While politicians run their campaigns to garner votes for November, action groups around the country are working to enable people to be able to cast those votes.
In light of the election year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has chosen a voter awareness theme for their annual campaign: "Your Power, Your Decision—Vote."
And at the recent statewide conference of NAACP chapters in New Jersey, held lat week in East Brunswick, voter awareness and advocacy was a major topic of conversation.
According to numbers provided at the conference, more than six million African-Americans of voting age in the U.S. are unregistered.
James Harris, president of the New Jersey Conference of the NAACP, said the theme is meant to increase civic engagement among members, educate on the differences between the party platforms, and present avenues for citizens to get involved with the election on a local level.
"You don't want to be asleep at the wheel," said Richard Smith, state convention chair for the New Jersey Conference of the NAACP.
To that end, the NAACP is pouring a lot of effort into voter empowerment and education right now, he said, which goes beyond just workshops discussing voter numbers.
In addition to voter empowerment, the organization is focusing efforts on small-business empowerment, affordable housing initiatives, and youth education and empowerment, organized through 25 youth councils and 12 college chapters of the NAACP throughout the state.
The larger picture includes the challenges of changing voter ambivalence and inability to stay involved with the election, the tackling of a "stymied, do-nothing Congress," and coming up with proactive, solution-based ways to do all of this, he said.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Smith said.
The officially non-partisan NAACP does not endorse a presidential candidate.
"This is My Vote" is a campaign that will kick off Sept. 25th, with the intent to register hundreds of thousands of minority, poor and elderly citizens.
The campaign is an attempt to circumvent what the NAACP calls "an attack" on voting rights through legislation that would change voter accommodations and most negatively impact poor, elderly and minority voters.
The 2008 election saw a surge in minority numbers, with a 65.3 percent black voter turnout rate in 2008, a 4 percent increase from 2004, according to the NAACP.
Latino voter numbers increased to 19.5 million in 2008, a 21 percent increase from 16.1 percent in 2004, according to the NAACP.
A number of issues have emerged as obstacles for registered and unregistered voters many states since then, according to the NAACP. Those obstacles include a requirement of a state-issued ID to vote, reduction of poll hours, which would prevent voters from accessing the polls during the work day, and ending poll hours entirely on Sundays, the elimination of same-day voter registration, and the removal of voting rights for ex-criminal offenders.
The campaign is a nationwide effort, but focuses intently on 12 specific states, including Virginia, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida, due to their large minority populations and data showing large drops in black voter turnout between 2008 and 2010, according to the NAACP.
New Jersey is not included among the 12 focus states.
The campaign aims to make the process as simple as possible, using such avenues as mailing postage-paid voter registration forms to young adults who have just reached voting age, and providing transportation to voters on election day who cannot drive themselves there.
Political party is an irrelevant issue, and voters need to do their research and vote for a candidate who is right for them, according to George Gore, political action chair for the New Jersey NAACP.
Keynote speaker Marc Lamont Hill, an author, professor and public speaker, compared the thousands of unregistered or uncast votes throughout the country to "stones" as in the biblical story of David and Goliath.
Hill also passionately advocated for selflessness and perseverance in getting involved in larger issues.
"To do this work is a commitment to do it when it is hard," he said. "We can't just vote our way to freedom, we need to organize our way to freedom."
The "Your Power, Your Decision - Vote" conversation will continue on Oct. 13 at the 38th Annual Freedom Luncheon of the New Brunswick Area Branch NAACP, to be held at the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset.
For more information on the luncheon, visit www.newbrunswickareanaacp.org.