Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and
liberals - they're all making an unprecedented effort this summer to register
voters in anticipation of another close presidential election in the fall.
by Candi Cushman
Citizen Magazine (Focus on the Family)
In a lot of well-known ways, social conservatives and gay-rights liberals
couldn’t be further apart. But they’ve suddenly found themselves sharing one
thing in common:
The same battle cry—"Remember Florida."
That’s because they’re both facing the same political reality: Four years
after George W. Bush won the presidency by just 537 votes in that state, the
nation is just as polarized, perhaps even more so because of the escalating
battle over homosexual "marriage." And if current polls are any indication, the
red-and-blue election maps that flashed across our television screens in 2000
would look pretty much the same today.
All of which means, political prognosticators say, that we’ll likely see a
repeat of 2000—if not in Florida, than in some other equally contested state.
And that’s sent those on both sides of the culture war scrambling to tilt the
playing field in their favor—one voter registration at a time.
"If the last election has taught us anything, it’s that every vote counts,"
said Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics &
Religious Liberty Commission. "So it’s absolutely critical that we impress upon
Christians the need to be registered and to vote their values." An estimated 4
million Christians sat out the 2000 election.
Political parties also are putting a premium on new voters. "If it’s that
close again, voter registration will be the margin of victory," former
Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed told
Citizen. He’s now directing the Bush re-election campaign in five southeastern
"The ability to add one or two votes in every key precinct," he said, "is
going to swing the outcome in most of the battleground states."
Likewise, the communications director for the Florida Democratic Party told
Citizen, "The more people who get registered, the more people who are going to
get out and vote. The more people who vote, the better [chance] we win."
When "somebody walks in the voter booth, it doesn’t matter what it says on
their card," the director, Allie Merzer, added. "They’re going to vote with
their heart, and that’s what we’re going to keep pushing. So it’s a matter of
registering new voters, a matter of getting out our message."
Back to the Basics
To gain the advantage, both parties have launched sweeping voter-registration
efforts in 19 of the most tightly contested states, including Florida and New
Mexico, where Al Gore won by just 366 votes in 2000.
Republicans have set an ambitious goal of registering 3 million new voters in
those states. And they’re sparing neither time nor expense to make that happen.
This spring, for instance, the GOP unveiled Reggie the Registration Rig—an
18-wheel, 56-foot semitruck emblazoned with the words "Register to Vote Today."
Reggie converts to a sound stage featuring a lounge with a 20-inch flat-screen
TV and Internet terminals where visitors can download and print
The truck’s appearance in Orlando this March capped off what Republicans
deemed "the largest seven-day voter registration drive ever run by a national
party." They garnered one-third of their goal—1,029,492 voters—through more than
500 nationwide registration rallies March 6-13.
Democrats have been less public about their expenses and numerical goals. But
it’s common knowledge that they’re relying on some of the nation’s largest
left-wing groups to do their groundwork.
One of those is America Coming Together (ACT), a Washington, D.C., nonprofit
led by Steven Rosenthal, former AFL-CIO director, and Ellen Malcolm, president
of the pro-abortion Emily’s List.
ACT received a $10 million pledge from billionaire George Soros, who recently
wrote in an article that the nation was being run by "a bunch of far-right
ideologues in our executive branch."
That’s enabled ACT to deploy dozens of $8-an-hour employees in swing states
who spend their days registering voters in Democrat-leaning neighborhoods. In
Central Florida alone, its workers had garnered 17,000 new voters by May.
Even recent high school graduates are fair game, ACT’s Florida spokesman,
Tait Sye, told Citizen, because "probably one high school class … could have
been the difference in 2000."
Similar efforts are under way by America Votes, a coalition of liberal
heavyweights including ACT, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood
Action Fund. It’s led by Cecile Richards, daughter of the famously liberal
former Democratic Texas governor Ann Richards.
Never before in the nation’s history has there been such a widespread,
labor-intensive push to register voters. And that push has spurred another
political phenomenon: a return to the grassroots.
Before 2000, both political parties preferred mass mailings and phone banks
to more old-fashioned and time-consuming shoe-leather campaigns. But in this
election cycle—in which, as Sye put it, "one more day of door knocking" could
mean the victory—they don’t have that luxury.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Florida, where there’s only a 3.5
percent gap between the number of registered Republicans and Democrats. (As of
May, Democrats were ahead by about 300,000).
"This election will really be decided by individuals in neighborhoods and
communities," Sye said. But "you can’t just set up a table and expect people to
come register. You have to go out and find them."
That’s good news for Christians—because they have the advantage when it comes
to the grassroots, said Peter Brandt, Focus on the Family’s director of issues
"For every liberal church that has a voter registration, we probably have
five to 10 Bible-believing churches," he said. "And there are more groups of
people reflecting mainstream values in this country than there are
Problem is, believers haven’t taken that advantage. According to statistics
from The Pew Research Center and the Republican National Committee, in 2000,
nearly half of the nation’s 59 million self-identified evangelicals who were
qualified to vote—24 million—didn’t even bother to register. And only 15 million
of the 35 million who were registered went to the polls. That means less than
half of the nation’s evangelicals voted in 2000.
It’d be easy to assume all those nonregistered believers weren’t aware of the
issues. But that’s not the case, according to Jennifer Bingham, executive
director of the
Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life
lobbying group in Virginia.
Bingham made a disconcerting discovery after the 2000 election, when she
compared her membership roster to public voter-registration records: 37 percent
of the members weren’t even registered to vote. Another 40 percent said they
never or only sometimes voted.
Likewise, the New York-based Priests for Life found that nearly half of its
150,000 Catholic members weren’t registered to vote.
"These are the motivated people, these are the people who want to see a
change in our nation’s policies," the organization’s director, Father Frank
Pavone, said. "And yet 44 percent of them aren’t doing a very simple
To change that, he and Bingham are mailing registration forms to their own
supporters. If more groups did the same, and "if we could just turn out a
million of those [24 million unregistered Christians]," Bingham said, "it could
make or break a national election."
Politicians also see that potential, which is why the Bush campaign has
appointed "social conservative coordinators" to hold voter registrations in key
counties and states.
In Florida, that person is Pam Olsen, a homeschooling mother of four who also
coordinates National Day of Prayer events for the Southeast.
"Our family’s life is pretty full," she told Citizen, laughing. "But it all
goes hand in hand. To me it’s all ministry, including working on a political
campaign. My job is to just make sure we encourage Christians to get involved."
She’s doing that by recruiting volunteers in all 67 Florida counties who will
encourage local churches to have nonpartisan voter-registration drives. "If
every church in the whole state of Florida did that," she said, "it would make a
But conservatives aren’t the only ones targeting the faithful. The left-wing
People for the American Way (PAW), for example, has launched a
voter-registration project called "Sanctified Seven."
Participating pastors are expected to register at least seven parishioners
each Sunday—and "to dedicate themselves to countering the rhetoric of the
religious right," explained the Rev. Dr. Arnold Howard, who chairs a
black-clergy association overseeing the project.
In addition to churches, Olsen’s reaching out to her own neighbors. On April
29, she hosted a voter-registration party in Killearn Lakes Plantation—a sleepy,
tree-lined subdivision where several churches, no more than one or two miles
apart, dot the main thoroughfare. The highlight of the evening was a live
conference call with Vice President Dick Cheney that Olsen and her 35 guests
were invited to listen in on as a reward for having more than five attendees.
They were joined by some 85,000 listeners at 5,000 other house parties across
Exhorting his audience to build "the largest grassroots army in history,"
Cheney touted voter registration as a centerpiece of that effort. "You’d be
surprised at how many of your friends and neighbors have yet to register," he
said, adding that "every single new voter is important because of what’s at
stake in this election."
His words had their desired effect. Several of Olsen’s guests grabbed
registration forms conveniently located on the dining-room table. One of those
was Joe Stephens, a mustached grandfather of 14 wearing a T-shirt with his
church’s logo on it.
Staring at a tiny box on the form labeled "party change," Stephens paused for
a moment before checking it. Though just a pen stroke, for him, it was a
dramatic moment: After 44 years of being a union-labor Democrat, he’d just
become a Republican.
"The abortion issue forced me to change," he told Citizen. After celebrating
the births of more than two dozen grandkids, he explained, "I kept thinking
about what God said, ‘I knew you before you were in the womb.’ That’s weighed
heavily upon me."
He’s not the only one changing loyalties, though. Two days later, at the
opposite end of the state—in Miami—father-of-two Mario Jimenez checked the same
box. Only he became a Democrat.
"I want more prosperity," he told Citizen, explaining that he sells
electrical parts to homebuilders and is afraid "there’s going to be a recession
…and the construction is all going to stop."
Jimenez made his decision while standing at a voter-registration booth
decorated with red-white-and-blue banners that said Mi Familia Vota (My Family
Votes). That’s the slogan of a statewide Latino voter drive funded by People for
the American Way.
The booth was strategically positioned at the front of a Hispanic convention
in the center of Miami. Geared toward Latino families, the event featured
hundreds of booths proffering everything from Cuban coffee to diapers to
marriage advice. Throughout the day, a team of mostly 20-something
Spanish-speaking volunteers wearing Mi Familia Vota shirts worked the crowd.
They were friendly, yet aggressive.
"Hola," shouted one volunteer as he stopped in front of a grass-thatched
booth where vendors were distributing free samples of coffee. "Are you
registered to vote?" Immediately two or three people crowded around him.
Hispanics are a key voting bloc, PAW’s Miami director, Jorge Mursuli, told
Citizen, because they’re politically unpredictable. "The folks that go in and
talk to [Latinos] about the things that are important to them—their family and
health care and education and, in some cases, discrimination—more than others
win," he said.
"And what we’re starting to understand is … these people are up for grabs,"
he added, citing a study PAW sponsored of unregistered Latino voters.
In an effort to register 50,000 Florida Latinos by November, PAW has
mobilized canvassers in seven counties with the highest concentration of
Hispanics. Interestingly, at least three of those counties—Broward, Palm Beach,
and Orange—were the same ones identified on the Florida Bush campaign’s wall
maps as key areas.
Jimenez and Stephens may be just two new voters in a state of 17 million. But
they’re important because they embody the one-person-at-a time battle for hearts
and minds that this election cycle has come down to.
"It’s all about ensuring that a small few don’t dictate the lives of us all,"
Mursuli said, later adding that PAW wants to register voters "to empower people
to exercise their American right as a voter to select [their values]— whatever
those values are."
Awakening the Church
Ultimately, "whatever those values are"—or end up being—hinges on whether
Christians get involved in the process, said Father Frank Pavone, director of
Priests for Life.
"Sometimes people of faith say, ‘Well, God is going to take care of
everything,’" he said. "But what Christians need to realize is that God takes
care of everything precisely through His people. He always calls His people into
But, as Pavone’s own internal study revealed, a large portion of the troops
have gone AWOL when it comes to voter registration. So national Christian groups
are joining forces to rally them back into action.
Focus on the Family, for instance, is planning a massive voter-registration
effort for the first time in its 27-year history. First, the ministry is
planning to match the millions of constituents on its own list to state-by-state
voting records. Focus founder Dr. James C. Dobson will then send a letter to
those who are unregistered, urging them to become part of the process, along
with the appropriate state-registration form.
"Participation in the civic process is a very important way for us to make a
difference with the issues Christians care about—like pornography or gambling,"
Brandt said. "But we’d be hypocritical to encourage others to register to vote
if we didn’t do it ourselves. So we’re starting within our own walls."
With the help of state-level family policy councils, Focus also is employing
foot soldiers to conduct community voter-registration drives. At first, those
efforts will concentrate on eight states where close Senate races are expected,
and may later expand to as many as 20.
Senate-race states are first priority, Brandt said, because "we need to build
a veto-proof majority in the Senate for issues Christians care about and to take
away the ability of the left to filibuster votes on good judicial nominations."
While those registration efforts are nonpartisan and do not promote political
candidates, he added, pro-family groups are being strategic in focusing their
efforts, just as left-wing groups have been in theirs.
To help register another 2 million Christians outside its own sphere, Focus
has teamed up with more than a dozen nationally known Christian
leaders—including the Southern Baptists’ Dr. Richard Land, Jay Sekulow of the
American Center for Law & Justice, and D.
James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries.
"When we’re all moving in the same direction, we’re able to tap into a
massive network that makes our voices heard," said Jack St. Martin, executive
director of Americans of Faith, a California get-out-the-vote group that’s also
part of the effort.
The coalition is relying on a mixture of media and on-the-ground footwork to
get the job done. The national Christian radio network Salem Communications, for
instance, is running public-service announcements on its 95 stations. The radio
spots will not only steer Christians to voter-registration Web sites, but also
will encourage them to hold registration drives at religious festivals, book
stores and private schools.
Meanwhile, Americans of Faith has a goal of recruiting 50,000 church
volunteers to host Sunday-morning registrations. "In any given state," St.
Martin said, "we may have two to three people on the ground actually working
with local pastors."
Focus also has targeted 500 of the nation’s largest and most
activist-oriented churches, directing them to
www.ivotevalues.org. The SBC’s Ethics &
Religious Liberty Commission has provided a key way to reach those churches
through a sister site,
In addition to directing families to that Web site—which provides a
step-by-step explanation of the registration process as well as biblically based
discussions of social issues—SBC will crisscross the nation with an 18-wheeler
voter registration truck. Embossed on the side of the vehicle is the slogan,
"How you vote today impacts tomorrow." That’s the message Land would like every
minister to share from the pulpit. To equip them to do so, the SBC is making
available voter-registration tool kits including DVDs and videos, bulletin
inserts, banners for booths, and state-specific registration forms.
Those efforts will culminate in two National Voter Registration Days July 4
and Sept. 26.
The ivotevalues initiative had its genesis, Land told Citizen, in a
disturbing conversation he had with some pastors a few years ago who were more
concerned about economics than morality.
"That means you’re just for sale to the highest bidder. And we should not be
for sale," he told them. "We should vote our values, our beliefs, our
Lighting the Fire
At least one pastor who’s answered that call to action is Dr. Richard
Ledford, a fiery Pentecostal preacher who leads Christian Heritage Church, 15
minutes north of the Florida Capitol.
His 4,000-member congregation is comprised mostly of African-Americans and
Hispanics—but those groups are hearing a much different message from Ledford
than they hear from liberal groups.
"I do not care what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California says. In
this country we are still ‘one nation under God,’ " Ledford told them on Sunday,
"So it’s time that we start voting our morals instead of our checkbooks. …
Don’t you just vote the party line," he concluded, as an elderly organ player
struck a well-timed chord and the congregation shouted approving Amens.
After the service, parishioners made a beeline to voter-information tables
strategically placed next to three church exits. Whether or not millions of
other believers do the same depends on whether more pastors like Ledford step up
to the plate—or this case, pulpit.
The bottom line is, Land said, Christians everywhere—those in the pulpits and
the pews—have a choice. "They can either sit around and curse the darkness or
they can light candles," he said. "And every time they register, or help someone
else do so, they’re lighting candles."