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The voter push

| Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

People in Downtown and Oakland couldn't miss them if they tried: Workers urging people to register to vote.

Local groups having been sending gaggles of volunteers and workers through city neighborhoods this summer, so much so that the Allegheny County Elections Division is swamped. The push to register college students is especially intense as polls show a close race between Sen. John Kerry and President Bush.

"I've never seen it like this before," said Diane McConnell, supervisor of voter registration. She's worked in the office for the past 37 years. "This is the busiest we've ever been."

There were 8,068 new voter registrations in Allegheny County -- 5,893 Democrats and 2,175 Republicans -- from June 1 through August 13. In the last presidential election year, 47,113 people registered to vote.

One volunteer persuaded Zach Landis Lewis, 27, of Morningside, a recent University of Pittsburgh graduate. He said he registered to vote in Pennsylvania after he was approached in an Oakland coffee shop.

"I had been meaning to register anyway, so it was a perfect opportunity," he said.

Expect groups to push even harder in the next two months to urge people -- especially college students -- to get out and vote:

  • The bipartisan Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now has registered almost 24,000 new voters in Allegheny County since December, said Johanna Sharrard, political organizer for ACORN in the county. The group plans to surpass its goal of registering 24,800 new voters, particularly from lower- and middle-income backgrounds, before the deadline to register, Oct. 4.

  • Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan group, has workers in more than two dozen cities including Pittsburgh to get young people to vote.

  • Local Democratic and Republican organizations are working to register new voters often through surrogates such as America Coming Together, a grassroots organization working to elect Democratic candidates, and College Republicans chapters.

    "We're working hard at registering voters, and in particular for college students making sure they get absentee ballots," said Michael O'Connell, executive director of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.

    The efforts may not pay off at the polls. The number of young people voting has declined since 1972. A survey found less than 20 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 voted in the 1998 General Election, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.

    O'Connell said registering new voters is especially important this year because polls report that there are few undecided voters nationwide.

    Khristyn Brimmeier, communications director for Western Pennsylvania for Kerry-Edwards, said a lot of campaign volunteers who are "walking in off the street" this year are young people.

    "I think young people are really motivated this year like they haven't been before," Brimmeier said.

    Laura Handy, 20, of Greensburg, a Carlow College student, was motivated after she met a volunteer from ACORN.

    "I saw somebody asking people to vote and asked how I can do it," she said. Handy plans to register new voters on Saturdays this fall.

    Adam Fleming, 20, of Long Island, a Pitt student, said he frequently saw volunteers trying to register new voters in Oakland this summer. He was already registered and plans to vote on Nov. 2.

    "I think more people will vote this year, actually," Fleming said. "People seem more charged up about it."

    Additional Information:

    Star voting

    Celebrities this election cycle are trying to change the image of voting -- it's not just for old people.

    P. Diddy

    The blinged-out rapper last month started Citizen Change, a nonpartisan group to encourage young people and minorities to vote

    Madonna

    Pitched for Rock the Vote in public service announcements

    Lenny Kravitz

    Caught flak last year for singing a song that promoted voting and he hadn't voted in more than a decade. Now he says he votes in every election.

    Russell Simmons

    Rapper founded Hip Hop Action Summitt Network, which invites hip hop stars to cities to register voters

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