Never Mind the Ballots

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.

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."

Mi Familia canvassers cannot promote any particular party or candidate, but they can answer questions about where the parties stand on specific issues. That information could go a long way toward shaping the community's political consciousness. "If Mi Familia is truly able to register 50,000 people," Bendixen says, "they could become the swing vote in this election."

Together with another nonprofit, Unite for Dignity, Mi Familia Vota is offering two six-week leadership training programs specifically for Mi Familia's staff. "At the end of this," he explains, "if I have five people who work as a legislative assistant or a clerk in some politician's office, that's five more leaders than we had before."

When Mursuli met Pereira on a ten-day bus trip last October, he saw a natural leader. Though never politically active before, the former chef read about the Immigrant Rights Freedom Ride in a periodiquito during a break from the kitchen. Frustrated by the slow pace of his application for permanent residency since he sold his business in Tegucigalpa and moved his family to Miami in 1995, Pereira decided to make the symbolic journey from Miami to a massive immigrants rights march in New York City.

Mursuli asked Pereira to oversee the field operations of the Mi Familia drive in South Florida. The Honduran in turn called on people he had met on the Freedom Ride, such as Edith Ingunza, a Peruvian activist he hired as a team captain. He called graduates he met during a Unite for Dignity Leadership training session last fall. Of the 70 people in Unite for Dignity's first crop of graduates, as many as 20 are currently working on voter drives. On this Friday Pereira hustles Ingunza's team off to Westland Gardens, a condo complex north of the Westland Mall in Hialeah, in a brown van with Mi Familia's phone number on the side.

In the pocket of poverty between Belle Meade and Shorecrest, the minivan carrying the Caribbean Power Vote workers pulls off Biscayne Boulevard and parks in front of St. Anthony's Oasis. The faded yellow complex might have been a bustling motel maybe 50 years ago, but now the cramped efficiencies house newly arrived immigrants and native-born Americans down on their luck. After being dropped off, the women fan out along the complex's concrete walkways.

Strictly speaking, they are not employed by ACT. The Service Employees International Union, Miami local SEIU 1199, makes up their "lost wages" while they are on leave so the CNAs can "volunteer" for ACT. Currently SEIU has 300 people "volunteering" on various voter drives nationwide through a program called "Heroes." There are at least 100 Heroes in Florida alone, with six at the Caribbean Power Vote and twelve at Mi Familia Vota. By the fall, the union plans to have at least 2004 paid Heroes drumming up votes nationwide.

The Heroes can register voters, record political views, and talk generally about issues, but cannot recommend a candidate. Campaign finance law prohibits anyone associated with ACT from promoting any particular individual or party. That's all right by Gisele Florvil; most of the folks she meets seem already to have made up their minds. As pollster Bendixen points out, "With the Haitian and Jamaican community there is more of a marked tendency for the Democratic Party." Extrapolating from his survey of Hispanics, Bendixen suggests a similar ratio might apply between the registered and the unregistered among Haitian and West Indian immigrants eligible to vote. Making what he calls "very much a guess," Bendixen says that since there are roughly 100,000 registered Caribbean voters, there are likely another 50,000 who are eligible but not registered.

If that is true, Florvil is having a hard time finding them. Crisscrossing the tiny courtyards, she calls out in Kreyol while tapping on doors: "Are you a U.S. citizen? Is anyone here a U.S. citizen?"

Finally, after a long streak of shaking heads and dismayed expressions, Florvil finds someone. A man in his thirties opens the door, tugging self-consciously at his boxer shorts. Yes, he is a citizen, he says in Kreyol. No, he is not yet registered. The man steps over an open textbook on the floor to take Florvil's clipboard. Following the script she knows by rote, she asks if he tends toward Bush or Kerry. "Kerry," he says, without looking up from the form. Suddenly switching to English, he adds: "Kerry, all the way."

Up and down the halls of Westland Gardens, it's no go. There are five buildings in the complex, with four stories in each building and twelve condos on every floor. On a Friday evening the hallways smell of fried steak, onions, and cumin. Nearly everyone who opens the door speaks in the rapid-fire Spanish of recent Cuban arrivals: I don't have the papers for that; We're not citizens; I don't think that I can vote; I don't have time right now; I'm already registered; I'm taking a bath.

In a nearly neutral accent, Carlos Pereira replies with good cheer: It's very important that you register when you become a citizen; Make sure you get out to vote. When no one answers, he leaves a flyer hanging on the doorknob with a phone number for Mi Familia Vota. "I try to deliver the message at every single door," he explains. "The people aren't educated politically, especially in this neighborhood." Voter education is important to Pereira; not yet a citizen, he can't vote himself.

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."

"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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