Nonprofit groups spur voter registration

Sunday, September 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:23 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 27, 2008

Weaving through the front yards of Jefferson Street in Columbia, Dominique Turner couldn’t wait to meet a stranger. Through a maze of curious porch-sitters, barking dogs and barbecue pits, Turner sifted through her grandmother’s neighborhood, searching for first “no” and then the treasured “yes” answers to her two simple questions: “Are you registered to vote?” and “Would you like to register?”

Turner is one of more than 200 foot soldiers asking such questions in Columbia’s neighborhoods. The results of their efforts have been impressive; voter registrations are stacking up.

In the past few months, the combined efforts of voter-registration organizations have accumulated more than 5,000 voter-registration cards in the city, helping Boone County achieve a record 15,441 new voter registrations and changes of address during the first half of this year.

Canvassers such as Turner are part of a complex web of independent groups going event-to-event, and door-to-door trying to get potential battleground voters to participate in the democratic process.

The nonprofit group Turner works for, the Missouri Citizen Education Fund, is one of several groups that have set up shop in Columbia.

Some of these groups, such as Turner’s, are nonpartisan nonprofits, which are mostly staffed by volunteer block-walkers. Their mission is to get as many people registered to vote as they can, primarily in low voter-participation areas.

Other groups have a more partisan bent, such as the left-leaning America Coming Together, which consists of paid professionals going door-to-door with hand-held computer devices.

The money backing groups such as America Coming Together is significant. America Coming Together has $26 million in funding, making it the third-largest 527 in the nation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A 527 is a tax-exempt organization allowed to engage in political activities. Another 527 making the headlines is Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that aims to discredit presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam War record.

“The campus is crawling with such groups with this being the largest university in the state and 2000 being such a close race,” Caleb Lewis, president of MU’s College Democrats, said of the voter-advocacy groups.

“Most of these independent groups like the 527s are liberal, and that leaves a big void for us to fill,” said Brian Johnson, president of Mizzou College Republicans. He said his group is having its own get-out-the-registration campaign. It has used “Reggie the Republican National Committee Registration Rig,” an 18-wheeler decked out with plasma-screen televisions and a sound stage.

The two main political parties, however, are not just leaving the groundwork to these independent groups.

“This is the largest grass-roots effort Missouri Republicans has ever undertaken,” said Paul Sloca, communications director for the Missouri Republican Party.

“It’s unprecedented,” he said.

The Missouri Republicans have 32,000 volunteers across the state doing such things as voter registration. Its voter-registration strategy also involves talking to church-goers, many of whom share the same values as Republicans, Sloca said.

The Democrats also said they are running an unprecedented grassroots campaign. “This is the most aggressive ground operation any Democratic presidential candidate has had — far ahead of the campaign for Al Gore four years ago,” said Michael Golden, communications director for the Missouri Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Although Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren did not discourage citizens from registering to vote with the voter-advocacy groups, she did issue a few cautionary words at a recent press conference. She said in 2002 some groups would come to Boone County to register a lot of voters and then they would leave the state with the registration cards. Sometimes, she said, forms from such groups did not reach her office until it was too late. Even with the best intentions, not everyone is aware of voter-registration deadlines, she said.

Noren advises citizens to check with her office or online at to make sure their registration forms have gone through.

The effect of this year’s massive voter-registration effort will not be known until November’s election.

“Increasing voter registration does not mean increasing voter turnout,” local political consultant John Ballard said. “We saw a massive increase in voter registration with Motor Voter but an actual decrease in voter turnout,” he said.

Motor Voter is legislation that enabled citizens to register to vote while applying for a driver’s license.

The groups doing get-out-the-registration drives said they plan to make the switch to get-out-the-vote mode after Oct. 6. For instance, Missouri Citizen Education Fund will call people after the registration deadline to see if they need a ride to polling locations on Nov. 2.

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