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Blacks in Lee County have registered to vote in 2012 at a record pace, a potentially positive harbinger for Democrats and President Barack Obama headed into November's election.
Nearly 20,000 blacks in Lee County were registered as of mid-July, up 61 percent from the roughly 12,300 registered black voters at the same time in 2008, according to state election records. Throughout Florida, black voter registration has risen 15 percent between 2008 and 2012, but no region has seen a bigger percentage increase than Lee County.
Overall voter registration in Lee County is up about 27 percent from four years ago.
The registration boom could be a boon for Obama and other Democrats. About 15,200 Lee County blacks are registered Democrats, compared to 1,100 Republicans and 3,500 aligned with no party or a third party. Democrats will be looking to cut into the Republican advantage in Lee County from 2008, when GOP nominee John McCain received about 28,000 more votes than Obama.
Local Democratic and black leaders largely chalk up the increase to a voter registration push by Obama's campaign and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"It makes us feel proud," said James Muwakkil, president of the Lee County chapter of the NAACP. "Historically, we've been accused of not doing our civic duty. We've been accused of not showing up at the polls or not even voting.
"(Last week) in the primary, there were people who basically were waiting out on their porch to wave somebody down because they wanted to vote and needed a ride."
Muwakkil said new voter registration and education mandates came down from the national organization. As a result, the local chapter became one of eight Lee County-based organizations to sign up as a third-party registration group.
Sandra McClinton, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Lee County, said her organization also has about 50 people signing up voters, spurred in part by the battle over a Florida law designed to more closely scrutinize third-party voter registration groups. Now, the focus turns to getting out the vote, she said.
"We really have to do that, because we didn't in 2010," McClinton said. "Maybe people were just burned out from 2008."
Whether newly registered black voters actually reach the polls remains to be seen.
Precise figures about black voter turnout for the 2008 general election aren't available. But at the 10 Lee County precincts with the highest number of black voters, voter turnout was 33.9 percent, below the countywide turnout of 40.5 percent.
"Registration doesn't always translate to people showing up at the polls," said Steve Sherman, of the Democratic Club of Greater Fort Myers. "I'm sensing less excitement for both candidates. When I do phone calls, I get people who say, 'I'm voting against Obama,' but I don't hear many people say, 'I'm voting for Romney.'"
Part of the NAACP mandates to local chapters is making plans to get voters to polls on Nov. 6, Muwakkil said. Chapter officials are trying to rent five 20-seat vans for that Tuesday, targeting voters in areas such as Harlem Lakes, Pine Manor and Bonita Springs.
Muwakkil said support remains high for Obama in the black community, though high incarceration rates, unemployment and a stagnant economy remain concerns.
"African-Americans still have some profound hurdles," Muwakkil said, "and we're still waiting on the president to help us get over those hurdles."