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Drive to register voters gears up

The Baltimore Sun

SALISBURY - The eagerness echoed with each door knock. At the first stop on Church Street, no one answered the door, and the man in the backyard said he didn't speak English. So Chuck Cook, hungry for a score, gave brief chase after a car stopped at a traffic light.

Nearby, at the home of Tina Moore, the woman who answered the door didn't mince words: Moore had passed away.

"Well," said Cook, a Wicomico County Democratic Club worker, after a pause. "Are you registered to vote, ma'am?"

The persistence of Cook and scores of other volunteers from both parties has been on display as they try to enroll as many new voters as possible before next week's Maryland registration deadline. A wide net is bound to come up empty on some casts. But Democratic operatives in particular say they've found overwhelming success in building up their rolls.

With three days remaining before Maryland's registration deadline, Democrats have added nearly 160,000 potential voters since the beginning of the year, more than five times as many as Republicans. The surge stems from an intense desire by left-leaning partisans for a change in White House control after eight years of George Bush and from excitement over Barack Obama's candidacy.

State Democratic officials say they could have more than 170,000 newly registered for Election Day, a nearly 10 percent increase for the party. As of this week, the State Board of Elections reported 1,882,553 registered Democrats and 916,307 Republicans (an additional 470,995 residents are listed as unaffiliated).

"It isn't just about winning the state," said Michael E. Cryor, Maryland Democratic Party chairman. "It's not like match play in golf. You want to win by as many strokes as you can."

While the added numbers might have minimal impact on the presidential race in Maryland, the gains are similar to those reported in many states across the country.

In addition to building their bases in Pennsylvania and Virginia, Democrats have outpaced Republicans in voter registration in other battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, often by margins of 2-to-1 or more.

While the registration deadlines in Virginia and Pennsylvania passed earlier this week, those eligible in Maryland have until Tuesday.

Republican officials in as many as eight states have complained about registration tactics employed by Democratic operatives - particularly the nonprofit Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - but in Maryland, where the registration figures are especially lopsided, there have been no such claims of registration fraud.

Chris Cavey, chairman of Maryland for McCain, said state Republicans have been focusing their efforts on follow-up calls and making sure their newly registered voters actually go to the polls.

"We maybe haven't pushed voter registration as hard as the Democrats have apparently pushed it," Cavey said, "but I do think we've done a good job with our outreach. ... Every time you touch somebody personally, they become more involved. They suddenly feel some ownership in the party."

That's why Cook and Diana Lloyd and a dozen other volunteers have been going door to door, handing out registration applications. In Wicomico and the surrounding areas, estimates suggest there are 5,000 to 15,000 eligible voters not registered. Volunteers such as Lloyd have been canvassing chicken festivals, clam bakes and seafood festivals, trying to enroll as many as possible - preferably as Democrats.

Since August, they've registered 750 new Democrats in the county. Volunteers in Maryland are paying particular attention to potential African-American and other minority voters here in the Eastern Shore and in urban areas such as Baltimore and Prince George's County.

On a recent weekday evening, a half-dozen volunteers divided into three groups and began strolling through neighborhoods, clipboards in hand listing the names and addresses of unregistered residents. The congressional campaign of Frank Kratovil, the Democratic nominee in the district that includes the Eastern Shore, provided a list of 8,300 names to target, which meant a lot of walking.

"Anything I can do to change the administration," said Lloyd, a retired nurse volunteering for the first time. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis but, wearing a pair of blue Crocs, she persevered.

As she and Cook, a party worker in Salisbury, made their way down Church Street, they encountered non-English speakers, those who couldn't vote because of a criminal record and others who simply weren't interested. Potential Democrats - and luck - were eluding them. Walking away from one two-story home where the owners declined forms, Lloyd remarked, "That's such a nice house. They ought to vote so they can hang on to it."

At least those owners were polite about it.

"Wait a couple of weeks when we start doing advocacy door-knocks," said Cook. " 'Hi, let me tell you about Frank Kratovil.' That's when you get doors slammed in your face."

While Maryland's 10 electoral votes are reliably Democratic, voter registration is particularly important on the Eastern Shore, where Kratovil and Republican Andy Harris are battling for the 1st District congressional seat.

For Democrats in Wicomico, registration efforts largely target neighborhoods of transients and young people.

Across the state, 18- and 19-year-olds represent 27.5 percent of registrations. State elections officials say that not only are young Marylanders registering in higher numbers, but there's some evidence they will show up at the polls in larger numbers.

The state doesn't typically track votes by age, but in the presidential primary, the turnout for 17-year-old voters was 57.7 percent, compared with an overall turnout of 40 percent.

Questions remain about the impact of new registrants. "You add 83,000 people under 25, that's a big number," said John Willis, a University of Baltimore political scientist and former secretary of state under Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "But that's, what, less than 3 percent?"

Again, the trend could have a bigger impact outside of Maryland. In many states, young voters showed up in record numbers in the primaries and were leaning decisively toward Obama. During the Iowa caucuses, young voter participation increased 135 percent over 2004, and younger voters preferred Obama 4-to-1. In South Carolina, Obama drew more under-30 votes than all Republican candidates combined.

Historically, young voters are often the first to recognize that government isn't working properly, and "they tend to be on the front end of change," said Willis.

Whether they show up in November, however, is another matter.

In Salisbury, Lloyd and Cook weren't finding much success registering young or old. Finally, at one house, though the occupants said they were already registered, the Democratic door-knockers lucked out: Someone stepped onto the porch to visit a neighbor.

Within a couple of minutes, 26-year-old Jermaine Heath, dressed in baggy jeans, a White Sox cap and a long black T-shirt, was filling out the registration form. He paused and carefully contemplated his new political party, before becoming a Republican.

Lloyd and Cook made 25 attempts on Church Street in 90 minutes. The Democratic volunteers returned to the party office with just one form filled out - from a young Republican. "It's OK," Cook said, "as long as we're getting people involved in the process."

The other volunteers started returning, too, and had fared better, registering nearly a dozen people in all.

"Is there a prize for getting the most?" asked one volunteer.

"Yeah," Cook said. "You get to vote on Nov. 4 right alongside everyone else."

time running out

Tuesday is the deadline for registering to vote in the Nov. 4 presidential election in Maryland. Since the beginning of the year, Democrats have added 159,466 to their rolls, and Republicans have added 30,696. There are 1,882,553 registered Democrats in Maryland; 916,307 Republicans and 470,995 unaffiliated voters.

Source: Maryland State Board of Elections

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