Liberals mobilize

Battleground Ohio

October 11, 2004|By Harvey G. Cohen

CLEVELAND - The carpet is ratty at the Cleveland headquarters of the voter registration group America Coming Together. The place has the dM-icor of a cluttered basement, with open boxes of office supplies, leaflets and forms scattered everywhere.

But don't be fooled by the charmless furnishings. This space and dozens of other ACT offices across Ohio are the engine rooms for an innovative campaign that could decide the outcome of the 2004 presidential election.

ACT has launched what may be the largest voter mobilization effort in history in 17 swing states. ACT claims that it has registered tens of thousands of voters in Cleveland alone because hundreds of fervent volunteers like me descended on their offices to help. Many simply show up on the group's doorstep, bursting with idealism but lacking any idea about whom to contact to join the effort.

Ohio has been a laboratory for high-tech tactics. In the ACT office, dozens of new Palm Pilots were charging every morning so they'd be ready to be grabbed by salaried canvassers. These workers find out the issues particular voters care about most and immediately show them relevant videos stored on the hand-held devices. If no video exists for the needed topic, the canvassers return with more information.

ACT is one of the new "527" organizations that can accept the soft money that the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law forbids to political parties, but cannot be affiliated with the parties or their presidential campaigns. ACT wants to elect progressive and Democratic candidates and to maximize voter turnout.

Julian Rogers, the ACT volunteer coordinator in Cleveland, is a city educational administrator. He was unflappable and positive despite a crushing 16-hour-a-day schedule. He laughed heartily when telling stories about eager volunteers who kept arriving on his doorstep from great distances to help.

While I was there, a New York family of three called from the road in Pennsylvania. They were about to drop off their son at law school in Chicago. They were hurtling toward Cleveland with no reservations or contacts. Could Mr. Rogers find them useful work and recommend a hotel? Oh, and by the way, they had convinced three of their son's classmates to meet them in Ohio and volunteer, too. Was there enough to do for them? You bet, he told them, grinning.

Isabel Byron and Ellen Greenblatt grew up together on Long Island about 40 years ago and now teach school in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Berkeley, Calif. They arrived in Cleveland with no contacts and stopped first at the Kerry campaign headquarters, which they found incredibly disorganized. Undeterred, they jumped back into their rental car and found their way to the Board of Elections, where they stocked up on registration forms. With no guidance from anyone, they registered new voters in a shopping center, got thrown out, headed to another shopping center and signed up more before getting ejected again.

We worked a few shifts at a phone bank. Ohio recently passed a law allowing voters over age 62 to use absentee ballots. Phone bank volunteers called thousands of independent and Democratic-registered senior citizens, urging them to send for the absentee ballots. The reason: Absentee ballots guarantee that these seniors would be able to vote even if bad weather or illness kept them home on Election Day.

Another ACT volunteer and I went to medical clinics in poor areas of Cleveland and registered 20 people in five hours. I felt intensely delighted every time someone signed up. I'm always shocked at how few working-class people vote. This is a major reason why the Republicans can push through such policies as damaging tax cuts and the rollback of consumer and environmental regulations. Politicians know they won't be called to account by those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

I encountered a married couple with a child, he black, she Latino. He agreed with a petition urging the administration to spend money on crumbling schools in America, not in Iraq, but refused to sign, saying he doesn't vote. He angrily said that his vote won't change corruption and racism and that all he can do is work hard and live an upright life.

I told him that I teach American history and that, indeed, change has come too slowly, especially concerning racial equality. But I noted that it has to start somewhere and voting can tip the balance. President Bush won only by a few hundred votes in 2000, I told him. Don't you want to start making this country fairer for your young daughter? But he wouldn't budge. As the couple left, his wife discreetly took a voter registration form for him. I hope he filled it out.

Harvey G. Cohen is a lecturer in U.S. history at the University of Maryland.

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