"We're Still Fighting the Civil War Here": Virginia, a Former Slave State and Republican Stronghold, Could Help Secure the Presidency for Barack Obama If Thousands of Unregistered and Disenfranchised Black Voters Can Be Mobilised

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It is lunchtime in Petersburg and Alice McAlexander and David Nibert are on the prowl. The two Obama campaign staffers have come to the campus of Virginia State University, a historically black college that is still overwhelmingly African-American. Armed with clipboards, they fan out across the scrub lawns between the red-brick halls. "Are you registered to vote in Virginia?" shouts Nibert, clad in flip-flops and a red Obama T-shirt. The VSU students, in mottled hoodies and low-slung denim, look on curiously, but by the end of an hour-long blitz the two operatives have helped a clutch of teenagers negotiate the mauve text of the Virginia voter registration application form. "I'm excited about voting," says one of their conquests, Davina Pitts, an 18-year-old psychology student.

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The Commonwealth of Virginia, lodged above the Carolinas on America's Atlantic coast, has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. (Historically, the "Solid South" of the United States was a blue stronghold, but when the Democrats announced their support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s the former Confederate states switched allegiance.) As recently as the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning that the state was forfeit to the Republicans.

But things have changed in recent years. Virginia has elected successive Democratic governors since 2002, and in 2007 the party won a majority in the state senate. Says Dr Dirk Philipsen, a political scientist at VSU: "Virginia is now absolutely in play." With 13 electoral college votes, a higher number than all but 11 other states, it is more than just a potentially rich prize for the Democrats. The Old Dominion may be the place where the presidential election is won and lost.

Demographic change in the suburbs of Washington, DC is one factor in Virginia's shifting political make-up. There, the sprawl has brought an influx of liberal-minded voters to Virginian boom towns such as Woodbridge in Prince William County. However, the change in the hue of the state from Republican red to a pregnant purple is also a result of the increasing political engagement of its large African-American population. As Harry Lewis, the black owner of a real-estate appraisal firm in the state capital, Richmond, says: "Obama is a very intelligent young man. He's got all the qualifications to be president. He's a black man, and he ought to be supported."

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African Americans, who comprise 19.9 per cent of Virginia's total population of 7.6 million, generally vote Democrat. However, Obama's candidacy has created a new wave of enthusiasm among black Virginians that extends well beyond traditional party allegiances and youthful idealism.

In Chesterfield County, Sandra Noble, a 59-year-old grandmother and the former principal of Harrowgate Elementary School, is one of many professional African Americans who are looking forward to the election. "I've been listening and watching since the beginning of the campaign," she says. "I think Obama is the one of make the change. Something is changing, and our youth is changing. The higher levels need to take control to meet the needs of what is happening today."

If McCain wins, Noble says, "I would feel highly disappointed. I would feel people had not been putting in their whole spirit. I would feel it would be due to the fact that those who could have voted did not."

Elsewhere, Taniki Boyd, a black single mother from Richmond, is also gearing up for 4 November. "I'm looking forward to it," says the 28-year-old administrative assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I just hope it'll be a fair race." Boyd, whose daughter Maria is three years old, is backing the Democrats because she hopes their proposals for social reform could improve her standard of living. "I am a single mother and sometimes I find it hard," she explains. …