-age black citizens went to the polls, up from 53 percent in 1996.

Bush and other Republicans have questioned whether Democrats are taking black voters for granted.

While acknowledging that attracting more black voters will be tough, Republicans say Bush's support of school vouchers appeals to those with children who may be in failing urban public schools. They also point to increasing levels of home and small business ownership among minorities.

At their convention last week, the GOP featured prominent black Republicans such as Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and Education Secretary Rod Paige and said their party has become more diverse. Republicans also dipped into their own history and reminded delegates that it was Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.