Last Saturday, on June 15, Brian Lemons took a clipboard in his hand, hoping to register voters at a Juneteenth event, where people were commemorating the end of slavery in Texas. Lemons volunteers with Battleground Texas, a group that wants to get more Democrats elected in the state. But here in East Austin, everyone he approached was already on the rolls.
A Census Bureau report published in May 2013 indicates that 1.7 million more black voters went to the polls in 2012, than in the 2008 presidential election.
Juanita Maxfield, 77, has lived in Austin her whole life. She said she would be ashamed if she were not registered.
"During my parents’ time, they had a damn poll tax," she said. "Back then, it was $1.75. $1.50? That was big money then. Tough time to save that money just to vote."
But her grandchildren require more motivation to get involved.
"In 2008 I carried two of my grandkids -- 'come go with me because I’m going to see that you vote. You’re going, I’m going to see. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but when we get to the polls you’re going to put a name down," she said, adding that she’s also working on her 11-year-old great granddaughter. "I’m going to work on her, teach her how important history is. You need to know if you know what happened, you know, why we are like we are now."
While Maxfield is motivated by the past, University of Texas Professor Eric McDaniel, who researches religion and Black politics, questions whether that will influence future generations.
"There are questions of -- with the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, does the success lead to apathy in the sense there’s not an intense pressure to get things done?" he said.
Cathy Cohen is the author of Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics. She’s also an investigator with the Black Youth Project, a website that encourages its audience to be informed on issues like voting. She said listening to the voice of young black voters is critical.
"Among groups where elders and the community has had to struggle the right to vote, young people hear the message that voting is important. The question is how do we get the young person who recognizes voting is important to the polls. "
UT Professor Eric McDaniel said going to church can increase turnout, one like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which tracks registered voters among its congregation. But with church membership declining, other groups have stepped up to the plate, like sororities and fraternities and the NAACP, he said.
The Census Bureau report 2012 was the first time that more Blacks voted than whites since the bureau began tracking those numbers in 1996. Battleground Texas is just one of the efforts to maintain what they hope is momentum in 2014, 2016 and beyond.