Published September 28, 2004
New voters are flooding local election offices with paperwork, registering in significantly higher numbers than four years ago as attention to the presidential election runs high and an array of activist groups recruit would-be voters who could prove critical come Nov. 2.
Cleveland has seen nearly twice as many new voters register so far as compared with 2000; Philadelphia is having its biggest boom in new voters in 20 years; and counties are bringing in temporary workers and employees from other agencies to help process all the new registration forms.
Nationwide figures aren't yet available, but anecdotal evidence shows an upswing in many places, often urban but some rural. Some wonder whether the new voters — some of whom sign up at the insistence of workers paid by get-out-the-vote organizations — will actually make it to the polls on Election Day, but few dispute the registration boom.
"We're swamped," said Bob Lee, who oversees voter registration in Philadelphia. "It seems like everybody and their little group is out there trying to register people."
Some examples, from interviews with state and county officials across the country:
— New registered voters in Miami-Dade County, a crucial Florida county in 2000, grew by 65 percent through mid-September, compared with 2000.
— New registered voters jumped nearly 150 percent in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) in Ohio, one of the most hard-fought states this year.
And that's with weeks left until registration deadlines fall, beginning in October.
Curtis Gans at the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (search) said a clear national picture won't emerge until more applications are processed next month. And Kay Maxwell of the League of Women Voters cautioned that some years that promise a boom in new voters turn out to be duds on Election Day. The danger is that new voters may not be as committed to showing up at the polls as longtime voters.
"Turning people out to vote is tougher than getting them to register," said Doug Lewis, who works with local election officials as head of The Election Center, a nonprofit group.
Rural areas, which trend conservative and Republican, aren't necessarily reporting the same growth as urban, more liberal and Democratic strongholds: Brazos County, Texas, hasn't beaten its 2000 numbers so far, though officials said applications are now rolling in. The state of Oklahoma, however, saw new registrations in July and August increase by 60 percent compared with four years ago.
Oklahoma officials said they had 16,000 new Republican registrations, 15,000 new Democrats and 3,500 new independents. In Oregon, where new registrations grew by 4 percent from January through Sept. 1, Democrats outregistered Republicans two-to-one.
Lewis and others say that no matter what the partisan breakdown, the registration boom is real — driven by a swarm of organizations such as Smack Down Your Vote (search) (a professional wrestling-connected campaign), Hip-Hop Team Vote (search), traditional groups like the League of Women Voters (search); party-aligned groups such as America Coming Together, made up of deep-pocketed Democrats; and many, many more.
"There seem to be hundreds of them," Maxwell said.
The groups' focus is on states where the vote was close in 2000, but even in several states where the election isn't as competitive, officials say they are seeing new voters register in higher numbers. Officials in El Paso County, Texas, Maryland's Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and California's Los Angeles County said registration numbers are on pace to be higher than 2000.
In many jurisdictions, administrators complain that the crush of new registrations is overloading staff.
Clerks have hired extra workers in West Virginia, Ohio and Colorado. Philadelphia borrowed employees from other city agencies and started working overtime two months earlier than the usual post-Labor Day push.
In Greenbrier County, W.Va., deputy clerk Gail White said she's never seen so many people register in her 10 years working elections, and despite extra staff she's still behind on processing new and absentee voters. "I get them all typed up, and the next thing I know, here comes another pile," she said.
The reasons seem clear — groups on all sides were energized by the close election of 2000, which proved to doubters that a handful of votes can swing an election. In 2000, 9 percent of voters, roughly 9.5 million people, said that was their first time casting a ballot, according to AP exit polls.
"It's the high-growth areas, the suburban and exurban areas in those battleground states," said Scott Stanzel of the Bush-Cheney campaign. "There are opportunities there because there are so many new residents to register."
The GOP has launched a volunteer, precinct-by-precinct effort in swing states, with separate help from a Republican-aligned group, the Progress for America Voter Fund (search).
Democrats, who've consistently made turnout efforts the foundation of their campaigns, are devoting huge amounts of resources, too. America Coming Together (search) focuses solely on registering and turning out voters.
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law has boosted efforts, too. It cut off unlimited "soft" money to the parties, diverting some of that cash to community-based groups.
In Missouri, the result is that what used to be a mostly volunteer-driven voter-registration effort by the Missouri Citizen Education Fund has blossomed into a bigger, paid-staff operation, said executive director John Hickey. Funds jumped from a few thousand dollars a year to $250,000.
Focused on poor, black neighborhoods in St. Louis, mid-Missouri and rural areas, his staff went from registering a few thousand new voters in 2000 to at least 50,000 so far this year, Hickey said. In 2000, George W. Bush won the state by less than 80,000 votes.