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October 27th, 2004 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

Fever Pitch

As get-out-the-vote crusades crescendo, Democrats fear a full-scale ballot war.

     
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Tom Homolya canvassing for America Coming Together
IMAGE: TOM HUMPHREY
About 250 canvassers sit in rows of metal folding chairs in a warehouse-like room off Northeast Sandy Boulevard, a cross-section of ultra-casual Portland youth. Many wear blue baseball caps emblazoned with the command "Vote!" at cockeyed angles; otherwise, the uniform is baggy denim or battered corduroy, hooded sweaters and crusty stocking caps.

The atmosphere, on the other hand, is hardly mellow. At the front of the room, an organizer for America Coming Together issues the marching orders.

"Today is Sunday," he says. "The Lord's day. As we speak, thousands of God-fearin' Christian conservatives are taking their ballots to church to hand 'em in...so today, we need to keep our foot on the neck of the Republicans, and get out there and make sure young people--the people we registered, the people who are off the radar--vote."

There's no shortage of anger in the room--talk of alleged Republican plots to sabotage Democratic voter registration swirls. But a cynic can't help thinking: These people are going to unseat George W. Bush?

The organizers behind ACT insist it can happen. ACT, largely funded by billionaire George Soros, is the largest organization in America Votes, an alliance of nominally independent nonprofits (immortalized this election season by their tax-code section, 527). ACT is wholeheartedly stumping for John Kerry, and chances are if you're a registered Democrat or independent in metro Portland, the someone from the group has been on your porch to make its case more than once.

Every weekday since ballots hit mailboxes, ACT has dispatched about 500 paid canvassers (making about $8 an hour) to knock on doors and drop literature around the state, mostly in Portland. On weekends, between 500 and 700 volunteers join the effort to stoke Democratic and swing districts and motivate newly registered young voters. The ACT push will cost between $3 million and $5 million in Oregon alone.

"Voter turnout is what it's all about in the last two weeks," says Tom Novick, a Portland political consultant who helped Soros craft plans to evict Bush from the White House. "Huge numbers of young people have registered. The X-factor is, will they turn out to vote?"

In addition to launching unprecedented efforts to rally voters, both sides have operatives in place to monitor the ballot counting. In fact, observers from both parties are already crowding election workers in Multnomah County, and elsewhere, who are beginning to prepare ballots for Election Night's tallies.

The Democrats say they're only there to watch the Republicans, who, they believe, will try to challenge ballots in a county where D's outnumber R's 2-to-1.

"They're damn good at stealing elections," says Scott Ballo, a former staffer on Gov. Ted Kulongoski's campaign team who runs ACT's Portland operations. "We know they're looking for Democratic registration information. One reason we're telling people to vote early is so we can watch that process and focus our resources."

State Republicans have hired paid staff to run their ballot-observation efforts, including Portland lawyers John DiLorenzo and Mark E. Foster. The Democratic National Committee dispatched at least one lawyer to Portland, and John Kerry's campaign has scores of attorneys on call for Election Night.

A GOP observers' manual calls for volunteers to videotape voters turning in ballots on Election Night, a move Democrats claim is not-so-veiled intimidation. In recent weeks, Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers launched an investigation into allegations that canvassers on college campuses duped students into re-registering as Republicans.

"That won't keep them from voting, but it does take their names off the lists of people Democrats contact," says one local activist. "It's insidious."

And--should the sinister horror-movie piano music not yet ring in your ears--Democrats note that Oregon GOP spokeswoman Rori Smith used to work for former Florida Secretary of State (now U.S. Rep.) Katherine Harris, a leading villain (to liberals) in the 2000 recount battle in that state.

If the presidential race is as tight in Oregon next week as it was four years ago, when Al Gore pipped Bush by about 6,000 votes, the number of ballots counted could be an issue. That's why ACT's battalions are donning their red plastic ponchos and hunting down every registered Democrat or independent they can set their hands on.

"When more people vote, Democrats win," says Ballo. His minions will turn up the heat, even at the risk of a backlash, in the campaign's final days.

"The last thing you want to be right now is an undecided woman," says Novick. "You're going to be talked to a lot."


"Huge numbers of young people have registered. The X-factor is, will they turn out to vote?" --Tom Novick
 
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