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Columbia Missourian

Determined Columbia residents give and receive rides to polling places

By Hilary Niles
November 6, 2012 | 6:11 p.m. CST
From left, Regina Guevara volunteers to provide free rides on Election Day to Willetta Geraldine Ellis and Bonnita Ellis. Guevara volunteers because she wants to make sure that everyone has the chance to vote.

COLUMBIA — Karin Davis rolled into Oak Towers on Tuesday morning after getting a ride from Columbia Paratransit to the polling location. 

"I'm in a wheelchair, and if I can vote, everybody else damn well can, too," she said.

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The 65-year-old is not shy with her opinions — and she is grateful for the ride. 

Davis has relied on Columbia Paratransit for most of her transportation needs for about five years. She is one of 30 or more people who, by mid-Tuesday afternoon, had received help getting to the polls.

The Boone County Republican and Democratic parties, Grass Roots Organizing, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, MU's Legion of Black Collegians and Economy Cab Co. all provided free rides to voters.

Columbia Transit has extended bus operations until 8:45 p.m.; Columbia Paratransit and Services for Independent Living also chipped in, but rides for passengers with special needs had to have been scheduled in advance. 

One woman learned this the hard way when she called on her husband's behalf to Boone County Democratic headquarters Tuesday afternoon. Harry Feirman, a member of the Democratic Central Committee who was staffing the office at the time, had to tell her that none of their volunteers were equipped to help. 

Other callers without special needs fared well. One woman called for a ride and, within minutes and between several other phone calls, Feirman had dispatched a driver. As of about 2:45 p.m., he said they had given about 10 rides. 

But most of the calls he had taken were from people unsure of where to vote. Feirman, stationed at a desk facing Walnut Street, entered their names into the Boone County Clerk's voter information page to look up their polling locations and provide directions if needed. 

A more unusual call came on behalf of a Korean War veteran at Truman Veterans Hospital: He needed to vote from the hospital. In keeping with protocols, a Democratic volunteer and the veteran's wife, a Republican, paired up to help him. The two rode to Boonville to pick up the man's ballot, turned around to drive it to him in Columbia and waited while he filled it out. At least two hours later, the two were en route back to Boonville to submit the ballot to polling officials.

Marion Mace Dickerson was one of the drivers who called in for duty at Democratic headquarters. This is the second time the retired Veterans Affairs social worker has volunteered to drive. 

"It's kind of fun," she said, "and it gives me a good feeling to help someone."

Mace Dickerson said that although many older people lose their ability to drive, it's nonetheless important that they get the chance to vote. 

This resonates with the sentiment expressed by John French. On a short lunch break with NAACP volunteers at the Second Baptist Church, he recalled growing up in northeast Arkansas at a time when his parents had to pass an exam to vote. The business development specialist was a teenager when they returned from their first attempt, defeated. 

In the church gathering room, French sported a bright yellow shirt emblazoned with "NAACP VOTER PROTECTION" in black letters. Around him, about two dozen other volunteers, similarly clad, finished a hot lunch of spaghetti with meat sauce, hot dogs with onions and a bounty of chips and crackers. A giant television was wheeled to the front of a riser, election-day news replacing the view of a large wooden cross on the wall. Streamers hung in coils from the tongue-in-groove wooden ceiling, and spirits were high.  

The crew had been out on the damp, gray day canvassing neighborhoods around Columbia — Douglass Park, Elleta Boulevard, Indian Hills and others. They used colored markers on a wall map to keep track of where they had been. They were heading out again for more, and French was on his way to a phone bank.  

His civic involvement was partly inspired by witnessing the ways integration changed the mainstream. He noticed new issues being introduced into political dialogue and a new interest in people from minority communities once they became eligible voters. 

"Things changed," French said. "But at that time, it was still a struggle."

Karin Davis also recollects the days of the country's civil rights evolution. 

"I remember watching it on TV, the guys crossing the bridge, with the dogs and hoses being turned on them," she said.

Like French, she was a teenager at the time. She saw people being knocked off their feet by the force of the water. "If I'd have been a couple years older, I'd have been down to fight with them."

"People died so you can vote," she said. "So get off your (butt) and go vote." 

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey