It’s harvest time in Iowa. On a warm, overcast afternoon in the final week before Iowans go to vote on Election Day, Nicole McLuen is out in the fields gathering in the crop.
The field is Precinct 49, a middle-class neighborhood on the north side of Des Moines. The crop isn’t soybeans or corn, but absentee ballots, which McLuen is collecting for America Coming Together, an anti-Bush group that is trying to drive up turnout by sporadic voters.
America Coming Together (ACT) is bankrolled by billionaire currency trader George Soros, Peter Lewis, the chairman of the insurance giant Progressive Corp., Colorado gay activist Tim Gill, and other donors who have chipped in more than $60 million to defeat George Bush.
Soros also appealed to Iowans in a full-page ad in Friday morning's Des Moinres Register denouncing Bush.
Jeff Link, Iowa state director for ACT and his 70 paid staffers and 700 volunteers are trying to expand the universe of Democratic voters by focusing on those who don’t bother to vote in every election.
“We’re narrowing our list to around 100,000 that we really want to talk to on Election Day,” Link said. ACT staffers and volunteers will be canvassing across the state this weekend and on Election Day.
A battled-tested veteran, Link ran Sen. Tom Harkin’s re-election campaigns in 1996 and 2002 and presidential candidate Al Gore’s Iowa campaign in 2000.
ACT field worker McLuen, a certified ballot courier, goes right to voters’ front doors and picks up their absentee ballots so that she can deliver them to the Polk County auditor.
Iowa law permits couriers to pick up and deliver absentee ballots — even though the absentee ballots this year have been supplied with postage-paid envelopes and can simply be dropped in a mailbox.
In recent elections, the Democrats in Iowa have invested extraordinary effort in getting absentee ballots to voters and then collecting them.
In 2000, Bush won Iowa by 7,000 votes if one counted only the ballots cast on Election Day. But once the absentees were tallied, Gore won the state by 4,144, or three-tenths of one percent.
“That’s when the light bulb went on and we said ‘we better get good at this absentee stuff because it might be our only salvation,’” said Link.
For McLuen, who graduated from Drake University in Des Moines last June and ran a dog-walking service before signing up with ACT in August, playing the role of door-to-door solicitor can often be tedious work.
In her afternoon’s toil in the 49th precinct, she encountered several residents who said their son or daughter had already mailed the absentee ballot delivered to them. In some cases, the homeowner told McLuen the person she wanted had moved.
Overcoming 'canvass fatigue'
What keeps her going? “When I have canvass fatigue, I just think that if I go one more house, that vote could actually make a huge difference in the election.”
At this point in the week before Election Day, McLuen is concentrating her efforts on those voters who, at ACT’s urging, requested an absentee ballot, but may not yet have filled it out and mailed it in.
Another motivator for McLuen is that “the people who I’m working with are fantastic, people from Washington and California and New York, from all over, they’ve come to Iowa and energized the political scene here and that’s been a great thing.”
Some in Iowa think ACT field workers have sometimes been too persistent in exhorting voters.
Madison County auditor Joan Welch, a Democrat, said Thursday that her office had gotten some complaints weeks ago about ACT workers pressing voters too hard to sign requests for absentee ballots. “They’re pushing them. Some of those are voters who haven’t yet made up their minds and who do not feel comfortable giving the ballot to someone they don’t know,” Welch said.
One older Madison County woman called Welch’s office and, as Welch recounts the story, the ACT workers pressured her into signing an absentee ballot request form. “They were so insistent; she could not get rid of them,” Welch said.
Welch and her staff have seen ACT workers in the county. “They’re here, but they’re not from here,” she said, referring to some ACT workers being from outside Iowa.
“They are very energetic, a little too energetic,” she said, adding, “I’m not trying to put them down.” Welch said part of the problem is that Iowa natives are very polite and “it’s not easy for them to simply shut the door, it’s not normal for Iowans.”
“We are not encouraging our staff people to press that hard,” responded Iowa ACT spokesman Bo Berntsen. “The stories we’ve heard indicate that there may be ACT impostors out there.”
Berntsen said one of the complaints the Scott County auditor received had to do with an incident that took place on Oct. 23, when all Iowa ACT field workers were in staff training and not out in the field.
As for the story of an ACT worker who supposedly told a homeowner in Madison County, “We’re not leaving until you fill out the ballot,” Berntsen said, “That does not sound like us. And no one has produced a real voter in Madison County to verify this story.”
ACT isn’t concentrating only on Democratic-leaning precinct or counties.
“If you are least likely to show up on Election Day and you registered as a Democrat, it doesn’t matter to me that you live in a Democratic precinct or a Republican precinct, because I think your likelihood of voting for progressive candidates up and down the ticket is more determined by your voter registration than by the precinct in which you live,” Link explained.
Of course, Iowa Republicans are trying to counter the work that ACT and the Democrats are doing. More than 21,000 Republican volunteers in Iowa are working to motivate Bush voters, by phone calls and door-to-door visits.
Republican field effort
On Election Night, Republicans will deploy two precinct captains in almost all of the states’ 2,100 precincts, to check off voters’ names and summon the ones who haven’t yet shown up to vote.
“The information on who has and hasn’t voted will be gathered every two or three hours in some of our larger precincts, either crossing off names on the Palm Pilot or scanning them, then you push the button and it goes to our computer center and it will print out the phone calls that need to be made,” said Dave Roederer, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Iowa.
According to Secretary of State Chet Culver, 2,106,658 Iowans had registered to vote by the Oct. 23 deadline, six percent more than the number registered in the 2000 election.
Of that 2.1 million, 644,846 are Republicans, 640,040 are Democrats and 904,028 are independents.
Democratic leaders insist that the trends are running their favor.
Iowa’s Gov. Tom Vilsack said Wednesday night after a John Kerry rally in Cedar Rapids, “Democrats have now basically drawn even with Republicans (in voter registration). That was not the case in 2000.”
But Roederer questions the significance of the reported increase in Democratic registration. “Whichever party has the contest in the (January presidential) caucuses gets a big boost in voter registration.”
This year the only contest was on the Democratic side, with Kerry battling Howard Dean, John Edwards and others. “I know people who are voting for President Bush who registered as Democrats to go to the Democratic caucus because there was a contest there. They may or may not have ever switched back,” Roederer said.
Vilsack said Wednesday night that Democrats have a 60/40 edge in the early votes that are being cast. “We know exactly who has voted; we know from our canvass who they were supporting, so we’re pretty confident in our numbers,” the governor told MSNBC.com.
Roederer said, “his 60/40 may be right, but it’s like you’ve got two halves of the ball: You can vote your people early or you can vote them late. We historically beat them every year on the (Election Day) turnout.”
He added, “This is a state that Kerry’s pretty much got to win. The Democrats had it solidly in their camp.”
But now all polling indicates Iowa is a coin toss, which is why the vote canvassers and precinct captains will be working so hard, and why Kerry will campaign in Iowa on Saturday and Bush on Monday.