By Erin Fuchs
DALTON, Ga. -- After the mayoral election last month, Dalton resident Chris Gregg said he conducted an informal survey of his friends and acquaintances, who are mostly black: Did they vote?
"Way less than half of them voted," said Mr. Gregg, who belongs to Concerned Citizens, a black community group here.
"We had a low turnout as far as African-American votes," he said.
Four candidates had run for mayor, and David Pennington and Chip Sellers were the top two in vote totals. Because neither gained more than 50 percent, the runoff was scheduled.
To lure more black residents to the polls for the mayoral runoff, Concerned Citizens is working with a group of black pastors, Concerned Clergy, on a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign that will last until the polls close Tuesday.
The two groups met Monday to discuss strategies to energize black voters.
Pastor Erma Raymond of Bethel AME Church said the strategy is two-fold.
"We need to make sure they're ... aware of the elections, and (make sure they) get out to vote," she said, and, referring to the Civil Rights movement, she added, "People died for us to have this opportunity to vote."
Concerned Citizens has printed 1,000 fliers to pass out over the weekend.
On Sunday, 15 Dalton pastors will encourage members of their congregation to vote, Ms. Raymond said.
And on election day, the historically black Dalton Community Center will be the get-out-vote command center, said its director, Tom Pinson, who also serves as secretary of Concerned Citizens.
Two vans borrowed from churches will be waiting at the Community Center to shuttle voters to the polls.
One Concerned Citizen member, Mary Buford, said she's offering rides to all the voters she knows who can't drive.
"I'm going to call them ahead of time and say, 'Go get ready. I'll be there,' " she said.
Still, even with get-out-the-vote efforts, election officials have predicted a low turnout.
Elections supervisor Kay Staten said it's difficult to get voters to the polls when there's only one issue on the ballot. "I think it's going to be very light," she said. "I guess it's just voter apathy."
In June, a special election to fill a seat on the Whitfield County Commission had a turnout of less than 5 percent.
A Sept. 18 referendum on a Whitfield County special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, yielded a higher turnout, nearly 13 percent, but still had fewer voters than a general election, officials said.
By Friday, the mayoral runoff had yielded unforeseen early election results. Ms. Staten said that 246 residents had voted early, while only 160 voters cast early ballots the week before the Nov. 6 election.
"We were surprised," she said.
The Concerned Citizens and Clergy say they hope the unusually high turnout carries over to election day.
"Normally, you know, in a runoff, the turnout is real low," said Mr. Gregg. "We're hoping we can make an impact and make a bigger turnout."
Blacks comprise 7.7 percent of the city's population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the most recent data available.
It's important for minorities to become engaged in the city's political process, said Bishop Stephen Thomas, of Community Fellowship Church, which is lending the Community Center a van Tuesday.
Bishop Thomas said he believes that more minorities should hold public offices in Dalton, and voting is the first step to achieving that goal, he said.
"I would love to see Dalton more diverse as far as the City Council," Bishop Thomas said. "It's things like (voting) that we need to take advantage of to get where we need to go."
E-mail Erin Fuchs at firstname.lastname@example.org
NEED A RIDE?
For a ride to the polls, call the Community Center at: (706) 278-8205