Remember Florida

 

Candi Cushman

  Citizen Magazine - Colorado Springs, CO
  7/1/2004
 

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 states.

"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 voter-registration forms.

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."

Untapped Potential

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 response.

"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 save-the-spotted-owl groups."

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 thing—registering."

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 huge difference."

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.

Different Strokes

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 the nation.

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 the battle."

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 http://www.ivotevalues.org/. The SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has provided a key way to reach those churches through a sister site, http://www.ivotevalues.com/.

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 convictions."

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, May 2.

"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."