As Registration Periods Close, Last Efforts To Boost Voter Rolls

Oct 9, 2012

The deadline to register to vote in the November election is Oct. 9 in Arizona and New Mexico, and fast approaching in other states. For months, dozens of organizations across the Southwest have sent out armies of canvassers to register new voters.

In the final days, voter registration drives are scrambling to boost the number of voters on the rolls.

A crowd of more than a hundred teenage activists in Phoenix recently celebrated a milestone in their voter registration campaign with loud cheers of "Si se puede" (which translates to "Yes we can.")

The had registered more than 20,000 new voters after months of canvassing the city’s predominantly Latino neighborhoods. By the eve of the voter registration deadline on Monday, that number had surpassed 30,000.

This may be a presidential election year, but that isn't the race motivating volunteers like 17-year-old Gabrielle Gonzalez.

“Everybody is gathered here today to tell Sheriff Joe, we don't need him as sheriff anymore,” Gonzalez said.

That would be Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is running for re-election.

Most of the young volunteers come from immigrant families and oppose Arpaio's emphasis on immigration enforcement. Behind this registration drive is a political action committee that has endorsed Arpaio’s Democratic challenger. The PAC is supported by a hotel union fund, which has the bigger goal of getting more Latino workers and young people civically engaged.

The PAC is using the controversial sheriff and deportations as a catalyst.

“It sometimes takes something horrifying to crystalize the community to understand what we really want to fight for,” said Daria Ovide, one of the organizers behind the voter registration campaign, which is known as ‘Adios Arpaio.’

She said even if Arpaio wins in November, their campaign won’t have lost, since they have activated tens of thousands of new voters who could continue to influence other races.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, Democrats and Republicans have used different ground strategies to register voters, causing a large gap between the parties’ numbers in the state.

On Oct. 3 in Las Vegas, on the evening of the first presidential debate, field organizer Jacob Fullmer attempted to register a few more voters at Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters. Fullmer roamed around with a clipboard, trying to find any campaign supporters who hadn’t registered to vote.

Fullmer didn’t find anyone, but he did help Wil Ecolango with his address change. Over all, the GOP in Nevada isn’t really registering voters.

“We’re more about talking one on one and we call and go door-to-door and a lot of times those folks are registered,” says Darren Littell, communications director for the Romney campaign. “That’s where our real focus is. It’s been heavily invested on the ground game, not on a registration drive.”

That GOP ground game has served them well for decades, but now may be offering diminishing returns.

Democrats in Nevada enjoy a 75,000 registered voter lead over the GOP statewide.

“So they go to the well and that’s try to increase the number of older white voters here but that’s becoming a smaller and smaller share of the electorate in Nevada,” says David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Nevada is a swing state with an economy that’s still in recession. And that should give Romney an edge. But in Nevada, President Barack Obama continues to lead over Romney.

In New Mexico, voter registration drives are targeting both Hispanics and Native Americans. As part of a nationwide voter registration effort, organizers in Santa Fe are focusing on Native youth.

Many of the Santa Fe High School students who gathered on a recent Friday afternoon for the school's homecoming pep rally aren't even 18 yet. That's OK with Native Vote 2012 organizer Wahlesah Dick, who lured students away from the festivities with free pizza and T-shirts.

"How many know if your parents are registered or not?" Dick counted about six hands among the students. "Do me a favor, if your parents are not registered to vote, ask them."

Edgar Perez says he'll be 18 in two years and, "I wish I could vote because I want my voice to actually count for something."

Native Vote organizers are counting on this passion. Tiffany Smalley, with the National Congress of American Indians, says apathy and lack of familiarity with the electoral process are two major reasons why some Native American elders aren't registered. She says young tribal members are changing that.

"Youth today already vote," Smalley explains. "They vote through Facebook, they vote through fantasy football. So they see the importance of voting and they value it at that level."

In New Mexico, 80 percent of voters turnout in some tribal communities. Organizers want to see that level of participation elsewhere. According to Native Vote 2012, more than 35,000 people participated in 140 events in 21 states.