Kerri Kuhn and her friends were sick of hearing how politically lethargic their generation is. So they painted American flags on their paddles and started a canoe trip down the entire Mississippi River, registering young people to vote all along the route.
"You often hear we are an apathetic generation, lazy and slow," says Kuhn, the 22-year-old director of Paddle for the Presidency (P4P). "You cannot tell me we are lazy after we've canoed 2,300 miles."
As a particularly contentious presidential election nears, there's one thing everyone in the divided electorate can agree on: As many Americans as possible should vote. To that end, everyone from elected officials to grassroots volunteers are focusing their efforts on getting citizens registered.
Of all elections, presidential races draw the most voters and the biggest voter-registration efforts, yet in 2000 just 51.3 percent of voting-age Americans cast ballots for the president, says the Federal Election Commission. After that year's election debacle, when the race came down to a vote-by-vote hand count in Florida, the fervor to enroll as many potential voters as possible for 2004 inflated to a level rarely seen even during presidential election years. "The effort is on right now," says Louis Keller Sr., the registrar of voters in Orleans Parish.
Keller says the number of ordinary citizens who have applied to run voter-registration drives has been staggering. "They're doing it now as we speak," he says. "Offhand, we have 10,000 or more organizations and individuals that we have issued applications for voter-registration drives."
And that's just in New Orleans.
Most people are focusing on registering voters by Oct. 4, the deadline for the Nov. 2 election, which will elect a president and in Louisiana also includes races for three U.S. congressional seats and a U.S. Senate seat. There's also a Sept. 18 election (with an Aug. 18 deadline) to fill the Orleans Parish criminal sheriff's office, seats on the Orleans and Jefferson Parish school boards, judicial benches, and to decide if the state's constitution should ban same-sex marriages. A Dec. 4 election is planned for congressional or senatorial run-offs, with a Nov. 3 deadline.
People can sign up to vote at their parish's registrar of voters, public-assistance agencies or a state motor vehicles office. For those who don't take the initiative to register, organizations both partisan and non-partisan have launched aggressive outreach efforts to sign up non-voters.
Different organizations tend to target specific populations, depending on their areas of interest. P4P is a group of friends from various states, mostly from out West, scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on Aug. 21 as the final stop on its river-long trek. That group is focusing on the youngest members of the voting population, using concerts and youth-oriented events to attract its target audience.
"The Mississippi River runs through 10 states, seven of which are swing states," Kuhn says. "Every single vote in these states is crucial." The expedition -- which has included from 12 to 20 canoers with American flags fluttering from their crafts -- organized events at 13 stops. It's been a learning experience, Kuhn laughs. "When we had our first event up in Minneapolis, the youth who came out were already engaged [in politics]. We learned that, obviously, apathetic youth are not going to come to an event to fight youth apathy.
"So we decided to focus on being in a downtown area where people are just milling around and spread the word that way. We did that in St. Louis and had a great turnout."
At the P4P events, canoers register voters and distribute packets asking youths to sign up 10 of their friends. What they don't do, Kuhn emphasizes, is encourage them to vote a certain way. "It's really important not to tell young people who are feeling disenfranchised who to vote for," she says. "The whole point is to get them invested to make their own decisions and stand by them. Particularly young people they're sick of being told what to do."
Keller says that the most effective voter-registration organization in New Orleans has been the community-action nonprofit ACORN. Old-fashioned door-to-door registration -- by both paid staffers and a large volunteer corps -- is the key, says ACORN head organizer Stephen Bradberry.
"A lot of other organizations have been doing big, flashy events, but we've been out there in the neighborhoods where people are, signing them up door to door, at bus stops, wherever people congregate," he says. "Slow and steady wins the race."
ACORN focuses mainly on registering low- to middle-income black residents. "During the last election for state representative, we targeted District 99 [which includes the lower Ninth Ward and parts of eastern New Orleans] to get out the vote," Bradberry says. "Between the primary and runoff, we increased turnout by 17 percent. It was a focused effort. Now, I believe, we're going to be in the Carrollton-Hollygrove area a place that may not be targeted by other groups and is our constituency."
ACORN had aimed to register 15,000 people in Louisiana in 2004. By August, the group was just short of that goal and has upped its target numbers to 18,000 to 20,000, focusing mainly on New Orleans, Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. Though the nonprofit does not endorse particular candidates, it does have a motive for registering as many voters as possible.
"We're an issue-based organization; for instance, we've been fighting for the living wage for the past few years. We want to engage people in the electoral process now," Bradberry says. "As we get them engaged, we get them to move toward the next legislative session, and we'll have a number of registered voters interested in passing a living-wage bill in Louisiana."
According to the Secretary of State's office, 302,035 people in Orleans Parish were registered to vote by the end of July. There were 92,877 white voters (41,316 registered as Democrats, 29,507 as Republicans and 22,054 as other parties), 190,808 black voters (155,693 Democrats, 5,322 Republicans and 29,793 other parties) and 18,350 "other race" voters (6,563 Democrats, 2,725 Republicans and 9,062 other parties).
"It's a known fact that we have twice as many African Americans registered to vote [as white people]," Keller says, "but when it comes down to voting, the white population generally outvotes them.
"The focus is to get them out on election day," he continues. "It seems there are so many people interested in the voter-registration drives. Whether it's going to be the same on election day, we don't know."
ACORN'S EFFORTS AREN'T SOLELY FOCUSED on registering potential voters, but also on setting the record straight for people who mistakenly believe they can't vote.
Bradberry says the group has met with Attorney General Charles Foti to discuss the problem of people who think they cannot vote without photo identification. In fact, a registered voter who doesn't have an ID can simply sign an affidavit at the polls affirming his or her identity. Bradberry says most voters aren't aware of this, and neither are some commissioners who work the polls.
"The print material that's made available says you need a photo ID to vote. And it goes on to list a number of things, and the very last thing it says is you can sign an affidavit if you don't have a photo ID," Bradberry says.
"Most people don't get down that far in the list; they see the first item and think they can't vote without one. Some of the commissioners at voting sites will tell people they need to have ID. That is one way to dissuade people from voting. There have been a number of elderly residents turned away in the past because they don't have photo ID."
He says Foti has agreed to remind voting officials statewide that they can't turn anyone away from the polls on the basis of a photo ID and to make it more clear to voters that they don't need a photo ID if they are willing to sign an affidavit. ACORN is also putting together a program with Keller's office and the state Department of Corrections to register ex-convicts.
"We will put a full-court press on that," Bradberry says. "There are a large number of individuals who don't participate in the electoral process, who don't believe they can vote because they are ex-felons, or don't know about the process it takes to register." The organization is trying to launch that program by the end of August.
Another factor that can reduce numbers at the polls is a misconception about the "inactive voters list." A compilation of voters who haven't voted in at least four years, the list was published in The Times-Picyaune in July. Orleans Parish's rolls contained 44,457 names. When it came out, hundreds of people on the list called their parish's registrar of voters, or organizations such as ACORN, fretting that they were no longer eligible to vote. In fact, inactive voters simply have to contact their parish registrar to update their status.
"It's really a significant thing," Bradberry says, "because the 44,000-plus names on that (list) represent 15 percent of the Orleans Parish voting population. So that's a significant percentage of people on that list who believe they may not vote. Some of them have told us they thought they would be arrested if their names are on that list! These are people who are not even going to try. So we are going to be doing an awful lot to let people know (that) if your name is on the inactive voters list, you have not lost your right to vote."
Last Friday, as part of his office's "No Voter Left Behind" registration and education drive, Keller held a news conference to inform the public about the inactive voters list. Other registrars have been trying to clarify the situation as well.
"We have 20,000 people who have not voted once in a four-year period," says Dennis DiMarco, the Jefferson Parish registrar of voters. "In that period, we've had the gubernatorial election, elections for everyone from attorney general to Public Service Commissioners, judges; we've had a new parish president, councilmatic elections -- and within that four-year period there hasn't been something that has interested these voters enough to vote one time.
"But inevitably I will get calls from people who see their names on that list and panic and say, What does this mean?' All it means is they just have to sign a form saying they're living where they say they're living, and that reactivates them. They can still vote."
DiMarco says there's also been a strong community push in Jefferson Parish to sign others up to vote, with successful organization coming from such groups as labor unions and the Federation of Republican Women. "The Republican Women is a very active group. They have a voter-registration table set up at Lakeside [Shopping Center] and they will register anyone, Republican or Democrat," he says.
DiMarco's office is focused more on voter participation -- trying to get registered voters to the polls -- than registration, he says, pointing out that motor vehicles offices quickly and easily register customers to vote. "Ninety percent of us pass through that motor vehicles office at some time, so that's your biggest net," he says. His office is working with the Louisiana National Guard to ensure that soldiers overseas can vote via absentee ballot and is also encouraging voters to double-check the location of their polling place -- before the election.
"That will hopefully alleviate the calls we get on election day. We get flooded -- you would not believe," he says. "All of them claim I know who they are going to vote for and that I moved their polling place just so that they couldn't vote for their candidate. Democrat or Republican, they just know we selected them to disenfranchise."
KAREN GIUSTI'S VOTER-REGISTRATION PUSH STARTED OUT as an art project that evolved into a political information kiosk and public gathering place. The New York sculptor brought her art installation, White House on Wheels, to the Contemporary Arts Center for last weekend's White Linen Night art event. Her scheduled appearance included distributing voter-registration forms while dressed in a loose interpretation of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The project is a greenhouse version of the White House, rendered in clear Plexiglas except for a giant, painted dollar bill on its rear wall and decorated with potted rose bushes. The project has served as an exhibit in New York and Connecticut to promote recycling and voter information, and Giusti brought it to New Orleans last week on a flatbed trailer, hauled behind a truck fueled by "biodiesel," or vegetable oil.
During the 1996 presidential election, Giusti set up the White House greenhouse on Wall Street in New York City, where she distributed hundreds of voter-registration cards in English, Spanish and Chinese. "It was a natural kiosk for voter information," she says. "It was up for, like, six months unattended with not a scratch on it, no graffiti. People absolutely claimed it and embraced it. It was touching for me. Thousands of people went through it, and not one rose was picked."
Giusti says that she tries to stay nonpartisan while registering others to vote. "I don't make judgments, and I don't put answers in people's mouths," she says. "It's really hard, but I think it's the only respectful thing you can do. "I wasn't sure how serious to take this, but I keep hearing statistics that only about 50 percent of the people voted in the last presidential election. So it seems like it's not a wasted effort."