Never Mind the Ballots

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

On one floor, Pereira finds team captain Ingunza. The Coral Gables resident is making her pitch to a pretty young woman through a half-open door. "I'm not a citizen, but my husband is," the girl says, immediately regretting saying so. "But he's only nineteen," she adds, hoping to put off the canvassers.

"That's okay," Pereira tells her. "He can vote."

The girl hesitates: "He's sleeping."

José Espinol's interest is in the unregistered Latino voting population
Jonathan Postal
José Espinol's interest is in the unregistered Latino voting population
Carlos Pereira, Edith Ingunza,  Migdalia Ferrer, and Gloria Guevara work for Mi Familia Vota,  a voter drive directed at Latin American immigrants
Carlos Pereira, Edith Ingunza, Migdalia Ferrer, and Gloria Guevara work for Mi Familia Vota, a voter drive directed at Latin American immigrants
Migdalia Ferrer
Migdalia Ferrer
Gloria Guevara
Gloria Guevara

"It's very important," Ingunza insists. "If we don't vote, how will we be heard?"

The girl looks worried. Pereira reassures her, handing her a flyer. "When he wakes up, have him call us. We'll come back to register him."

This is proof of Pereira's theory: People are too busy trying to survive in this country to care about politics. "People come here disillusioned by politics in their own country. They think it's the same here," he muses. "People give a higher priority to survival than political education. They ask, Why should I miss a day of work to vote?"

Up on the fourth floor, canvasser Migdalia Ferrer runs into that skepticism. Ferrer is one of 60 Heroes sent down by the SEIU 1199 in New York City (a separate local from the Miami 1199) to help swing Florida. Though the Cubans in Hialeah have a hard time understanding her Nuyorican accent in either Spanish or English, Ferrer makes up for the dialect barrier in spunk. But a man in a crisp white polo shirt who stops in the hallway on his way home from work is uneasy about her enthusiasm.

"You really trying to believe in the vote?" he asks, showing off careful, newly acquired English.

Ferrer practically cheers. "You got it!"


No one answers at the neat midcentury ranch house on NE 145th Street, even though Rose Marie Michele can hear noises inside. She knocks three times at the front door, three times at the side door before trying the house around the corner. There she finds an eviction notice.

When she doubles back, Michele runs into Carolyn Thompson, the director of the Caribbean Power Vote. Born in Kingston, Thompson has lived in Miami for more than 20 years. This is her first time working on a voter drive.

"Did you catch any fish?" Thompson asks.

"They're all registered," Michele shrugs, moving on.

Thompson says she wonders about the lasting impact of the Caribbean Power Vote. "After November, ACT and all these other groups will disappear like ghosts," she predicts. "People ask us, what happens after the elections? Haitians and Jamaicans are finally coming together. If our communities come together with the African-American community, we can determine who has political power in South Florida."

At another house a few blocks away, a black woman in a white dress and white headscarf squints as she tries to understand Thompson's English. Yes, she is a citizen. No, she doesn't want to register. Yes, she does. Without saying another word, she takes Thompson's clipboard and disappears into the house. After a long while, she comes back with the form signed and nearly complete. Her name is French. Thompson fills in the blanks that remain.

"Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" she asks.

The woman shakes her head.

"Are you sane?"

The woman stares, not understanding the word.

"Yes," Thompson writes.

"A new registration," she says as she walks away, almost whispering. "That's gold."

Follow the Soft Money

In elections past donors supported political parties by contributing "soft money." The money was "soft" because there was no limit on how much any individual or group could give, as long as the funds covered party-building activities such as voter drives. Soft money could not be used to promote the parties themselves or to boost the campaigns of national candidates. But somehow some of it did.

McCain-Feingold (a.k.a. the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) changed all that. Now the so-called soft money goes to other groups to do basically the same job. Some goes to nonprofits like People for the American Way (501-C3s in IRS shorthand) and the rest goes to a new breed of political animal, called the 527 (after another line in the tax code), which is not regulated by the Federal Election Commission. 527s must disclose who gives how much money and how the money is spent every month. In the McCain-Feingold numbers game, political parties cannot coordinate with 527s or 501-C3s. What's more, 527s and 501-C3s cannot coordinate with each other.

One of the three biggest 527s in the country, with $19 million to spend as of July 5 (according to www.opensecrets.org, run by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics), America Coming Together looks a lot like the Democratic Party, fueling complaints that this 527 is anything but independent. ACT's chief executive officer is Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO; and Harold Ickes, onetime deputy chief of staff for President Clinton, is president of ACT ally the Media Fund, which provides advertising resources to another affiliate, MoveOn.org. In addition, George Soros, a financier and philanthropist who has called unseating President Bush the "central focus of my life," as of July 5 had contributed $5 million to ACT and $2.5 million to MoveOn.org.

Normally "anti-regulation" Republicans grew vociferous when they realized the Democrats had figured an angle on McCain-Feingold, and are working to conjure a few 527s of their own.

Keep track of 527s at www.opensecrets.org

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