"The way the forms are coming in, it seems like everybody's registering two or three times," says Allegheny County elections Director Mark Wolosik.
Being a county paper-pusher isn't usually the most adrenaline-filled job around. But these days, employees at the county's Department of Elections are busier than ever. Piles and piles of voter-registration forms -- sometimes as many as 2,500 arrive daily, Wolosik says -- represent a mind-numbing amount of data that's still in the rawest of forms.
This year, a small army of voter-registration volunteers -- as well as paid canvassers and organizers -- are getting citizens to fill out forms as fast as officials can print them. Even with so many forms yet unprocessed, Wolosik says, his office has already logged 17,000 new registrations this year, raising Allegheny County's count of registered voters from 860,561 to 877,386 as of August's end -- certainly more than in 2000, he reports.
Says one department worker: "At least all the forms are in neat piles now."
Every voter-registration volunteer can cite newly eager voters who've filled out voter-registration forms -- sometimes over and over again -- and still haven't gotten their voter ID cards in the mail. The state-printed forms promise a response in two weeks, but "with the volume coming in, we're not that current," says Wolosik. Try four weeks -- maybe longer.
With visions of Florida in their heads, would-be voters who get no response to their forms sometimes fill out another one just in case, only adding to the bottleneck Downtown. Again receiving nothing -- and approached by, say, a paid canvasser -- they may also figure one more form can't hurt.
Some of this year's hopeful registrants are already in county computers. "If there's no change [to their information], we don't register them again," Wolosik says, "so we don't send a card. So they also think, 'I better fill another one in.'"
It isn't just political novices who are adding to the glut. There are also address, name and party-affiliation changes. Some people think they need to register for every election. And sometimes the do-gooders themselves cause delays by holding onto forms, collecting information for a later get-out-the-vote effort.
"We're just now getting some forms from May or June," Wolosik says, assuring that everybody who registers by the Oct. 4 deadline will be able to vote, even if their paperwork is processed later that month.
For now, it's virtually impossible for clerks to tell a voter whether their registration has been received if it hasn't yet been put into the database. It doesn't help that the elections office is down three employees, thanks to an early-retirement offer Allegheny County made to balance its budget earlier this summer. Those employees have been replaced by temps.
Despite the duplication of effort, Wolosik advises nervous registrants simply to try again if they've heard nothing from his office for a month.
"We'll get it done," he says wearily. "We have to."
Armed with clipboards, ready for grueling civic action, voter-registration pushers are everywhere: on the bus, on the street, at your friend's band's show, even at the unemployment office.
Matt Preston, a Carnegie Mellon University grad student in chemical engineering, heads up Pittsburgh Voter Initiative and Education. PGH VIE is targeting college students and other young voters who have notoriously pathetic voter-turnout rates. Rather than conventional registration drives that go door-to-door or set up card-tables, they're going where their friends go: to a show at the 31st Street Pub or the Shadow Lounge.
"I don't know how to get a 55-year-old to vote," Preston says, "but I know how to get my friends to vote. I just have to ask them -- they won't ignore me." This peer-to-peer strategy will carry over to get-out-the-vote efforts, Preston says. It's easy to follow up with your friends and acquaintances -- especially if they're all on your dorm floor.
Preston feared they were nearing the registration saturation point -- though they were still managing to register about 10 percent of the attendees at most events -- until college students started returning in August.
As Preston explains PGH VIE's strategy at the Craig Street Kiva Han in Oakland, along comes Ruth Maguire -- another voter-registration volunteer.
Maguire's a retiree from Berkeley, Calif., in Pittsburgh to work with America Coming Together, a nationwide coalition of left-leaning groups aiming to unite sometimes-fractious Democratic constituencies. Because California's electoral votes are almost certain to go to Kerry, Maguire moved her efforts to this swing state.
Southwestern Pennsylvania is some of the nation's most disputed turf, evidenced by the candidates' own campaign armadas that pass each other in the night, and in the volunteers streaming in from more secured territories. They include Yes Duffy, former star of MTV's Road Rules in town from Berkeley last week with Driving Votes, a sort of Ken Kesey school bus gone mainstream for the Democratic Party. And anyone who's been Downtown has probably seen more of the ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) registration workers than any others.
ACORN organizer Maryellen Hayden says the group is continuing to hire canvassers, hoping to put 70-100 people in the streets. She says ACORN activists have registered 100,000 people in Pennsylvania, with 24,700 in Allegheny County. As paid canvassers who're targeting low- and moderate-income voters, the ACORN crew have evangelized for voting with a fervor that office workers had previously seen only in street-corner preachers and cell-phone vendors.
"If you don't want to change the world," Hayden tells her workers, "this isn't for you."
ACORN also wants to build a voting bloc that politicians will respect. "Regardless of who wins, the voices of low- and moderate-income people will be heard in this election," Hayden promises. "Politicians won't say, 'Beltzhoover, why should I go there? They don't vote.'"
Just Harvest, the longtime local hunger and poverty education and advocacy group, is also working on a voter-registration drive aimed at low-income voters. The group is also networking with other nonprofits to register their clients. Just Harvest has gone as well to drug- and alcohol-treatment centers, to welfare offices and to agencies serving the mentally ill and disabled.
Though both Just Harvest and ACORN are nonpartisan -- unlike frankly Democrat-supporting groups like ACT and Driving Votes -- it's no secret that their constituencies mostly want Bush out.
And the Republicans? There are fewer of them here to begin with: Democrats hold a 2-to-1 registration advantage in the county. With their base mostly in the North Hills and South Hills suburbs, you're not likely to see Republicans sweating up and down the city streets.
However, says county Republican Committee Director Mike O'Connell, the party plans a big voter-registration drive for "the weekend of September 11."
Indeed, says Pittsburgh-based political consultant and Clinton War Room veteran Dianna Wentz, "There's no truly altruistic group out there that registers voters just for the sake of enlarging the electorate. Nobody would spend all this money and time if they didn't want to influence the election."
Registration is an absolute prerequisite to voting. But when it comes to actually affecting the election, registration is less than half the battle, says Wentz. "More often than not, new registrants won't vote." Her rule of thumb: Every new voter needs four to six follow-ups.
Because Gore won Pennsylvania in 2000 by 200,000 votes, Wentz says, the Democrats' campaign strategy can focus on turning out those same voters again and growing the base slightly. The Republicans, by contrast, need to find brand-new supporters.
This year's campaign is a tough scramble for very few uncommitted votes. "Most internal [campaign] polling shows only 4 to 7 percent of likely voters undecided," Wentz says. Also, she adds, 80-90 percent of the people who support Bush or Kerry "strongly" support their candidate and can't be persuaded otherwise, which makes the undecided pool even more important.
But, Wentz says, you'll notice polls count only "likely voters" and "registered voters." Campaigns "don't waste money [polling] people who don't vote. If voters equal buyers, you go after buyers. I've not actually seen polls among citizens."
That's why, says PGH VIE's Matt Preston, "If we do our jobs right, the polls are going to be completely wrong."
Behind the Curtain
When do I vote?
Nov. 2, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Where do I vote?
Your official polling place is listed on your voter ID card. If you don't know your polling place, call the county Elections Department at 412-350-4500.
Who needs to register?
You need to register if you've never voted, or if you've moved since you last voted. If you haven't voted since the last presidential election, you should check to make sure your registration is still on file, since inactive registrations are periodically cleared.
How do I register?
Get your registration form filled out by Oct. 4. Forms are available from a voter registration worker, public libraries, post-office branches and the Downtown County Elections Department in the City-County Building, 542 Forbes Avenue.
How does the motor-voter law affect me?
If you've changed your address with the Department of Motor Vehicles, they'll send the change to the Department of Elections for your registration. However, if you weren't registered in the first place, that won't help you. You can register to vote for the first time with the DMV if you go in for a picture ID.
Can I vote if I'm a college student from out of town?
You can register to vote here or at home. You might think about where your vote will "count" more: Is home in a swing state like Pennsylvania? Which state has more electoral votes at stake?
Can I vote if I'm an ex-con?
Yes. In Pennsylvania, only incarcerated convicted felons are not allowed to vote. If your crime was less than a felony, you can vote -- even if you're incarcerated. Convicted felons can vote once out of prison, even on parole.
What do I need to bring to the polls on Election Day?
If it's the first time you're voting in that precinct, you need to show ID: Any government ID (driver's license, passport, military ID); student ID; employer-issued ID; voter-registration card; a current utility bill or bank statement; or a current government-issued check or paycheck will do -- as long as they show your registered address.
What if I'm not allowed to vote on Election Day?
If you believe you're registered and eligible, ask the poll worker for a provisional ballot that you can fill out right there. Afterwards, election officials will count the votes of those judged eligible.
What about absentee ballots?
Apply for one by Oct. 26. Completed ballots must be hand-delivered or postmarked by 5 p.m. on Oct. 29.
I want to hear ancient tales of Allegheny County politics!
Lucky for you, the county may need poll workers in your area. Call 412-350-4517.