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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.

Not since Nixon has enmity toward a president provoked a sense of urgency on the left that can draw organizers from all over the country to, say, a club in Minneapolis. "There are lots of things I'd like to do," Ellison told me earnestly, "but I thought if I let this election go by, I would never forgive myself." Fitzpatrick put his plans to become a diplomat on hold because this election "is the most important one in my lifetime."

Such aggressive outreach this early in the election cycle is also a result of a peculiar type of nonprofit that has flourished under McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform.

Those reforms banned the unlimited "soft money" that donors could previously give to parties. Democrats were more reliant on soft money than the hard money (capped donations made directly to candidates) that Republicans excel at raising, so it wasn't long before a group of Democratic insiders, including former AFL-CIO political strategist Steve Rosenthal, figured out a loophole: soft money could still be given to nonparty political organizations. They founded two groups, America Coming Together (ACT), which is by far the biggest and best-known ground operation under the America Votes coalition, and the Media Fund, which advertises in swing states. These groups are called 527s, for the section of the tax code that permits them; they are legal as long as they are not explicitly affiliated with a party or candidate.

So liberal 527s advocate for "issues" and use euphemisms like "change" with a wink and a nod to mean "Kerry." As Adam Ebbin, the press director of 21st Century Democrats, which oversees YVP, explains, "We are not formally affiliated with the Democratic Party, but we are a democratic organization that supports Democrats."

Once at The Quest, Ellison and Fitzpatrick hook up with four other organizers and waste no time descending on the line of smoking, fidgety teens and twentysomethings waiting to gain admission to the D12 show. SUVs from radio stations are parked nearby, sub-woofer speakers blaring. At 101.3 KDWB's truck, three U. of M. student interns nod their ponytails to the beat and hand out drink cozies emblazoned with the station's name. One of them, 20-year-old Jenny Barter, says of the YVP organizers that she's glad "someone is taking advantage of these crowds other than radio stations."

At the end of the line, Nicole Switzer Barnum, 20, wearing a pink tank top over a black bra, moseys over to the organizers and inquires about what is going on, motivated, she says, by the fact that "we got to wait in line for a long-ass time." Presented with the YVP pitch, she responds gamely. "Sure, I'll vote. Who's running?"

"There are two guys," an organizer explains. "One is named Bush and one is Kerry." Barnum blows out a mouthful of smoke and reviews the list. "Bush. And what's that other guy you said? Jerry?"

The crowd gets significantly less receptive when the line starts moving. Kids scramble for their tickets and IDs, and the organizers begin to get a lot of brush-offs: "I never vote," a boy says emphatically; "I'm not voting. I don't feel like it," another says firmly. A blond girl done up in a goth outfit with ticket poised in a black-nailed hand icily offers,"I think at the end of the line people will be more interested in what you have to say."

"I just personally want to know who you're voting for," I hear one YVP volunteer pleading. "I don't think my parents let me vote," says an 18-year-old woman who's wearing a pink porkpie hat, a pink tube top, copious amounts of glitter, and a miniskirt with knee-high boots. If they did let her, she'd vote for Bush.

The Young Voter Project canvassers thank her and move on.

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying 527s are effectively operations of the Democratic National Committee. Senators McCain and Feingold testified angrily at an FEC hearing against the 527s, but the commission voted to delay a decision for 90 days, and any ruling they make will not affect this election. That prompted the Republicans—who have been funneling soft money to less transparent 501(c) nonprofits, which often produce "issue ads"—to belatedly jump on the 527 bandwagon by activating their own, like the Progress for America Voter Fund.

This legal skirmish correlates with a larger tactical shift. With the unions behind them, Democrats historically have been better at getting out the vote. But the success of Karl Rove's "72-hour plan" of precinct-by-precinct organizing in the 2002 congressional elections has thrown the two parties into something of a grassroots arms race.

The Bush-Cheney campaign has reached out to at least 1,600 "friendly congregations," and it is encouraging volunteers to set up their own "precincts" of friends and family across the country, to which they then email registration and absentee voting information. "That's how they do ground organizing and reach into places parties and candidates can't get into," explains Robert Richman, the ACT director in Minnesota.

By law, 527s are prohibited from coordinating with the national parties. Nor can 527s simply give their databases to the DNC or RNC, though they can sell their lists, or trade them for something of equal value—such as other lists.

So for the time being, 527s are more or less writing their own playbooks. "The thing about all those 527s is they are kind of mysterious," says Steve Schier, a political science professor at Minnesota's Carleton College. "They're obviously having an effect on the election, but can't be held accountable the way a party could be. There's no way to cast a public verdict about these groups, and it makes politics more complicated and hard to figure out."

While the effectiveness and long-term legality of working on behalf of candidates without coordinating directly with campaigns is a great unknown, for Democrats the 527s' non-campaign status dovetails nicely with the emotional energy driving many liberals, which is less inspired by Kerry than by a desire to bring down Bush.

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