Parties use rewards to boost voter rolls

Monday, June 28, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Cash! Concerts! Movies! All could be yours, free, for a little good old-fashioned, shoe-leather work of signing up voters in Missouri.

Republicans and Democrats are offering incentives to their troops this year in an effort to bolster their ranks for the November elections and, by extension, boost the fortunes of Republican President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry.

While illustrating the importance of Missouri in the presidential election, the prizes also reveal a renewed interest in what some call the "ground game" -- the time-intensive effort to get people to polls, which often gets overshadowed by the "air attack" of negative commercials.

Rest assured, there will be plenty of political TV ads. There already are.

But consider these examples in the basic of battles for votes:

The Missouri Republican Party, perhaps for the first time, is offering a $3 bounty to local political groups for each new voter they successfully register. The same incentive applies to re-registering voters who have moved into different cities or counties.

State party chairwoman Ann Wagner announced the new policy to hundreds of party activists gathered earlier this month for the state Republican convention. Republicans have a goal of registering 34,000 voters for the November elections.

The Democratic leaning group America Coming Together, which is campaigning against President Bush, is sending paid canvassers door to door in St. Louis and Kansas City to register voters. The group plans to begin awarding small prizes, such as concert or movie tickets, to individuals who collect the most voter registration cards each week, said spokeswoman Sara Howard.

The Kansas City chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which works primarily with inner-city residents, gives its paid staffers a quota of 20 voter registrations during a five-hour period and pays a bonus of $1.50 per registration for each voter above that, said Andrew Ginsberg, ACORN's head organizer in Kansas City.

Employees fired

But the bonuses can also provide an incentive to cheat.

Ginsberg said his group has fired five or six employees -- and turned their names over to police -- for submitting fraudulent voter registrations. In one case, an employee simply made up names. In other cases, employees were intentionally double-registering people, Ginsberg said.

For each fraudulent voter registration, violators could face penalties of up to five years in prison and fines of $2,500 to $10,000, plus the loss of personal voting rights, according to state law.

From January through the first three weeks of June, records show the secretary of state's office distributed more than 300,000 voter registration cards to local election authorities, political parties, independent groups and individuals.

Groups such as ACT and the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, which work closely together, generally target their voter registration drives to traditionally Democratic areas, especially ones that had low voter participation rates in the past.

Pro-Vote canvassers sometimes stand at bus stops, grocery stores or unemployment offices looking for voters. The aim is to catch people who otherwise would have no time or ability to go to the election board offices to register.

"Poor people are less likely to be registered than wealthy people, partly because poor people move more frequently, and every time you move you have to fill out more paperwork," said John Hickey, the group's executive director.

Focus on growing areas

Republicans often focus their voter registration efforts on areas with growing populations, such as Christian County between Springfield and Branson, or the new suburban St. Louis areas in St. Charles County. Besides the fact that voters in those areas tend to be more Republican, it's more likely they would find people who need to update their voter registrations.

One noticeable exception to the trend is the Missouri Democratic Party. Executive director Jim Kottmeyer said the party sees a greater reward in focusing on people already registered to vote who simply aren't doing so.

"We've never used any sort of incentive-based system," he said. "The party's No. 1 focus is on voter mobilization, getting Democrats and like-minded folks out on election day."

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