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The New Ward Heelers

An army of volunteers is sweeping swing states to find voters for John Kerry. Just don't call it a campaign.

Tom Fitzpatrick, 22, and Amalia Ellison, 24, are driving to The Quest, a Minneapolis club where D12, a band best known for collaborating with Eminem, is playing. Ellison is wearing a skull-and-crossbones black T-shirt and tiny barbells through the cartilage of each ear. She is sturdy and curvy with a pert upturned nose and shiny brown pigtails. Fitzpatrick is wearing khakis and a T-shirt. His hair is gelled into little spikes.

"You want to go?" he asks Ellison as they turn onto the freeway.

"Yeah," she says. She shifts in her seat and takes on a slightly awkward formality: "Hi, how are you today? My name is Amalia. I am with America Votes. We are trying to get young people to pledge to vote in the next election." She pauses. "Is that okay to say?"

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"Yeah, it's okay," Fitzpatrick replies. "Want to do it again?"

"Hi, I am Amalia," Ellison says brightly.

"I'm on my way out right now," Fitzpatrick role-plays. "I'm going to catch dinner."

"Are you willing to sign a pledge to vote in the next election?"

"Well, I'm just gonna give you my email. You're not going to call me a lot or anything, right?"

"Only like 20 times!" Ellison giggles jubilantly, briefly breaking character. "Are you interested in volunteering?"

"No, I'm really busy," Fitzpatrick says.

After Ellison accepts this response, Fitzpatrick scolds her to "push harder!"

For the last week, Ellison and Fitzpatrick have been working in Minnesota for the Young Voter Project, a subset of one of the 32 progressive voter-outreach efforts that are operating under the America Votes coalition. It is late June, and the Young Voter Project (YVP) is still experimenting with the best way to acquire the names, addresses, instant message names, email addresses, and voting proclivities of 18- to 34-year-olds, one of a few demographics that for Democrats hold the elusive appeal of a rarely sighted bird.

The information they gather will be used to identify which young people are undecided or leaning toward Kerry, and what issues they care about. As the election draws near, YVP organizers will engage them on these issues—face-to-face, by email, and on the phone—register them, and make sure they turn out to the polls. YVP estimates that a 3 percent increase in the turnout of young Minnesotans is part of the equation Kerry needs to win the state.

Toward that end, organizers like Ellison and Fitzpatrick are stalking bars and restaurants and combing city listings for events that might yield flocks of young people. The approach is still being refined; the day before, the script they work from, which is vetted by lawyers and tested on trial audiences, was slightly altered. Ellison still needed to practice the new pitch.

Past elections wouldn't have found newly minted graduates like Ellison (University of Minnesota) and Fitzpatrick (College of William and Mary) pounding the pavement in Minnesota five months before November 2. For one thing, Minnesota had not previously been a swing state; its progressive votes could be counted on to deliver the state to the Democrats. No longer. The booming exurbs have been trending conservative. That, and the Nader factor, meant that Al Gore only narrowly won Minnesota in 2000.

With the bulk of likely voters deeply polarized, and most states safely red or blue, Minnesota is now one of 17-odd battleground states seen by each party as the key to victory. It's not just deep-think strategists who look on swing states with great anxiety—2000 reminded us all that the Electoral College, not the popular vote, wins the day, and that the choice of the next president can come down to a few hundred votes in Florida, New Mexico, or maybe Minnesota.

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