One Stop Early Voting started on October 16th in North Carolina with great fanfare. In New Hanover County, which is sandwiched between the Cape Fear River to the west and the Atlantic ocean to the east, even the weather seemed to cooperate. With the high temperature in the mid-80's and no cloud in sight, it was a picture perfect day for marching to the polls.
But on this gorgeous October day, some students at the Universitiy of North Carolina, Wilmington, had something other than academics, the sun, the sand, and the surf on their minds. Students for Change, which had been working closely with the Barack Obama campaign in town, organized a Parade to the Polls to show support for Barack Obama and to raise awareness for early voting. Students started to gather around the water tower around 11:30 am, and by 12:00 pm, there was a sizable crowd. Drivers in cars honked their horns, others gave a thumbs up. Excitement was starting to build, and it was palpable.
I asked David Dangelico, one of the chief organizers, what the meaning of this Parade was. He said, "The meaning of it is to get the youth vote out. We are targeting the UNCW campus and everybody around the area. To get them to go vote and vote early. . . so that they can help other people vote afterwards." When I asked him if his generation was different than generations before, he answered, "I think that we are going to be the generation that changes everything."
A little after 12:00 pm, students broke into two groups, each of them led by a leader with a bullhorn to drum up support for early voting. They marched through the campus, picking up more students along the way. I spotted a table in front of the library with signs that read "Meat's Not Green." I asked the student who was at the table what she thought of this change theme during this election season. She said, "We are trying to get a lot of change on this campus in a lot of different ways, and this is our way." I asked if she knew that early voting started today. She said, "yes, I will be down there in a few." In the distance, I could hear rock music playing. I doubt that the table and the band playing on the stage in front of the student center were part of any early voting promotion. But the music blaring from the loudspeakers sure seemed to signal that it was time for action. Right now.
By the time the groups met up by the water tower again, the crowd had grown to about 100. David shouted into the bullhorn from the bed of a truck, "Let's go elect a president!" The crowd started cheer and blow whistles, and everyone was soon headed north on Racine Dr. I heard a loud yell from one of the apartments on the way, "John McCain! John McCain!" It was quickly drowned by "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!"
And there was now a big purple RV following the students that had "Purple States Wake UP! My First Vote" written on the sides. Two cameramen jumped out of the RV and started to follow the students. A woman holding a clipboard walked with them, asking students questions. I had heard on the local public radio station earlier that day about the My First Vote crew planning on being on campus today, so I asked Menna Overra, the woman with the clipboard, what it was. "My First Vote is a non-partisan grassroots movement that was started in New York . . . [it's] a wake-up tour to get the youth to wake up and show up at the polls." It turns out to be an interstate project starting first in Wilmington, then going to Raleigh to NC State, then to UNC-Chapel Hill, then on to Pennsylvania and Ohio. So by now, the crowd was being followed by this huge purple RV and a truck covered with green Obama static clings and students in the truck bed rallying on the marchers.
When we got to the parking lot of the county of board of elections office, an SUV drove into it with an older gentleman at the steering wheel and a woman, probably his wife, in the passenger seat. He gave a diapproving look, proceeded to open his window, and shouted, "McCain! McCain!" followed by "USA! USA!" David Pinsky, the grassroots organizer for UNCW ECO, turned to me and said, "How original. That's all they've got." Clearly, this is a group of students that is not easily intimidated by the older generation.
Soon the students arrived at the polling station. No electioneering is allowed within 50 feet of the doors by North Carolina law, so the perimeters were clearly marked by red masking tape on the ground. Students soon lined up, wearing their gear consisting of Obama t-shirts, Obama buttons, and Obama hats. I asked the sheriff's deputy outside the office door how the voter traffic had been up to that point. "Pretty heavy," he said, but "no one is waiting for too long. Maybe 10 to 15 minutes." I peeked inside, there was a row of voting machines, maybe 10 of them altogether. People were lined up inside as well. As the voters came out of the second set of doors, I spotted "I voted early" stickers.
I know plenty of Democrats in New Hanover County who say that the county is just too conservative to vote for Obama. Many of them who volunteered in 2004 tell me the same story of how disorganized the Kerry/Edwards campaign was. But some of these people haven't volunteered for Obama, so they don't know that the Obama campaign is one of the most organized in election history. I remember a young volunteer by the name of Rachel whom I met a month ago. She said to me, "The thought of Obama not winning just never occurred to me. But I am here to do what I can to make sure he wins."
Judging from the band of enthusiastic students today, many of them first time voters, I sure hope that a new wind is blowing here. Maybe not a hurricane strength wind of destruction, but a gentle sea breeze that will leave the political landscape transformed for the better and more beautiful for this coastal region of North Carolina.