Hooking Potential Voters, Any Way They Can

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This year, it seems, there's a get-out-the-vote effort for just about every constituency you can imagine: gays and fundamentalist Christians, students and single people.

One voter group is smackin' down its cause at wrestling matches.

Another is extending chauffeur service to disabled voters.

And another is waiting outside mosques each Friday afternoon.

"There are more and more groups figuring out more and more angles and wrinkles," said UC Berkeley political science professor Raymond Wolfinger. "Every conceivable kind of activity that has a hook in the public wants people registered, whether for PR or for political influence."

In recent years, voter outreach campaigns have grown more vocal. But this year's registration and voter drives are worth noting in what is still an incredibly tight presidential race between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"We welcome other groups being involved," said Jenny Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. The DNC will spend more than $20 million in voter outreach this campaign through canvassing, bilingual media spots and phone calls. "Democrats win when more people vote," Backus said.

Terry Holt, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said successful voter outreach doesn't just sign people up--it has to fire them up. "You have to give people reasons to go to the polls. You need to be hopeful but still clear about the differences between you and your opponent."

Republicans Try Ads, Calls, Latino Outreach

The Republican Party is spending $40 million in voter outreach this year to do just that with ads, phone calls and a new Latino outreach that relies on bilingual messages and its first campaign office in East Los Angeles.

While some groups view getting out the vote as a civic responsibility, others say it can refresh a group's public image as well as earn it clout with the politicians they might help get elected.

For example, the "Smackdown Your Vote!" registration drive by the World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. allows the company, which went public last year, to curry favor with the Republicans, the party much of its audience supports, says its vice president of corporate communications, Gary Davis.

"And what could be more ideal than doing voter registration in a presidential election year?" Davis asked. "We wanted to represent our fans: Middle America."

So it was a win-win situation when wrestling icon "The Rock" appeared onstage at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer.

"That got our fans interested," Davis said. This summer, WWF Entertainment launched "Smackdown" with booths set up at WWF matches and an extensive Web site. Its organizers hope to register at least a small portion of its 14 million viewers. So far, Davis said, it has registered more than 91,000 voters in two months.

The company's Web site is linked to Project VoteSmart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter education organization, and Youth Vote 2000, a nonprofit, nonpartisan project whose 22 full-time staffers sign up eligible voters on college campuses across the country.

Another online registration tool, WeMedia.com, targets the disabled with information on registration, absentee ballots and how to get to the polls on election day.

"State parties say they'll make the rides available--and they do--but they don't have the wherewithal to get that information to the voters ahead of time," said Caryn Kaufman, director of communications for WeMedia, a 3-year-old New York-based media company that targets people with disabilities. In the last month, Kaufman counted 6,130 individuals who registered to vote through WeMedia.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations launched a one-month registration drive in August to target eligible voters among the estimated 6 million Muslims in the country. Volunteers signed up eligible voters as they emerged from mosques after Friday afternoon communal prayer sessions.

Muslims, Gays Look to Increase Voter Clout

Council spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said an "unprecedented" number of Muslims had been registered, although he could not determine how many had joined the voter rolls as a result.

"[But] it's clear that the Muslim community is growing and having an impact on states like Michigan and California," said Hooper, citing the eagerness of the Muslim community to protect itself from U.S. government suspicion of links to terrorism.

Another group looking to increase its voter clout is the gay community. Raise the Bar, a nonprofit group, was formed in July and has since sent out slick 30-second video ads to more than 750 gay and lesbian bars and clubs and coffeehouses. The ads tear apart Bush's record as governor of Texas, condemning him for his silence on AIDS and his lack of support for the Employment Nondiscrimination Act.

"In 38 states and Washington, D.C., you can still be fired for being perceived as gay or lesbian," said Raise the Bar board member Aaron Aronow, an Los Angeles neurologist. "We're trying to reach gay and lesbian individuals where they're most likely to congregate."

And for the first time, the Assn. of Hispanic Advertising Agencies assembled a national, pro bono multimedia campaign, VOTO. Launched last year, VOTO used print advertisements in both Spanish and English, broadcast and Internet outlets in every major Latino region of the country.

The association's effort was the latest of a wide variety of Latino get-out-the-vote programs. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, through a new organization, the NAACP National Voter Fund, has greatly intensified registration efforts it has conducted for years. The fund, with $9 million to spend on ads and grass-roots organizing, targets black voters in 12 states.

If the race loosens up and one candidate pulls ahead by a large margin, these registration drives may be remembered more as image-builders rather than election deal-breakers. History has proved that voter drives have limited statistical effect.

Wolfinger used the 1984 campaign season as an example. Frenetic grass-roots voter drives sprang up, he said, as Ronald Reagan cruised toward reelection.

"Democrats were cheering themselves up with their secret weapon of registering people to vote," he said. After the ballots were counted, however, Minnesota was the only state that eluded the GOP. Even more discouraging for organizers was that voter registration increased by only half of 1% that year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Romanticization of 'Nonvoters'

More recently, voter turnout held steady or declined from 1992 to 1996. And the Federal Election Commission reports that only 49% of the voting-age population turned out for the 1996 federal elections.

That voter registration drives have had mixed records should not be surprising. "The problem with these [new registration] groups is that they have little sense of history, and they don't see that many of these strategies have already been attempted with little success," said political science professor William Mayer of Northeastern University in Boston.

Moreover, "nonvoters" have been romanticized by some voter registration campaigns as people who are keenly interested in politics but who can't figure out how to register on their own, Mayer said.

"It's not mass confusion," Mayer said. "I've never met a person who didn't . . . play the lottery because it seemed too complicated. If people want to figure out the red tape they will, and registering to vote has never been easier."

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