Growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s and '60s, Deddrick Battle came to believe that the political process was not for people like him – a struggling black man whose vote, he was convinced, surely would not count for much of anything. The thought became ingrained as an adult, almost like common sense. And that partly explains why, at age 55, he just registered to vote for the first time a month ago.
The other part of the reason is Barack Obama.
“This is huge,” Battle, a janitor, said after his overnight shift cleaning a movie theater. “This is bigger than life itself. When I was coming up, I always thought they put in who they wanted to put in. I didn't think my vote mattered. But I don't think that anymore.”
Across the country, black men and women like Battle, who have long been disaffected, apolitical, discouraged or just plain bored with politics, say they have snapped to attention this year, according to dozens of interviews conducted in the last several days in six states.
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They are people like 25-year-old Percy Matthews, of Chicago's South Side, who did vote once, but whose experience was so forgettable that he cannot recall with certainty for whom he cast a ballot, or even what year it was. Now an enthusiastic Democrat, he says the old days are gone.
And Shandell Wilcox, 29, who registered to vote in Jacksonville, Fla., when she was 18, then proceeded to ignore every election. She voted for the first time Wednesday.
Over and again, first-time and relatively new voters like Matthews and Wilcox, far past the legal voting age, said they were inspired by the singularity of the 2008 election and the power of Obama's magnetism. Many also said they were loath to miss out on writing what could be a new chapter of American history – the chance to vote for a black president.
Battle, for one, remembers growing up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis and how intimidated the adults were about voting, and that left an impression on him. The older women he knew were afraid to walk to the polls, he said, for fear of being attacked.
“I didn't think it was for black people, period,” he said of politics before the civil rights era. “We didn't have any rights, really. We were just coming into voting and everything.”
Fast-forwarding to the present, he continued: “I never thought that I'd see this day. I never thought I'd see the day where an African American was standing at the podium, getting ready to be president.”
The swelling ranks of the newly enthusiastic are also the result of extensive nationwide voter registration drives and new early-voting procedures in many states, which have made the process easier and more accessible.
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said the states with the largest increases in early voting have been those where the black population is proportionally the highest. In Georgia, for instance, blacks represented a quarter of all voters in the 2004 presidential election. So far this year in early voting alone, they make up 35 percent of all voters.
“I am fully expecting record black turnout,” Bositis said. “It's not just a question of Obama as the first black nominee; it's also that blacks have suffered substantially under the Bush years and blacks have been the single most anti-Iraq-war group in the population.”
He added, “Obama is like the icing on the cake, but it's not just a question of Obama.”
One early voter in Georgia was Armento Meredith, 43, who waited in line for two hours at the Fulton County Government Building in Atlanta to vote for the first time Thursday. “It's time for a change,” Meredith, a telephone operator, said. “I want to see something different.”
The result is likely to be a level of black participation in the electoral process that is higher than ever before. If sustained, some of those interviewed said, it might also translate into a reinvigorated spirit of democracy.