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|Voter drive both hits and misses|
In the same week that Sen. Barack Obama clinched the presidential nomination, in Louisiana, a massive voter registration drive, financed by the national Democratic party, was hitting overdrive and nearing its goal of gathering 70,000 applications for new voters.
In the last month, registrars of voters in the state's four largest parishes report being deluged with applications submitted by Voting Is Power, a Washington, D.C.-based group working for the party. Since February, VIP has employed canvassers to go door-to-door to sign up unregistered adults, mostly in minority neighborhoods in Caddo, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Orleans parishes.
How many of those applying actually become registered to vote is a hard question for swamped registrars to answer, as their staffs work 12-hour days to sort through piles of cards dropped off by the thousands.
Registrars say most of the applications, which must be signed by applicants, are valid and will result in large numbers of new Democratic voters this fall. But officials also report a large number of problem applications, many from people who are already registered, while others with missing, bad, even comical information.
Jefferson Parish Registrar Dennis DiMarco knew it was going to be a long day when he randomly came across an application for himself. According to the signed card, he was a young African-American, registering as a Democrat and residing at the registrar's post office box.
"They flattered me by making me younger. I did appreciate that," said DiMarco, a white Republican. He does not believe VIP is "willingly overwhelming the system," but that it needs to do a better job of checking the work of its hourly-paid canvassers. The three other registrars emphatically concur.
"It is a problem," said Secretary of state spokesman Jacques Berry of several voter drives. Some applications, not VIP's, appear to come from mailing lists. "Some have been dead," he said. "There are a couple of family dogs."
Patently bogus applications are discarded. More common are the incomplete applications, which are time-consuming and expensive to process. Caddo Registrar Ernie Roberson reports that VIP has turned in 500 applications from ex-felons, whom his office must contact to request documents proving they have completed their parole periods.
Roberson estimates that only 60 percent of the Democratic applicants will be registered and eventually mailed voter cards. He foresees confusion and anger at the polls when some people show up thinking they are registered when they are not. In most cases, they will be able to fill out provisional ballots, which could cause longer lines at polling places already expecting a huge turnout for the presidential election.
Brian Welsh, spokesman for Louisiana Victory, the Democrats' coordinating campaign group, says that VIP supervisors try to verify the information received from canvassers, but he reminds that it is not the party's job to do the registrars' work for them.
Registrar Roberson disagrees. "If they overwhelm me with junk, I can't get my job done," he said. "The people being hurt the most are the people they are trying to help."
Any effort to bring more voters into the democratic process is laudable, provided the process itself is not over-burdened by an aggressively sloppy field operation. It remains to be seen how much Democrats grow on the rolls or, where it counts, at the polls. Due to past organizing efforts and the federal motor-voter law, registration in Louisiana has swelled to almost 90 percent of the voting age population. Anyone who has to be tracked down to be registered might require a forklift to get them to their precinct in November.
Even if Democratic registration is pumped up, could that really turn this state's red tide blue? Probably not in the presidential race, where John McCain holds a wide poll lead over Obama, and where large black turnouts usually are matched by those of whites.
Rather, the party looks to use Obama as a loss leader, who will attract thousands of new African-American voters to also cast ballots for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Democratic congressional candidates. Given the closeness of past Landrieu elections and the depopulation of her New Orleans base, the newly minted Democrats might hold the margin of her victory in their hands, if they show up.