Photo By Dennis Myers Tiffany Stevenson, clipboard in hand, takes a break from registering voters at the Sparks municipal bus transfer point.

It was one of those alleged autumn days in the valley when the sun was shining brightly but a wintry wind made people shiver. At Paradise Plaza on Oddie Boulevard, that wind swept through the covered walkway where Sara Sacksteder, in a light purple jacket, clasped her clipboard to her chest and hunched against the cold, her white hair not shielded by a hat. She was stopping people as they went into a dollar store to ask if they were registered to vote. It was the kind of thing that takes dedication, all the more so because she doesn’t live in Nevada. What would make an elderly woman take on such a task?

Sacksteder is from Fairfax, Calif., one of many, many political workers pouring into supposed swing states across the nation. Her eyes smiled when she said she read in the New York Times that “700,000 Californians have moved to Nevada since 2000, and so I thought it was very appropriate to come across the border to ask my neighbors if they had remembered to register to vote when they [came] to Nevada.”

She was interviewed on a Saturday. How long had she been at it, how many people had she registered?

“Since Thursday. You know, I don’t keep a strict count … I’ll bet you 80, working up to a hundred. I think that’s great for Thursday, Friday, Saturday. I’ll take it. And if I’ve done it, think about how many other people are doing the same, all over the country. So there we are.”

Sacksteder on this day was working for the Obama campaign. She is also a speech therapist in real life, has participated in a 2007 MoveOn petition drive in Fresno against the Iraq war, and runs marathons.

“Some of the malls have asked us to leave after we’ve been here a couple of hours, but people have been great,” she says. “By and large people have been pouring in thanking you for being here, and it’s been fabulous to just see how many people are really interested in signing up to vote.”

Tiffany Stevenson agrees. While registering voters in Sparks, the MoveOn worker said people had treated her well, and her work was going smoothly.

There are several groups sending volunteers into Nevada and the other states, including the Young Democrats of California, MoveOn, the Obama campaign’s Drive for Change, and Progressive Future. One Los Angeles City Councilmember, Eric Garcetti, hung out his own shingle and is sponsoring trips to Nevada. And these groups don’t necessarily coordinate with each other.

“Each group kind of has their own program or own plan,” said Brad Martin, political director of Progressive Future in Denver, which is running a voter drive in 13 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Nevada in the West.

Photo By Dennis Myers Sara Sacksteder, dismayed by U.S. government treatment of prisoners, is registering voters for Obama.

Go east
Barack Obama’s campaign put out an email to its California volunteers asking them, “Will you take a short trip to Nevada to make a big difference for Barack?”

The Latinos for Obama website reads, “What could be more fun than a weekend in Vegas or Reno, mobilizing the vote on behalf of Obama?”

“[T]he reality is that California is not a contested state,” Garcetti said in a public letter. “Nevada, on the other hand, is a major battleground, and the Obama/Biden campaign needs willing volunteers to travel to help walk precincts and work with voters in that swing state.”

The California page on Obama’s site reads, “As an Obama supporter in California, you can make a huge impact by traveling to Nevada to talk with voters about why Barack Obama and Joe Biden will bring the change we need.”

Most, though not all, volunteers seem to be from California.

The heavy emphasis on registration—Nevada allows counties to deputize members of political organizations as deputy voter registrars—is giving way to more traditional walking of precincts to distribute partisan leaflets and chat with voters.

While the technique of out of staters doing missionary work in Nevada is not new (“California blues,” RN&R, Oct. 28, 2004), it’s unlikely that Nevada has ever been the target of such intense organizing.

Whether merely registering voters changes election results, though, is uncertain. In the 1972 presidential race, the McGovern campaign spent weeks in August and September registering voters and a post-election study showed that most McGovern voters were so highly motivated that they were already registered. So the McGovern drive had probably spent those weeks registering Nixon voters.

Martin says his organization has different types of voter drives, partisan (which may try to screen registrants a bit) and nonpartisan (which will indiscriminately register any takers). Whether a voter drive is partisan or nonpartisan is determined by who contracts with Martin’s group for voter drives, the type of money that is funding them and how that funding is regulated. The two types of campaigns are done by separate arms of his organization with different management and different offices.

He says even screening in partisan campaigns is pretty mild—perhaps a comment to a prospective voter—”Do you want to help elect Obama?”—to which a non-Obama voter would not be likely to respond. And even in partisan voter drives, volunteers will register anyone who asks.

Photo By Dennis Myers A poster in Reno offered jobs helping Obama.

But since they also may focus on young voters and in neighborhoods that are heavy in Democratic voters, their partisan drives can produce rich lodes for the Democrats.

“In the partisan project we did jointly with MoveOn, in that case we’re obviously advocating, but that kind of effort is allowed by law, and groups on all sides of the political spectrum do that.” Martin said.

He says his group uses care to stay inside the law—”It’s something that’s a privilege that’s allowed by law, and we take it very seriously.”

The voter drives may have been damaged somewhat by accusations of registration improprieties against an Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) group in Las Vegas. ACORNs, groups that use the organizing techniques of Chicago author and organizer Saul Alinsky, are frequently targets of such criticism.

Palin recruits (for Democrats)
The movement of volunteers into Nevada was accelerated after a speech to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., by vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The offices handling arrangements for volunteer trips to other states suddenly had more workers than they were prepared for, though they quickly adjusted and found assignments for them. The Wall Street calamity made more states competitive and soon more states were being added to the list of swing states.

Republican offices in California, too, benefited from the Palin surge. People who had never worked in politics before were now coming forward to spend weekends or weeks in other states, not so much to help McCain but to aid his running mate. In fact, for a short time after the GOP convention, Obama supporters were talking about halting the California outflow of workers in order to secure a suddenly doubtful California. It’s hard to recall now, but the Palin surge in early September for a time was thought to put safe Obama areas in jeopardy. It didn’t last—the next surveys showed Obama’s double-digit lead holding—and the swing state effort was never interrupted.

But with both parties benefitting from a rush of volunteers, Obama’s campaign is better able to use the workers. It’s not often that a Democratic presidential candidate has more money than his Republican opponent, but it’s true this year, and accounts for the way McCain is having to defend areas that normally would not even be competitive instead of expanding his efforts into new areas.

Last week the London Independent reported that Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, McCain’s state chair, was complaining, “The machine that has been put in place by the Democrats is effective. They have a lot of people holding clipboards.”

Ah, those omnipresent clipboards. For weeks all over the Truckee Meadows, people have been approached by Obama supporters holding clipboards full of voter registration forms. A shopper spending a Saturday out and around could encounter a half-dozen such workers. There are also McCain workers, but while they are just as dedicated, they are nowhere near as ubiquitous, as Republicans ruefully concede. All in all, it is a heartening display of involvement in a time when few trust politics.

Still, simple civic duty seems like less than an adequate answer for why someone like Sacksteder would participate in this political exodus to win the swing states. When she explains her reason, it is said with intensity, and the smiling eyes are smiling no more. Indeed, in some ways she seems near to crying for something lost after September 11.

“I’m here because we’ve spent 50 years trying to build an international rule of law for how we treat people, and we went against that,” she said. “I think we will pay dearly for it for a very long time.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...