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ACT, PDAs and new voters 

In the presidential election, the "red states"--the ones considered sure wins for President Bush--equal 190 electoral votes. The "blue states"--sure for John Kerry--equal 168 votes. So the contest is in the 17 "battleground states" that will decide which candidate gets to the winning total of 270 or more.

(North Carolina? It's a "red" state.)

"What can I do?" someone obviously not from one of the battleground states, asked plaintively at the recent Take Back America conference in Washington.

"Move to one of the states that is, and work full-time there through the election," said Karen Nussbaum, an AFL-CIO organizer.

She wasn't kidding. Failing a full-time move to, say, Ohio, Nussbaum added, think about spending a week or two in one of the swing states, where unprecedented efforts are underway to boost voter turnout--efforts that are run by paid organizers but need a steady flow of volunteers to hit their goals.

Here's the point, according to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. The swing states, like the race nationally, are neck-and-neck. Moreover, most of the "likely voters" are already locked in on Bush or Kerry; and only about 5 percent are truly on the fence. With so few swing voters to persuade, therefore, the two sides are waging battle to see which one can add more voters to its base in the swing states.

Not every new voter, of course, is going to be a Democratic voter. But almost every new black voter is, and Hispanics traditionally support Democrats by about 2-to-1. Other groups that will skew strongly in favor of Kerry if they go to the polls: unmarried working women and Gen Y, the youngest voting cohort. (Gen X'ers, though, liked Reagan and tend to vote Republican, Lake says.)

The biggest progressive turnout campaign is called America Coming Together. It equips volunteers with PDAs--hand-held computers--so that as they knock on doors in an inner-city neighborhood, for example, they can record into separate files whether the person they've met is registered, what issues she cares about, the names of her children, her phone number, and anything else that will help with subsequent follow-ups.

Later, when that same volunteer or another one returns a second time, and a third, he'll know what to talk about, even be able to show a mini-video addressed to the issue the person's named. By dint of such "multiple contacts" and personalized attention, ACT means to break through with folks who've never seen why politics or voting mattered in their own lives.

ACT, created by the AFL-CIO with the help of billionaire George Soros, is more than halfway to its fund-raising goal of $100 million, enough to support 200,000 volunteers and make 10 million voter contacts.

But ACT is not the only act out there. Voter-turnout drives are springing up everywhere, so much so that 32 progressive groups, from the Sierra Club to the Million Mom March to ACT itself, are backing a coordinating group called America Votes, whose job it is to help get volunteers plugged in where they're needed and avoid wasteful overlaps.

"I've been an organizer all my life," says Cecile Richards, lately the deputy chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi but currently serving as America Votes' president, "and I've never seen anything like what people are doing this year."

As much money and organizing as is going on, Richards says, "we can't build the field organizations fast enough to harness all the people who want to get involved."

But they're trying. EndBlock

Want to help in a battleground state? Try www.actforvictory.org (America Coming Together) or the America Votes Web site, www.AmericaVotes.org . These groups will also take your money, which is not tax-deductible, by the way.

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