Under the Radar

Below the surface of the presidential debate hoopla – the made-for-media event that John Hanchette of Editor & Publisher says "increasingly resembles the high-concept scripts of the dummied up reality shows" – swirls an unprecedented whirlwind of election activities of all sorts: some old-fashioned, others remarkably new and some, well, just odd.

The last gasp of grassroots voter registration before the early October deadlines in most states is in full swing, but some of the larger groups predict that 3.5 million new voters have been registered in key swing states. Soon the registration passions will shift to getting out the vote (GOTV), and the persistent and passionate pursuit of the voter will continue on to Nov. 2. All of this activity is going on in the swing states while serious questions are being raised as to whether the new voters will be added in time to vote on Nov. 2 – especially in hurricane-ravished Florida, and highly-contested Ohio, where a new controversy has opened up over paper registration forms.

Meanwhile, there is a continuing stream of even more books and DVDs coming to market. Author Mathew Quirk, who is preparing an article for the Washington Monthly, estimated at least 154 election-oriented books on the Democratic and progressive side. And new election focused websites keep popping up like weeds. One of the most recent: www.unemployedvoters.org.

Simultaneously, there is a continuous flow of clashing TV and radio ads, many by groups theoretically uncoordinated with the campaigns. These groups are doing the campaigns' dirty work in the 17 or so crucial swing states. Residents of former political powerhouses states – California, Texas and New York – are seeing virtually no political advertising. And as the race hits the home stretch, the competing voter guides are emerging that are the staple of GOTV efforts – all part of the fierce battle to contest every vote, which is sucking both activists and the reluctant voters into the vortex.

Grassroots activists are even now engaged in the presidential debates. The notion that the debates are one-night events is a thing of the past. Immediately after the debates, the campaign war rooms, and sympathetic voter organizations engage in the debate "after fight" – a struggle to control how the debate is analyzed and spun. Considering that 60 million Americans are expected to watch the first debate, there's no question that the final judgement of how the candidates fared in the debate is worth fighting for.

One new twist in post-debate analysis is being executed by America Coming Together, (ACT) the large-scale 527 group, which is sending its canvassers door-to-door to help spin the results of the debate. ACT director Steve Rosenthal says "George Bush is going to tell a couple of whoppers in the debate and we can't let him get away with it." ACT is sponsoring what it calls a "Truth Canvass" designed to preempt and respond to Bush's lies head on. ACT says it will knock on 60,000 doors over the weekend, and wants people to print "fact sheets" from the Internet and post them in offices and on campuses.

The basis for ACT's post-debate strategy is the Democrats' conventional wisdom that in 2000, the voters polled after the debate actually thought Gore had won, but fierce spinning by the well-oiled Republican propaganda machine convinced a pliable media that Gore had fumbled badly – and the public agreed soon after.

The remainder of the debates will be a continuous battleground of spinning and fighting for the public mind – and at this point it is just impossible for people to think for themselves unless they go on a "no media diet." One group is organizing debate parties for the final debate on Oct. 13, using a new DVD, "Win Over Swing Voters" that highlights the techniques of language guru George Lakoff, and teaches people how to respond to Republican arguments. Lakoff's new book, "Don't Think of an Elephant" (excerpted on AlterNet) is getting a lot of attention as well. The Daily Kos, one of the more popular political blogs, wrote of Lakoff's book: "I was blown away when I read this. It does help put things in perspective in a way I was previously unable to do, I don't think I've ever said, 'You HAVE to get this book.' But there's always a first time for everything." Lakoff's book has shot up to number 13 on Amazon, and is selling briskly.

Another area of contention is voter guides – sometimes referred to as "palm cards" – which are used to motivate voters and remind them who to vote for. One ally on Bush's side is the Citizen Leader Coalition, which has issued their "2004 Election Voter Guide concerning Key Moral Issues and the War on Christianity." The group says that it aims to distribute 25 million copies of the guides across America. In the guide, the contrast between the two candidates in the first few categories are predictable: gay marriage, partial birth abortion (the Republican Language) and restoring voluntary prayer in public schools. Bush is against , against, and for; Kerry the opposite in all three categories. But then come some more interesting categories:

  • Assault on Mel Gibson for making a film about Christ: Bush "supported Gibson"; Kerry "participated in the Left's assault on Gibson, suggesting possible anti-Semitism, even though Kerry had not seen the film."
  • "Asking for God's Blessing on America: Bush "often asks God to bless America"; Kerry "attacks Bush for mentioning God so often."
  • Judges:Bush says "We need common sense judges who believe our rights are derived from God; Kerry "insists on judges who support the ACLU radical, anti-Christian, Anti-God, anti family agenda."

Needless to say, the Citizen Leader Coalition's Guide differs quite dramatically from those offered by progressive efforts such as Democracy For America ( Howard Dean's group) Punk Voter, and Regime Change Guide.com.

Theses Guides contrast the candidates on very different categories.

  • Raising the Minimum Wage: Kerry supports, Bush opposes

  • Mandatory Clean Air Emissions Standards: Kerry Supports, Bush opposes

  • Comprehensive Medicare and healthcare reform: Kerry Supports, Bush opposes

  • Restoring a respected, multilateral foreign policy: Kerry supports, Bush opposes

  • Voter Registration Overload

    In the swing states, the battle over newly-registered voters is reaching the boiling point. Various media are reporting that the number of newly signed up voters is vastly out pacing the totals from 2000. So far, about 9.75 million Floridians are registered to cast ballots in the 2004 election – about 1 million more than were eligible to vote in the contested 2000 election. A big problem in Florida is that polling places have been destroyed by one of the four hurricanes, and significant portions of the state are still without power.

    With a week left until registration deadlines, the number of newly-registered voters jumped nearly 150 percent in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) in Ohio, one of the most hard-fought states this year. In Oregon, where new registrations grew by 4 percent from January through Sept. 1, Democrats out registered Republicans two to one.

    CNN reports that "no matter what the partisan breakdown, the registration boom is real – driven by a swarm of organizations such as Smack Down Your Vote (a professional wrestling-connected campaign), Hip-Hop Team Vote, traditional groups like the League of Women Voters, party-aligned groups such as America Coming Together, made up of deep-pocketed Democrats, and many, many more.

    Rural areas, which trend conservative and Republican, aren't necessarily reporting the same growth as urban, more liberal and Democratic strongholds. "

    In many jurisdictions, administrators complain that the crush of new registrations is overloading staff. There are reports that clerks have hired extra workers in West Virginia, Ohio and Colorado, while Philadelphia borrowed employees from other city agencies.

    But no state is more contested than Ohio, where a brouhaha erupted when, citing an arcane ruling requiring voter registration cards be printed on 80-pound paper stock – the sort used for paperback covers – Ohio's Secretary of State Ken Blackwell issued a directive threatening to void registrations submitted on any other type of paper, demanding these registrants re-apply. Amid a huge public uproar Blackwell has backed off, but hasn't officially withdrawn his directive.

    The state director of ACT says: "Tens of thousands of Ohioans have registered online or with registration forms printed in newspapers, copied by friends, community activists, and even state offices. These are valid applications that must be processed immediately."

    Activists in Ohio are saying that "Blackwell is also trying to impose strict rules on provisional ballots. In 2000, nearly 23,000 provisional ballots were cast in Cuyahoga County alone (the greater Cleveland area). Due to congressional redistricting after the 2000 census and the swell of first-time voters, confusion on Election Day will run high. Provisional ballots must be made available in accordance with the federal Help America Vote Act."

    Fishy stuff is going on in Florida as well. Andrew Gumbel, reporting for the UK paper, The Independent, writes that in Orlando the head of the local firefighter's union faces a criminal investigation that alleges that the union set up an illegal slush fund for political campaigning. No evidence has been brought forward to substantiate the claims, but it would appear that the Firefighter's Union endorsement of John Kerry is cause enough.

    Another man, 73-year-old Ezzie Thomas, is under investigation in Orlando for his work to help elderly people apply for absentee ballots. Gumbel reports that "unannounced visits by armed state police to at least 52 homes whose mostly elderly residents had signed up for an absentee ballot with Mr Thomas' help" have taken place. Gumbel adds that "the Republicans have been hard put to explain what exactly the two men have done wrong."

    These are clearly desperate measures to suppress the vote in what are the two most important states in the election, but considering what's at stake, we are likely to see a lot more in the coming weeks.

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