In a nondescript store front next to a Pembroke Pines gym, Florida Democrats launched a major offensive this week to boost their ranks despite a Republican law that makes the voter-registration push harder than ever.
The President Obama’s re-election campaign has closely studied the registration-crackdown law for months and devised a step-by-step quality-control process and is ready this weekend to train hundreds of volunteers at its 24 offices throughout the state.
The battle for the White House could literally hinge on the effort in a state where President George W. Bush won his first term in 2000 thanks to a margin of 537 votes in Florida.
But long before Election Day, Democrats will gather in meetings much like the one led Wednesday by Organizing for America Florida activist Meghan Hardy. Bearing a chipper attitude and a Power Point presentation, Hardy taught about a dozen volunteers the dos and don’ts of voter registration. She gave a six-question quiz at the end.
“When we just register someone to vote, we don’t just register them and then stop,” Hardy said. “We think about it as the beginning of a conversation that we’re going to be having with voters between now and Election Day.”
Once new voters are registered, campaign will call and mail them to get them to the polls. As a result of their efforts, Hardy says, voters signed up in 2008 by the campaign were up to 20 percent more likely to vote when compared with voters signed up by other registration groups.
The new voter drive comes not a moment too soon for Democrats.
Since 2008, Democrats have lost 172,000 active voters – a roughly 4 percent decline -- while Republicans have quietly launched a modest registration campaign of their own that has increased their ranks by almost 1 percent, or nearly 37,000. Also, the latest Florida poll shows Republican Mitt Romney ahead of Obama, 47 percent to 45 percent -- an inside-the-error-margin lead.
Obama won Florida by less than 3 percentage points four years ago. In 2010, Republicans swept the state.
That makes every new voter count all the more heading into November.
Democrats still lead Republicans overall by a margin of 448,000 active registered voters. And, the Florida Democratic Party notes, they lead by an even greater amount – 540,000 – by including the pool of so-called inactive voters, who cast ballots so infrequently that the state doesn’t post information about them.
The Florida Democratic Party points out the inactive voters can become active. It says that about 100,000 of them showed up in 2008, when president Obama won the state – and the White House in the process – by about 236,000 votes.
There are about 11.2 million active voters (plus 1.1 million more inactive voters). About 41 percent are Democrats, 36 percent Republicans, 20 percent has no party affiliation and fewer than 4 percent belong to a smattering of other parties.
Voter registration statistics aren’t clear predictors of an election’s outcome; just because a new voter registers Democrat, doesn’t mean he’ll cast a ballot or that he’ll vote for a Democrat.
But the numbers are a good barometer of the mood of the electorate and the state of the political parties and campaigns.
For instance, white voters appear to be dropping from the Democratic rolls, with 206,000 of them leaving since the last election. Black voters continue to leave the Republican Party, where African American active voters declined 7 percent to about 59,000.
Republicans took a different tack heading into this year’s election. They’ve started registering new voters and the Republican-led Legislature passed the registration crackdown law in 2011.
Republican sponsors say they’re trying to crackdown on fraud. Their opponents say they’re trying to keep Democrats from getting an edge.
Under the new law, which is being challenged by liberal-leaning groups in court, voter-registration groups must register for the first time with the state. They have to meticulously track voter-registration forms and turn the completed paperwork into a Supervisor of Elections office within 48 hours. The previous deadline was 10 days.
Fines range from $50 for each late application to a maximum of $1,000 per organization per year. Two school teachers have faced fines for breaking the new law, which was mocked on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” recently.
The law also scaled back early voting by eliminating early voting on the Sunday before Election Day when African American and Hispanic voters cast almost 30 percent of their ballots, said Camila Gallardo, spokeswoman for National Council of La Raza, a Latino-advocacy group challenging the new law.
Like Organizing for America, La Raza is sponsoring its own registration drive – unlike its fellow plaintiff, the League of Women Voters, which has stopped while the lawsuit awaits a judge’s ruling.
Gallardo said La Raza has signed up just under 10,000 new Hispanic voters and hopes to register a total of about 80,000 in Florida. Organizing for American won’t discuss its goals.
Since 2008, the Democratic Party’s Hispanic voter rolls have increased more than 10 percent to about 565,000. The Republican Party’s Hispanic increase has been more modest, about 2 percent, to about 453,000.
Meanwhile, the numbers of Hispanics who registered as having no party affiliation skyrocketed 16 percent to 431,000 – just 22,000 shy of those who registered Republican.
Hispanic voters aren’t the only ones rushing to be no-party-affiliation voters, whose ranks have swelled by 8 percent overall in four years.
Hispanics are among the most sought-after group of the electorate this year. Obama’s campaign has made centerpieces of the pro-immigrant DREAM Act and the Republican Arizona immigration crackdown law.
Romney has begun his Hispanic outreach by noting the job losses among Latinos during Obama’s term. Romney also appears close to embracing a DREAM Act alternative plan floated by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
During the Wednesday voter-registration training, however, Hardy made no mention of political talking points and so-called “voter suppression.” Her talk was all about processes, a reflection of the data-driven Obama campaign.
She coached the registration trainees to remember to get their forms properly dated, filled in with black pen and turned in within a day. She said they couldn’t pressure people to register for a certain party. And teh volunteers had to make sure the new voter-applicant signed his or her own form.
And she reminded them that the campaign is just beginning.
“This is the beginning of a long conversation,” she said. “We just need to register lots and lots of people.”