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Voter registration drives adopting new, sophisticated methods

Some organizations are turning to sophisticated data mining, direct mail, the Internet and other strategies to register voters typically underrepresented on the rolls, including young people and ethnic minorities. Others are simply targeting those who favor their political goals, such as conservative Christians.

The shift away from more traditional voter registration drives -- like volunteers with clipboards in front of a supermarket -- is driven as much by restrictive state laws as it is better technology. Several states including Florida have recently passed legislation setting tight deadlines for groups to turn in voter applications, so groups like the NAACP were looking for ways to get the applications directly into the hands of voters. And they also have to rely on voters to turn in the applications themselves.

"This is a new effort since the 2000 election," said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. "Technology has made it more cost-effective. ... When you have upwards of 40 percent of eligible populations not registered, there is a market for this kind of work."

Florida is a particularly important area for the groups, as it is the largest swing state in the presidential election. Other battleground states on the center's list include Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

The increased focus on direct mail and data mining comes as the campaigns themselves increasingly use online data to raise money and persuade voters. The campaigns of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have spent hundreds of thousands on digital strategies. And Romney's campaign began a secretive data-mining project this summer to sift through Americans' personal information -- including their purchasing history and church attendance -- to identify new and likely wealthy donors.

The new Florida law set a 48-hour deadline for turning in applications once they are completed and various registration and reporting requirements. Organizations or individuals could be fined $50 for every late form up to a maximum of $1,000 in a given year. A judge has since blocked that part of the law from taking effect, though Smith said that until then it did have a chilling effect on new voter registrations.

Florida is just one of 23 states that have laws restricting traditional registration drives, according to Project Vote, a Washington-based nonpartisan group that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities.

Requirements in various states run the gamut from tight deadlines like Florida's to limits on how many registration forms a group can obtain. Some require groups and volunteers to register with the state and undergo state-approved training. Several states prohibit paying individuals based on the number of applications they turn in, and Maryland requires participants to be at least 18 years old.

"We have seen a systematic coordinated attack on voting rights across the nation," said Marvin Randolph of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We've had to work harder to make sure that people have access to the ability to register and vote and we've had to be more aggressive and innovative."

As a result, the NAACP is partnering with the nonpartisan Voter Participation Center, which helped pioneer direct mail voter registration in 2004, said Randolph, vice president for campaigns at the organization's national headquarters in Baltimore.

The Washington, D.C.-based Voter Participation Center is mailing nearly 4 million registration applications targeted to minorities, unmarried women and young people in 28 states, including nearly 353,000 being sent to Florida. That's in addition to 6.6 million applications sent out in three prior mailings since September 2011.

Other organizations partnering with the center for the first time this election cycle are the National Council of La Raza and the League of Conservation Voters Education fund. A group called United in Purpose also is using data mining as it strives to register up to 5 million conservative Christians across the nation this year. Companies that do data mining for businesses to influence consumers and political campaigns and interest groups to sway voters now are tailoring their services for voter registration drives as well.

The Florida Family Policy Council intentionally avoided traditional registration drives because of the state's restrictions, said John Stemberger, the group's president. The group's website includes a registration form that people can fill out, and allows volunteers to find unregistered citizens who have been identified as likely to favor the council's views. Those volunteers can then call, email or personally visit those people. Among other things, the council opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

"We are going both old school and new school," Stemberger said. "The kind of not-your-father's-Oldsmobile version of voter registration, things that we're doing, are direct mail and we also have an automated program."

That doesn't mean traditional drives have been abandoned. Data-driven techniques are viewed as a supplement for some groups, while others, such as the League of Women Voters, still are conducting only traditional face-to-face registration drives.

And avoiding new restrictions isn't the only reason for alternatives to traditional registration drives.

Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center, said she chose the list-based approach when the group, then known as Women's Voices, began its efforts in 2004 because that provides near-universal reach and targets people by demographics instead of geography.

"The advantage of this program with mail is that we can reach out to broad universe of people very quickly and to those people that we may not be able to meet in front of a grocery store or canvassing and talking to people at a door or at an event," said NAACP's Randolph.

Commercially available data such as magazine subscription and mail order purchasing lists are used to identify people in various targeted groups and match them against voter registration rolls to identify which ones are not registered. The lists also are cross-checked with Social Security data to exclude people who have died.

So far, nearly 8 percent, or about 470,000, of the applications the Voter Participation Center sent out before the current mailing have been turned in. It may seem like a small number, but "that's huge in terms of direct mail," Gardner said.

One or 2 percent is the norm, although a key difference is the only expense for turning in a registration form is the price of a postage stamp.

Regardless of what approach is taken, there are still millions of eligible people not registered to vote. The Pew Center on the States issued a report in February saying 25 percent of those eligible to vote are not registered. The study found one of every eight registrations is out of date, mostly because of people moving.

Pew Director of Election Initiatives David Becker said the organization has been working with eight states to modernize their registration activities and plans to expand that effort after this year's election.

"We are still using paper, pen and postal mail to drive our voter registrations in the 21st Century," Becker said. "You don't do it with taxes. You don't do it with parking tickets. You don't do it to renew your driver's license."

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