Philly voter signups spell trouble for GOP

PHILADELPHIA — All summer long, hundreds of volunteers have been beating the bushes here, looking for unregistered voters to sign up to vote on Nov. 2 in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. The results have been extraordinary: by the Oct. 4 deadline, it’s likely 200,000 to 225,000 new voters will have signed up in City of Brotherly Love. That is the highest spike in two decades.

“We’re swamped,” said Bob Lee, who oversees voter registration in Philadelphia. “It seems like everybody, and their little group, is out there trying to register people.”

The drive means that about 1 million voters will be registered to vote here on Election Day, the highest number in the city’s history. Considering that Philadelphia has lost 500,000 residents over the last 50 years, the new level of voter registration has been hailed as a breakthrough in the democratic process.

Most of the voter registration effort is led by grassroots, nonpartisan groups and coalitions. However, because Philadelphia is a predominantly Democratic city, the gains can only spell trouble for President Bush’s re-election campaign. Of the city’s 1 million voters, about 800,000 are Democrats and 200,000 are Republicans.

The Republican Party’s electoral support in Pennsylvania is concentrated in rural and suburban areas.

One of the groups doing voter registration is Citizens for Consumer Justice, a member of USAction, a coalition working in 17 states on voter registration. This group alone has registered 20,000 people in Pennsylvania — 8,000 in Philadelphia, 4,000 in Montgomery County and 4,000 in the Lehigh Valley.

Mychal Simonian, a volunteer with the group, said that registration workers focus on low-turnout areas and underserved working-class neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live. He approaches people sitting on their steps, standing on the corner or at the bus stop.

“People tell me about the problems in the community and I try to give them useful information on whom to contact about it,” said Simonian. “Then I encourage them to register to vote and tell them where their polling place is. It’s empowering,” he said. He will return to these blocks to get out the vote on Nov. 2.

Another group is Women Vote Pennsylvania, directed by Barbara Titullio of the Women’s Law Project. Pennsylvania is one of four states where the percentage of registered women voters is lower than the percentage of men. The group formed in December 2003 to educate women to do outreach to unregistered women. The long-range plan is to get women to talk to each other and discuss the issues that affect them and then come up with a progressive agenda.

Diane Mohney, a Coalition of Labor Union Women member and a Women Vote Pennsylvania volunteer, said that many of the women are poor, move frequently and need information.

The city’s Central Labor Council is also active in voter registration. Erin Young is the political action director and Diane Tobakian, a member of the Service Employees union, organizes the “labor walks.” Union members go out four evenings a week and on Saturdays, in teams of four, visit union households in a particular neighborhood. They make sure everyone in the household is registered, ask what issues concern them most and urge them to vote for the Kerry/Edwards team. The top concerns have been health care, jobs and the war.

The Philadelphia Area Black Radical Congress (PABRC) was on the street this summer registering people to vote and members were at several schools registering parents on the first day of school and again at the Back to School Nights in September. Debbie Bell, a retired teacher and PABRC member, has been part of a project to register high school students who will be 18 by Nov. 2. PABRC has worked with the Philadelphia School District Voter Registration Coalition and will sponsor a Voter Empowerment forum Oct. 23 focused on protecting the vote.

The Unitarian Society of Germantown held a weekend voter registration training camp Sept. 17-19. Unitarians from Washington, D.C., and Maryland joined those in Philadelphia. Despite a rainy Saturday, the group registered 275 people citywide.

The author can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net.