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Did 'Non-Voters' Keep Their Promise?

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a visit to Ben's Chili Bowl, where the half-smokes are so on-point, the president-elect just had to stop in for a bite. We'll tell you about it and other places around D.C. that are getting caught up in inauguration excitement in just a few minutes.

But first, people who were not feeling it or who at least were not when we checked in with them a few months ago. Back in October, we talked to a group of non-voters, people who insisted they would sit out the election even though millions of other people were excited about politics in a way that hadn't happened in years.

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And now, as Washington, D.C. is preparing to host what could be a record crowd of Americans who want to witness Barack Obama get sworn in as president, we decided to check back with those voters or non-voters to see what they think about all this. We were able to catch up with two of the three members of our round table. Bryan Shelton is a youth pastor in Alabama, and Warren Higgins works for a real estate firm in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gentlemen, welcome back to you both and happy New Year.

Mr. BRYAN SHELTON: Likewise.

Mr. WARREN HIGGINS: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Bryan, less than a week before the election, you told us you were not planning on voting.

Mr. SHELTON: Mm hmm.

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MARTIN: But, from what I understand, things didn't quite pan out that way. What happened?

Mr. SHELTON: Yeah, I committed high treason against the country of non-voters. I actually woke up that morning and just went out and voted. I did indeed vote for a third party, however. So, yes.

MARTIN: What happened? What happened when you woke up that morning? What made you change your mind?

Mr. SHELTON: Just a - the day before I had - after the interview, I had spoke to my father, and he was just sharing stories with me about, you know, the struggle of African-Americans and what they had gone through and what they went through.

Then that morning, I woke up. I said, is it really that difficult not to just go? I had the epiphany or revelation that, you know, I still do have a choice, even though my choice might not be what everybody believes is the right choice, but I still ultimately have a choice as an American.

MARTIN: So you wound up voting for a third party candidate, right?

Mr. SHELTON: Yes. I voted for...

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask who you voted for?

Mr. SHELTON: Ah, Chuck Baldwin. He is the candidate that Ron Paul endorsed, so.

MARTIN: I see. Now, Warren Higgins, you told us back in October that you hadn't voted since 1980, not even for your wife who has run in local elections - forgive me for chuckling about this. We're all, you know, imagining your dinner table conversations. So, what happened on Election Day? Did you have a late epiphany like Bryan, or did you still sit it out?

Mr. HIGGINS: I still sat it out. Unfortunately, unlike Bryan, there was no third party candidate who fit my particular political views. So, I did not have the same choice that he had, so I still elected to sit it out.

MARTIN: So, how do you feel about it now? Are you still happy with that decision? Any regrets?

Mr. HIGGINS: No regrets, none at all. Again, you know, unfortunately - and I did read some of those blogs after our interview before, and third party candidates were mentioned. Unfortunately, the third party candidates tend to be what - and this is maybe perhaps an unfair characterization, but I'll say fringe candidates who represent views, you know, to - that are extreme in one form or another. And my problem with the typical candidates I'm given by the Republican and Democratic Party is that I'm looking for somebody who's in between them.

MARTIN: Mm hmm.

Mr. HIGGINS: Who's more moderate on social issues then perhaps, well, you know, if down the middle is 50 percent, and the Republicans are at 25 percent, the Democrats are at 75 percent on those various issues, you know. I stay in that 40-60 band with 40 percent, you know, a little closer to the Republicans on financial issues and 60 percent a little closer to the Democrats on social issues.

MARTIN: They're like the three bears...

Mr. HIGGINS: And I'm never given those options.

MARTIN: Right. So, like the three bears, some are too hot, some are too cold, and you're looking for just right, and you didn't find.

Mr. HIGGINS: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: Just right. Now, Warren, you mentioned the blog postings. After your initial conversation with me, as you figured out that we got a lot of strong reactions to the conversations, and I want to play a short clip of what one listener, Peter, had to tell us after our conversation. And brace yourselves, here it is.

PETER (Caller): They were too lazy to do anything about a system about which they said were clear and obvious flaws. They were too lazy even to run for office and affect the changes that they - because they were smarter than anybody else, knew what needed to be made.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. Bryan, your - who was chuckling? Was it Bryan or Warren? Which of you is chuckling?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIGGINS: Oh, that was Bryan.

Mr. SHELTON: That's me. I'm sorry.

Mr. HIGGINS: I was chuckling, too.

MARTIN: That was Bryan. OK. Bryan, your reaction?

Mr. SHELTON: Freedom of speech. You know, I figured we will be coming across as arrogant, and that's what happens when you have strong opinions, and you go against the grain. Of course, you're going to be seen as arrogant or lazy, but, you know, it's America. Like, you know, I mentioned on the show, that I did vote in the primaries. I did vote in my local elections. I guess that really didn't come across, though.

MARTIN: Now, do you mind, Bryan, if I - arrogant - and you know, I think there was a little bit of too cool for school maybe. I don't mind. But, you...

Mr. SHELTON: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: But you actually wrote in your journal the morning of Election Day, I think it was, and I noticed from your Facebook entry, if you don't mind that I was peeking.

Mr. SHELTON: Sure, by all means.

MARTIN: Yeah, do you mind telling us what you said?

Mr. SHELTON: The night actually after the election, I wrote - a few moments ago, I watched Charlie Gibson on ABC project Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. My feelings were all but euphoric. People on television were so happy. I can concede my cynicism and allow them to celebrate and the people I know personally to do the same.

MARTIN: I think that's very lovely. Warren, I take it you didn't have a journal entry that night?

Mr. HIGGINS: (Laughing) I don't have a Facebook page, though.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Well, if you had a journal entry on Election Night, did you - Warren, did you watch the returns at all? And if you had had a journal entry, is there - what do you think it would have said?

Mr. HIGGINS: Well, certainly, like I think most Americans, I was pleased with the breaking down of a barrier and the fact that we have an African-American president. And, you know, I think that's a positive step for our country. So, to that extent, I was very pleased, but once we move beyond that and get into the politics and positions, you know, we fall back into some of the same concerns I've always had.

MARTIN: And, Bryan, what about the emotion of it? Do you think that you were feeling perhaps an extra measure of emotion in part because you are African-American, and as you mentioned, your father talked to you about the history in his own sort of struggles?

Mr. SHELTON: I think so.

MARTIN: I mean, I'm not saying that that should be dispositive. I don't think - I mean, I'm not suggesting that at all, but I was just asking is...

Mr. SHELTON: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think that you're to that - that played a part in what you were feeling?

Mr. SHELTON: It did. It did. When I speak to my father every week, I spoke to my uncle this morning. Yesterday, I spoke to my vice-principal at school where I worked. All are African-American males, and you see the children at the school, you know, they came in the day after election with the newspapers, you know. Some of them probably never picked up a newspaper a day in their life, but they have one on this day, and they're jumping up and down in the hallways.

As an African-American you can't help but, you know, be proud in some way like, you know, sort of - the children actually have a hero. You know, we didn't grow up with Dr. Martin Luther King. We didn't grow up with Malcolm X. We have this generation's Malcolm X, and it's Barack Obama.

MARTIN: When do - do people say things to you like isn't it great - isn't this a great day and things of that sort. Bryan, what do you say if people say that to you? I mean, in part...

Mr. SHELTON: I just not…

MARTIN: Because of the shared cultural experience. What do you say?

Mr. SHELTON: I nod and to say, you know, well, you know, it is a great day. You know, I'm happy that - it is basically how I would say it. You know, I'm happy, you know. I generally am happy. And my only fear is that I just don't want him to let down African-Americans. I don't want him to go down as possibly the worst president we've ever had because like I said the last time, you know, they'll just "blame the black guy" quote.

MARTIN: And, Warren, what about you? I don't know if people - it is uncommon as I can make this assertion for, you know, black folks who don't know each other to kind of feel some bond and have, you know, casual conversations, stuff like just like a (unintelligible) you know, for you if people just say things to you perhaps in the wake of the first post-election excitement. Isn't it great - isn't it a great day if people just share those random thoughts with you? If they do, what do you say? What did you say?

Mr. HIGGINS: That's a great question, and after the election, you know, there were some people that were not Obama supporters who were unhappy. And, you know, there were some people who did say it was a great day, and I basically expressed the opinion expressed earlier, which is, you know, I think it's a - for our country, it's a positive first step. Having said that, I don't expect that next Wednesday after the Inauguration we're going to wake up, and we're going to have racial harmony and, you know, equality for all in our society. So, you know, we have to temper our enthusiasm with a little bit of realism.

MARTIN: And final thought from each of you in - and I'm not trying to tell you what to do, I'm just wondering. Isn't it the next to four years is - do you think there's something that would cause you to be more interested in voting than you were this time around, Warren?

Mr. HIGGINS: It's - I have voted in the past, and I have never said that I will not vote in the future. And by the way, I should mention that I don't look down on people who do vote. Everyone else in my family votes, including my 20-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter. So I am not anti-voting.

It's just that the system does not create candidates that speak to me, and I'm not willing to compromise and vote for someone who doesn't reflect my values. So until we put forth those candidates, I am going to express my opinion by not voting for any of the candidates I'm offered.

MARTIN: So, it's kind of like you're the loyal - loyal opposition isn't quite the right term. What would you call it? Loyal - conscientious objector, do you think that might be...

Mr. HIGGINS: That's - that's probably a very good term. Thank you.

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. HIGGINS: I'm going to use that.

MARTIN: (Laughing) OK. And Bryan, what about you? Like Warren, you have voted in the past, and you did wind up voting. But what do you think? Is there something in the next couple of years that you think might engage you more?

Mr. SHELTON: Yes, if I actually become more involved in voting as being one of the people who's actually being voted for. That would definitely catapult me more into participating in public service.

MARTIN: Thinking about becoming a candidate yourself?

Mr. SHELTON: Absolutely. Sometimes, you know, my pastor always tells me, if you see a problem and nobody is solving it, it's probably your problem to solve.

MARTIN: And so what might you be thinking about running for, if I may ask.

Mr. SHELTON: Mayor of a city down in lower Alabama, I'll say that much. Possibly, you know, maybe as - at least a city councilman. I've lost faith somewhat in the federal government. Somewhat I feel that the biggest change can be made on our local levels now and hopefully our federal bureaucrats can come around.

MARTIN: And, Bryan, what are you going to say if you meet another you, who says - another - your doppelganger, somebody - you were separated at birth, and you meet another Bryan who says, you know, my vote doesn't matter. I don't like these - I don't believe in the system. It doesn't work. What are you going to say when you're running? What do you think?

Mr. SHELTON: I'm going to tell him, it's time for you to make a change.

(Laughing) Basically, you know, if you don't see - if you don't see a solution, you create one. And if I'm not the solution for you, it's about time you get on the ballot and run against me.

MARTIN: OK, final thought, Warren. Very quickly - any thoughts about running yourself? Be the change, as it were?

Mr. HIGGINS: No, I have my wife to handle that for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. I had to ask. Warren Higgins is a loan officer for a real estate firm in Pennsylvania. He joined us from Philadelphia. And Bryan Shelton is a youth pastor in Alabama. He joined us from Birmingham. I thank you both so much for speaking with us and happy New Year.

Mr. SHELTON: Likewise.

Mr. HIGGINS: Thank you. Happy New Year to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.