Making the difference in Ohio

Foot soldiers in the Democratic ground war expect the state's half a million new voters to favor Kerry, as long as they show up when it counts.

By Suzanne Goldenberg
Published October 21, 2004 1:51PM (EDT)

It took a good hour of trudging through the autumn leaves to the side doors of people's homes, poring over voter lists and sheaves of pamphlets, and looking out nervously for dogs, before Grace Brookins struck gold.

Robbie Phillips, 68, a retired factory worker -- and fellow union member according to Brookins' list -- was at home, was willing to answer the door to a stranger and was inclined to vote for John Kerry. "I want what's-his-name," Phillips says, tapping her forehead before her son supplies the name of the Democratic challenger. "He's from poor people, and I'm poor. I don't want Bush to get in, because he hasn't done anything for us."

Her son, George Phillips, delivers even better news for Brookins, a nurse's assistant now working to help the Service Employees International Union get out the Democratic vote. At 43, Phillips has never before felt moved to vote. "I just never felt it was required," he says. "But every time I went to the grocery store, people kept asking me and asking me, 'Are you registered?' and one time I finally stopped." Brookins hands out pamphlets about healthcare (Robbie Phillips is ill) and instructions for polling day, and heads for the next door.

With Kerry and George W. Bush in a dead heat, political operatives call the current campaign a ground war for voters, and Brookins is one of the thousands of foot soldiers deployed by the parties to get supporters out on polling day.

There is also a host of allied organizations at work. The Democrats have the union umbrella group the AFL-CIO and America Coming Together, the voter registration effort funded by billionaire George Soros. The Republicans have the Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations.

Political scientists predict a sharp rise in voter participation across the U.S., bumping up the 2000 turnout of 54 percent toward 60 percent. A good chunk of those new voters will come from Ohio, the most fiercely contested state. Election officials in Ohio say they have recorded half a million new voters since March. Across the state, the Republicans claim some 200,000, while a coalition of Democratic allies, union organizations and church groups claim to have turned in 300,000 voting cards. More than 120,000 of the new Ohio registrations are from Cuyahoga County, surrounding Cleveland, and many of them are like the Phillipses: poor and African-American, and generally less likely than the average voter to turn out on polling day.

Over the past year voter registration drives have reached deep into the areas of underprivilege, signing up ex-convicts, residents of subsidized and public housing projects, young people, single mothers and thousands of shut-in senior citizens. They have discovered people who had never voted. "Either they didn't feel it was important to them, or they were poor and didn't feel it touched their lives, or they were young and they hadn't been educated about their rights," says Judy Gallo, co-chairwoman of the Greater Cleveland voter registration coalition.

Although the coalition is officially nonpartisan, the newcomers can reliably be counted on to vote Democratic. Their votes could make all the difference in Ohio, where Al Gore lost by just four percentage points.

"This is light-years of difference away from 2000," says Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Democratic congresswoman from Ohio and the national co-chairwoman of the Kerry campaign. "What is really going to kick their butt is the new registrations." That is, if the new recruits make it to the polls. Election officials say about 30 percent of the new registrations are simple changes of address. Others are fake -- like the registration forms in Defiance County trying to add Mary Poppins and 100 other fictional characters to the voting rolls.

Like George Phillips, some of the newcomers may have been badgered into signing up to vote, and may lose interest by polling day. Others may be turned away on a technicality. But despite all the caveats, Ohioans expect a high turnout. In past elections, political organizers say they could count on about 40 percent of newly registered voters to actually cast their ballot. This year they are aiming for 65 percent, says Arnold Pinkney, the Cleveland director of America Coming Together. Pinkney has worked on every election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and he says he has never detected such enthusiasm. From now until the election, volunteers and paid workers aim to contact every registered voter at least three times to make sure they turn up on the day.

"I am going to drag them there if I have to," says Meryl Johnson, a vice president of the Cleveland Teachers' Union. For the past few months she has spent three hours a day on top of her job, writing letters or making phone calls urging people to vote. She has even set homework for her eighth-grade English class on the importance of voting in the hope it might rub off on their parents.

"The most exciting thing for me is, when Kerry wins it is going to make believers out of a whole lot of poor people," she says. "They are going to know that their vote does matter."

Suzanne Goldenberg

MORE FROM Suzanne Goldenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------