By BILL KACZOR, Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Some organizations are turning to sophisticated data mining, direct mail, the Internet and other strategies to register voters typically underrepresented on the rolls, including young people and ethnic minorities. Others are simply targeting those who favor their political goals, such as conservative Christians.
The shift away from more traditional voter registration drives — like volunteers with clipboards in front of a supermarket — is driven as much by restrictive state laws as it is better technology. Several states including Florida have recently passed legislation setting tight deadlines for groups to turn in voter applications, so groups like the NAACP were looking for ways to get the applications directly into the hands of voters. And they also have to rely on voters to turn in the applications themselves.
"This is a new effort since the 2000 election," said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. "Technology has made it more cost-effective. ... When you have upwards of 40 percent of eligible populations not registered, there is a market for this kind of work."
Florida is a particularly important area for the groups, as it is the largest swing state in the presidential election. Other battleground states on the center's list include Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
The increased focus on direct mail and data mining comes as the campaigns themselves increasingly use online data to raise money and persuade voters. The campaigns of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have spent hundreds of thousands on digital strategies. And Romney's campaign began a secretive data-mining project this summer to sift through Americans' personal information — including their purchasing history and church attendance — to identify new and likely wealthy donors.
The new Florida law set a 48-hour deadline for turning in applications once they are completed and various registration and reporting requirements. Organizations or individuals could be fined $50 for every late form up to a maximum of $1,000 in a given year. A judge has since blocked that part of the law from taking effect, though Smith said that until then it did have a chilling effect on new voter registrations.
Florida is just one of 23 states that have laws restricting traditional registration drives, according to Project Vote, a Washington-based nonpartisan group that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities.
Requirements in various states run the gamut from tight deadlines like Florida's to limits on how many registration forms a group can obtain. Some require groups and volunteers to register with the state and undergo state-approved training. Several states prohibit paying individuals based on the number of applications they turn in, and Maryland requires participants to be at least 18 years old.
"We have seen a systematic coordinated attack on voting rights across the nation," said Marvin Randolph of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We've had to work harder to make sure that people have access to the ability to register and vote and we've had to be more aggressive and innovative."
As a result, the NAACP is partnering with the nonpartisan Voter Participation Center, which helped pioneer direct mail voter registration in 2004, said Randolph, vice president for campaigns at the organization's national headquarters in Baltimore.
The Washington, D.C.-based Voter Participation Center is mailing nearly 4 million registration applications targeted to minorities, unmarried women and young people in 28 states, including nearly 353,000 being sent to Florida. That's in addition to 6.6 million applications sent out in three prior mailings since September 2011.
Other organizations partnering with the center for the first time this election cycle are the National Council of La Raza and the League of Conservation Voters Education fund. A group called United in Purpose also is using data mining as it strives to register up to 5 million conservative Christians across the nation this year. Companies that do data mining for businesses to influence consumers and political campaigns and interest groups to sway voters now are tailoring their services for voter registration drives as well.