Philosophy student Julian Johannesen and photographer Cosby Lindquist have been encamped in the neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio, for more than a year. Both were inspired back then after hearing an Al Franken speech on C-SPAN to go through the Camp Wellstone activist training program, developed by the late senator’s sons and supporters. Now they knock on doors, show voters a short video about job losses on their Palm Pilots, ask about their issue interests and favored candidate in the election, and track results to download later from their Palm Pilots into central computer files. As part of a $125 million voter-turnout operation in thirteen key states run by America Coming Together, they returned in mid-October to a poor working-class neighborhood in a swing city of a crucial swing state where ACT had been registering and educating voters.
Johannesen and Lindquist are among the ground troops mobilized by America Votes, a loose coalition of thirty-three national groups–from new formations like ACT and MoveOn.org to well-established institutions like the AFL-CIO and Planned Parenthood–coordinating efforts to register, educate and mobilize voters in unprecedented ways. America Votes and groups like ACT, one of several participating 527 groups–named after the tax-code provision regulating them–are offspring of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, which bans “soft money” donations but allows donors (from rich individuals like George Soros to labor unions) to channel large contributions to the 527 groups, which cannot coordinate with the Kerry campaign or the Democrats. (Adding to the strategic confusion, a single organization–like the Sierra Club–may have three or four distinct operations, some partisan and some nonpartisan, with different rules about funding, advocacy and cooperation.) But America Votes is also the offspring of organized labor’s revival, since 1995, of person-to-person politicking at the workplace and in working-class communities, which has greatly boosted labor’s share of the vote and shaped even Republican counterstrategies.
“I’m unemployed,” Teana Foggie, a 31-year-old African-American woman explained to ACT’s Johannesen, echoing other stories on the street of plants closed and jobs lost. “That’s why I’m not voting for Bush.” Down the street, 55-year-old Paul Buchanan, a white former Air Force munitions expert with impressive muttonchops, was equally concerned about the economy and the war in Iraq. “We are the aggressors,” he said. “That’s wrong.”
On election day in Ohio, 250 paid ACT canvassers (who claim to have talked to more than a million Ohio voters over more than a year), another 12,000 paid workers, dozens of staff from other America Votes operations, about 5,000 America Votes volunteers and an unprecedented organized labor army of union staff and volunteers will be making sure such voters get to the polls. In a state that Gore lost by 3.5 percent (166,000 votes) after abandoning it, there may be as many as 700,000 new voters, overwhelmingly from strongly Democratic counties (including 160,000 from the Cleveland area, five times the number registered in 2000). ACT claims to have registered 85,000, and other America Votes partners–including groups focused on youth and minorities–another 215,000. If ACT’s experience last year in Philadelphia is a guide, organizers will guarantee that these new voters turn out much as veteran voters do, even though, being younger and poorer, they are statistically less likely to vote.