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Vote for America

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Do you know a lot of people? Are you interested in politics? Do you want help strengthen our democracy? Then why not become a Democracy Captain? All you have to do is get more people to vote--without taking the side of a specific candidate.

That's the mission of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization "Vote for America," which for the first time in this year's general election encourages North Carolinians to use their right to vote. "Vote for America" started in Rhode Island in 2000 and says it increased overall voter participation by nearly 6 percent.

This year, the organization opened offices in North Carolina and Georgia, starting an expansion effort that eventually will include all 50 states. "There are different reasons why we chose North Carolina and Georgia," says Susan Hansell, executive director of the new North Carolina chapter. "The organization wanted to get out of the Northeast but stay in the proximity of Rhode Island. Georgia provides the opportunity to gain some experience in a more metropolitan race, whereas North Carolina is more a statewide race."

One of the main principles of "Vote for America" is its strict nonpartisanship, and Hansell is eager to emphasize this decidedly neutral approach: "It's not about the candidates, not about the party, not about the causes--we just want to draw more people into the political process by focusing on the act of voting."

It relies heavily on the power of personal relationships. "I talk to a friend and say I want you to make an informed decision in the next election," explains Anne Peele, vice president of government relations at the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce and a Democracy Captain herself.

To reach as many potential voters as possible, the organization's structure is like a pyramid. On top is a steering committee composed of citizens who have a reputation that will draw other people to the cause, such as leaders from corporations, sports, the media etc. Each member of the steering committee has to recruit five "Democracy Fellows." Community leaders such as deans, principals or athletic coaches are especially qualified, since it's their job to find and help train at least 10 "Democracy Captains." They, then, have to recruit at least 20 voters from among their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. and try to make sure they actually end up going to the polls on Election Day. They do that by talking about the importance of voting, the issues and offices at stake, and then getting people to pledge to cast their ballots on Nov. 5.

In the General Elections four years ago in North Carolina, 46.3 percent of the more than 4.3 million registered voters and only 35.4 percent of the total voting age population went to the polls. "Our goal is to get 100,000 more voters, which would mean a 4 percent increase from 1998," Hansell says. To reach this ambitious goal she and her little two-person team have been touring the state to establish coalitions with influential organizations. "We're doing a lot of networking with all kinds of organizations and institutions that are willing to support our cause," explains Hansell. Although she can't be sure about the success of the effort until Election Day, she is optimistic: "The feedback has been very good so far."

Democracy Captain Anne Peele is still working on getting commitments. "I didn't get 20 people yet because many see it as a personal decision," she says. "But I'm working on it."

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