A group of community activists and leaders gathered at the National Civil Rights Museum Thursday to urge every eligible Memphians to turn out at the polls May 1.
Pastor Earl Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Whitehaven, said you have to speak out to be heard and the best way to speak out in a democracy is to vote. Fisher said the main problem for many years has been apathy among a voting public that doesn’t understand how much power there is in the ballot.
“When small numbers decide who is in office and who gets appointed to important and influential positions we end up with the status quo where a small minority of elites control a large majority of everyday people,” said Fisher, lead organizer of the UPThe Vote 901 initiative.
“This is a non-partisan initiative launched by the Memphis Shelby County Voter Collaborative, which aims to significantly increase voter turnout in 2018, 2019 and 2020,” Fisher said. “We believe voting is only a piece, but a priceless piece of our political power.”
Contacted shortly before the early-voting window closed on Thursday night, Linda Phillips, administrator of elections for the Shelby County Election Commission, said almost 40,000 voters had voted early for the May 1 primary. About 1,000 votes had been cast on Thursday as of 6:25 p.m., with another 30 minutes left to go.
Phillips predicts 30,000 voters will cast ballots on election day, which would mean a 14 percent turnout. She has said before that primary elections usually don’t get large turnouts.
Fisher was flanked Thursday by leaders from a wide range of community organizations, including the Memphis Branch NAACP, the Memphis High School Voter Project, the Gray Panther Party of Memphis and Memphis For All.
“The purpose of this press conference is to inform the public of measures the collaborative is taking in partnership with our constituents to prepare a final push toward election day on May 1 and in the forthcoming elections in the fall and in the years to come,” Fisher said.
“The collaborative is honored and excited, partnering with several organizations and institutions around the country and around the county that seek to make the voting process more accessible and a positive impact for everybody.”
Fisher said the group knows it will take awhile to wake people up to their voting power.
“So we are asking people to partner with us over the next several years,” Fisher said. “We want to provide information and assistance and opportunities for people to become more involved and informed and empowered regarding what is happening in communities politically. Our power is not in a political candidate but in our collective and comprehensive efforts to organize and mobilize the voter base.”
Fisher invited people who want to join the collaborative to text Upthevote901 to 797979. He pointed to the organization’s online presence for information on polling locations, times and general information on candidates. People interested in getting rides to the polls on Tuesday can call 901-726-2222.
Kermit Moore, labor industry chairman of the Memphis Branch NAACP, said that in December the NAACP board and membership came up with the phrase “Voting VIP901, Voting Is Power.”
“We want our constituents to know the only way we can truly attain power in this city, this state or country is to exercise our right to vote and not let the few be the voice for all,” he said. “The NAACP is glad to work with the collaborative to get out the vote.”
Tracy O’Conner, leader of the Memphis High School Voter Project, said the organization was started when she found out the voting rate among young people ages 18 to 24 is as low as two percent.
“I am basically a stay-at-home mom, so what I know is PTO’s and schools and how to work in the system,” she said. “So I thought this is how I can get involved.”
O’Conner said her group is a non-partisan organization that seeks to encourage young people to vote in Shelby County.
They had distributed 500 new voter bags to high school seniors at voter registration drives at schools as of Thursday. The majority of the group’s volunteers are Shelby County deputy registrars. In 2019, the goal is to give out 2,500 new voter bags and the group is actively seeking more volunteers and other groups to assist and partner with.
Laura Goodman-Bryant, a volunteer with the Gray Panther Party of Memphis, said the political activists group fights racism, sexism, ageism and poverty and is open to all ages.
“You will see us in the streets marching for increases in minimum wages, DACA rights, criminal justice reform, environmental safety and the protection of our nation’s safety net for young and old,” she said.
“In August 2016, voter turnout was so low that effectively eight out of every 10 registered voters gave away their power to the one or two people who cast their ballot,” she said. “That’s 47,000 community voices that were not heard That is unacceptable.”
Pastor John Gilmore, who represented Memphis For All, said the organization works toward a progressive voice in politics.
“One of the things we do recognize is how important the opportunity to vote is,” Gilmore said. “It’s important that you not allow yourself to be represented by a small minority but get out, make your voice heard, make your voice count. Your vote does matter. It does matter.”