Never Mind the Ballots

It is South Florida's YET-to-be-registered immigrant voters who could swing the 2004 presidential election

At the America Coming Together office on Biscayne Boulevard and NE 27th Street, a sign asks in stark red marker: Have you registered 537 new voters yet? That is the number by which George W. Bush ostensibly beat Al Gore in Florida in 2000, nudging the Republican candidate into the presidency. For the 2004 presidential race, the slogan on the lips of activists across the political spectrum is: Every vote counts. In Florida, every vote counts more.

Pollsters have already pegged 30 of the 50 states as belonging to either the Republican or the Democratic camps. Of the twenty states up for grabs, Florida has eighteen electoral votes, giving the Sunshine State major clout in determining the next president. With George W. Bush continuing to hold the state's Cuban Americans in thrall and the addition of the generically popular John Edwards to the ticket of Democratic nominee John Kerry, it's still anybody's election.

A possible ace in the hole: South Florida's immigrant population, which is seen as a vast, untapped reservoir of eligible but unregistered voters. Suddenly Haitian nursing assistants, Cuban line cooks, and Jamaican churchgoers are as much in demand as Ohio's soccer moms and North Carolina's NASCAR dads.

Jonathan Postal
Gisele Florvil of ACT's Caribbean Power Vote seeks unregistered voters,  person by person, house by house
Jonathan Postal
Gisele Florvil of ACT's Caribbean Power Vote seeks unregistered voters, person by person, house by house

To reach these potential voters, ACT has recruited members of the immigrant community -- for instance, the women of Miami's Caribbean Power Vote.

Hermanie Colin's regular job is at a nursing home. For ACT, though, she is poring over a list of potential voters in North Miami. The certified nursing assistant organizes the prospective contacts by block and plots each address on a map. Crowding beside Colin at a long metal table at ACT headquarters are colleagues Rose Marie Michele and Gisele Florvil. Like Colin, Florvil and Michele are CNAs taking eight-month leaves of absence from the nursing home to get Haitian and West Indian voters registered. Each afternoon they spend four hours beneath the punishing summer sun, knocking on doors. Each woman will feel lucky if she comes back with even one new registration per day.

This is ACT's vanguard; the national organization bills itself as the "largest voter mobilization drive in American history."

John Hennelly, a genial former political consultant for the Democratic Party, left his consulting company to become state campaign director for the Service Employees International Union; he's on loan to ACT's South Florida campaign. (Campaign finance law -- most formidably McCain-Feingold -- forbids America Coming Together and the other new 527 political groups from coordinating with the Democratic National Committee or the Kerry campaign.) On this Saturday, Hennelly sits in a white minivan in the ACT parking lot, waiting to take the women of Caribbean Power Vote to their first stop. Armed with a purple folder and a bottle of water, Colin is ready to spread her message. "When I learn something I don't keep it to myself," she declares. "I love to go out and tell my people exactly what is going on."

On a different day, two blocks north along Biscayne at the office of People for the American Way, Carlos Pereira hands out maps to a team of six canvassers. This time last year, the 35-year-old Honduran was a chef at the exclusive Shore Club in Miami Beach. Now he's the South Florida organizer for Mi Familia Vota, a voter drive directed at Latin American immigrants in and around Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. Pereira analyzes the precincts, makes the maps, and sends out teams to canvass neighborhoods from Homestead to West Palm Beach.

"The financial and physical investment just to get one registration is huge," observes Pereira's boss, Jorge Mursuli. Sitting in his office, the director of People for the American Way tells how his civic group joined with the Center for Immigrant Democracy to form Mi Familia Vota. Private foundations fund the voter drive, but that doesn't make the work easy.

Mi Familia Vota canvassers go door-to-door searching for the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Hispanic immigrants in Miami-Dade County who are eligible to vote but not registered. These potential voters live in the same neighborhoods and often the same households as more than a million other Hispanic immigrants who either are already registered or cannot vote because they are not citizens. As Mursuli marvels, "It's literally like finding a needle in a haystack."

Mursuli slides a thick document across his desk, sharing the results of a survey Mi Familia Vota commissioned to determine why eligible immigrants don't vote. "The number-one reason why they're not registered is because they don't know how," he says. "It's not concerns about jury duty, or Big Brother, or taxes. In some cases, they didn't know they had to register."

The survey, conducted by ubiquitous pollster Sergio Bendixen, shows that most unregistered but eligible immigrants have been in the United States between five and ten years. Many of them put their energy into earning a living and setting up a household; they don't pay much attention to the U.S. political system.

But even if these immigrants did vote, whom they would vote for is unclear. Bendixen did not ask about political beliefs in the Mi Familia Vota survey; the nonprofit voter drive must remain strictly nonpartisan or risk violating its tax status. The pollster, however, draws a few conclusions from surveys he has conducted separately. "[New Hispanic citizens] are information seekers," Bendixen says. "They don't know the difference between Democratic or Republican, so most register independent. Once they open that door, they have a hundred questions for you."

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