Bill Pitney is Duke University's most visible political activist during this election season.
But he doesn't live in a dormitory. He lives in a retirement home.
Since August, Pitney, 76, has camped out by the West Campus Plaza archway armed with stacks of voter registration sheets, sitting in his fold-up chair at his fold-up table for hours a day, every day. Up until today's voter registration deadline, he has waged a bipartisan war on apathy and ambivalence by signing up as many as 40 students to vote per day.
By his estimate, he's initiated almost 700 new voters-a total large enough to swing the toss-up state of North Carolina to one of the candidates, he said.
"The thing I notice is the intense interest in the election among students," he said. "This time, you're gonna vote big time-I can just see it."
Sticking out from the throngs of students leaving the Plaza clutching Subway bags or chatting on their cell phones, Pitney is impossible to miss. For a man in the September of his years, Pitney spoke with considerable spark-he has a sense of optimism rare among even the most idealistic undergraduates. He recognized that his willingness to change-to change political parties, to change racial prejudices-is not shared by many of his generation.
"In the retirement community there are some people who say 'Oh, if a black guy wins the election, the black guys are gonna run the country,'" he said as another student leaving the Plaza approached the table. "But there's so much diversity on this campus-my view is that racism is dead on Duke's campus. It's just so encouraging because this stain will be removed from our national landscape."
The opposition from other residents of his retirement community reinforces for Pitney the stark generational divide that the election has brought to light. For instance, after hanging a poster for Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama in his room, his fellow retirees complained until he took it down.
"There's a small group that's racist-that's the only way to put it," he said as the girl filling out her registration listened in. "Some of the ladies are rock-ribbed Republicans. They tried to suppress my activities."
Pitney seemed optimistic that young voters will impact election results, but the same fire that fuels his activism can also take on a cynical guise. As another student scribbled information in her form, he tossed barbs at everyone from election count-tampering officials to the inefficient Congressmen who couldn't pass the bailout.
"No, no, no! That's your cell phone number!" Pitney warned her as she jotted her digits into the appropriate box on the form. "You don't want to put that down! It'll be down in the public record for the rest of your life!"
A number of times, he warned an aspiring voter that his or her registration may get filched by the feds on the way to being processed. On one occasion, he begged a woman to rewrite the name of her county at the top right-hand corner, just in case someone tries to misfile it.
"It's a rotten world and you got to protect yourself," he said, punctuating each point with a finger jab. "There's a lot of people who will do you ill, and I'm here to protect you.... There are people who think tricks like that are funny-voting is a sacred thing."
Pitney said the registration drive is a bipartisan effort to recruit new voters or voters from other states wanting to register in North Carolina, but it only takes a few minutes of talking with him to realize what side he supports. According to newsmeat.com-a Web site that collects individual campaign contributions from the public record-Pitney has donated $2,000 to Obama's campaign./p>
Duke Democrats and Duke College Republicans have organized their own voter registration efforts, but Pitney said he is free enough to spend upwards of six hours in a single day slouched in his chair, talking to students and assisting them with the registration forms.
"You have to take the time to learn the system," he said. "You have to be out here for six hours a day to be a presence on campus. I look at this as a marketing problem."
DCR Chair Vikram Srinivasan said he didn't have a problem with Pitney mobilizing students on a left-leaning campus to vote-he doesn't see the student vote as a threat to Republican candidate McCain's chances at the presidency.
"John McCain has a really strong ability to draw independents because of his history of reform," he said. "I hardly have reason to believe that Senator McCain is going to lose this red state because college students are registering. That's not going to decide the election."
Pitney admits that regardless how close the race in North Carolina is-the most recent CNN polling data has Obama and McCain tied with 49 percent of the vote-it remains to be seen how the hundreds of Duke students that he registered will affect the results. He does, however, maintain a firm belief that he has helped promote participation in the democratic process.
Packing up for the day, Pitney talked about the role he steps into when he steps onto Duke's campus: the representative of a generation on the way out. And unlike some of his elderly peers, Pitney said he wants to watch the world that he grew up in change-for the better.
"You know, it's your future," he said, leaning in. "I'll make it to the finish line-but you might have trouble getting there."