TALLAHASSEE (AP) — In what looks to be the closest U.S. presidential election in recent history, some organizations are pushing back in a fight over more restrictive voter registration laws with new strategies to register voters typically underrepresented, including young people and ethnic minorities.
Almost two dozen states, including the largest battleground state of Florida, have recently passed legislation setting tight deadlines for groups to turn in voter applications, so groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are looking for ways to get registration applications directly into voters' hands.
The shift is driven by better technology as well, making more traditional registration drives — like volunteers with clipboards in front of a supermarket — more a thing of the past. “When you have upwards of 40 percent of eligible populations not registered, there is a market for this kind of work,” said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. 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The study found one of every eight registrations is out of date, mostly because of people moving.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 the November 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.”
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 range from tight deadlines — a new Florida law set a 48-hour deadline for turning in applications once they are completed — 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.
“We have seen a systematic coordinated attack on voting rights across the nation,” said Marvin Randolph of the NAACP. “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.”
The NAACP is partnering with the nonpartisan Voter Participation Center, which helped pioneer direct mail voter registration in 2004, said Randolph, the group's vice president for campaigns.
The Washington-based center is mailing nearly four million registration applications targeted to minorities, unmarried women and young people in 28 states, including nearly 353,000 to Florida. That's in addition to 6.6 million applications sent out in three prior mailings since September 2011. The approach provides near universal reach and targets people by demographics instead of geography, said Page Gardner, the center's president.
Other organizations partnering with the center for the first time are the Hispanic-focused 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 five million conservative Christians across the nation this year.
The increased focus on direct mail and data mining comes as the campaigns themselves increasingly use online data to persuade voters. The campaigns of both Republican challenger Mitt Romney and Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on digital strategies.
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 eight 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 two 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. 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 which include opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Those volunteers can then call, email or personally visit those people. “We are going both old school and new school,” Stemberger said.