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NAACP's voter registration campaign fails to back claim of more than 3 milion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NAACP leaders claim to have registered more than 3 million voters since July 1999. But the Baltimore-based civil rights group has been hard-pressed to substantiate those numbers.

In fact, branch presidents nationwide said they lack accurate counts on the number of people they've registered since the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention last year, when President Kweisi Mfume announced an ambitious plan to register 4 million new voters by this year's presidential election.

Mfume, interviewed this week in Washington after taping the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," said he can't concern himself with people who disbelieve the numbers.

"We don't ask anybody to believe us," Mfume said. "We began this campaign because we thought it was important. And some of this is proprietary. We don't necessarily believe we should announce where our largest registrations have been."

Numbers of newly registered voters aside, one political observer suggests that what's most important is getting people to the polls on Nov. 7, which NAACP officials insist they intend to do.

"The black vote is going to be really important, but ... getting people to the polls and the actual votes decides elections," said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "That's really going to be the big issue with African-Americans this year and the NAACP - of the people registered, who turns out to vote?"

While it's hard to tell the actual number of voters registered by the NAACP, there are notable signs of life in the registration campaign, which officials have labeled "Voter Empowerment." Spurred by a $7 million National Voter Fund, which the NAACP's National Board of Directors established in July, volunteers around the country have aggressively targeted potential voters at churches, festivals, and local grocery stores. Beginning this week, they launched a bus tour of seven Southern states.

Last month in Montgomery County, local NAACP branch officials conducted a massive voter registration appeal.

"In previous years, we took a less formal approach to voter registration," said Elbridge James, co-chairman of the Montgomery County NAACP's political action committee. "This year ... there's more attention drawn to the election, and it makes people more conscious of whether they're registered to vote or not."

In Seattle, NAACP officials have adopted the acronym REP, for Registration, Education and Participation. "All three elements are necessary," said Seattle Branch President Lacy Steele.

Steele said his organization usually transports voters to and from polls on Election Day, as will branches around the country.

Branches handle voter registration differently. Many set goals. In Detroit, for example, an effort that began on Mother's Day with 300 churches seeks to register 20,000 new voters, said Dr. Jerome Reide, regional director of the NAACP's Midwest Region 3, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

By this week, officials had met half their goal, said Brooke McCauley, Michigan state director of the forementioned National Voter Fund.

Veronica Gray-Adgerson, 30, had previously registered to vote in Washington, but she filled out a voter registration card at Joyner's taping on Wednesday because she now resides in Upper Marlboro, Md. "I think it's a good idea," Gray-Adgerson said. "They [voters] wouldn't [register] on their own. They gotta be forced to do it."

She acknowledged that she had been planning to re-register for some time but might not have if the show had not taped near her job.

Joyner's show reaches an estimated 6 million mostly African-American listeners. It is usually dominated by R&B; music, comedy and news, but focused this week on current affairs.

Wednesday's "Town Hall" event, attended by about 600, culminated a three-day blitz in which Joyner and his staff, taped shows in eight cities and encouraged people to register and to vote.

Mfume was a panelist along with the likes of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, motivational speaker/author Iyanla Vanzant, attorney Johnnie Cochran, TransAfrica President Randall Robinson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

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