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Registration effort drives new types of voters to Toledo-area polls

Paul Mason, 41, never had voted before, but he did so Friday, casting his vote at the Lucas County Board of Elections' early absentee voter center near downtown Toledo.

The homeless man got a bus ride from St. Paul's Community Center downtown to the early voting center a few blocks away, and cast his ballot for Democrat Barack Obama.

"I'm trying to take responsibility for the economy. I can't complain about it if I'm not voting," said Mr. Mason, a longtime Toledoan who said injuries and joblessness caused him to lose his home last year.

While it wasn't an Obama-sponsored van that took him to vote, Mr. Mason is an example of the "sporadic" voters whom the Obama campaign hopes to reach and appears to be having success at doing so. That group also includes young people, college students, African-Americans, and people whose homes are in foreclosure.

The goal is to bring out thousands, if not tens of thousands, of new voters, to overcome the narrow margin of 118,601 votes by which Republican President Bush won Ohio in 2004.

Republicans say they're getting out the vote too, all the while complaining bitterly about the same-day voting and registration process allowed by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat.

The man who drove Mr. Mason to the polls, Ken Leslie, founder of the homeless aware-ness group 1Matters.org, said he drove more than 150 people to vote last week. The bus was donated by the Cherry Street Mission, and he didn't suggest to anyone how they should vote.

"I am not involved in the Obama campaign at all," Mr. Leslie said.

The Obama campaign today will bring Bruce Springsteen to Ohio State University. TV stars Adrianne Palicki and Seth MacFarlane yesterday visited University of Toledo and BGSU to promote registering and voting by tomorrow. Ms. Palicki, of the TV series Friday Night Lights, is a Whitmer High School graduate and spoke at Friday night's football game between Whitmer and St. John's Jesuit High School.

Stephen Brooks, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said efforts like that could pay off with new voters for Senator Obama of Illinois.

"I think they will be a lot more successful than two years or four years ago [recruiting new voters]," he said. "The Obama people are really very, very good at this. They've also done it during the primary. As the Republicans have demonstrated the last 10 to 12 years, if you have a well-organized, practiced machine, you can accomplish an immense amount in terms of getting out the voters."

He said the Republican Party in Ohio motivated religious conservatives in 2004 to help win the election for Mr. Bush.

"The new voters this round do tend to be young people and members of the African-American community," who are more likely to be Obama voters, Mr. Brooks said.

Isaac Baker, spokesman for the Obama campaign in Ohio, said the organization has organizers on 32 campuses, including colleges in southeast Ohio and Findlay that are typically not hotbeds of Democratic voters.

"The Obama campaign set up shop pretty early in 2008, leading up to the primary," Mr. Baker said. More than 700,000 people have registered in Ohio since January, he said, and many of those are college students whom the Obama campaign helped register.

"We're proud of the strong support we've seen from young people all across America," he said. "They're going to be a major piece of the coalition that helps us win Ohio and the election."

In Bowling Green, vans plastered with signs such as "Vote or register today early" and "Ride to go vote free" were shuttling between the Bowling Green State University campus and the Wood County Courthouse all week.

Craig McAdams, a BGSU junior from Springfield, Ohio, who was behind the wheel, said he was part of a campus group called Freedom, which had gotten the van and gasoline for the shuttles from Vote Today Ohio.

He said that while Vote Today Ohio was "partisan toward Obama," the Freedom shuttle would take anyone who wanted to vote to and from the board of elections and was not promoting any particular candidate.

"The idea of early voting is to allow equal opportunity for everyone," Mr. McAdams said.

By 3:30 p.m. Friday, Freedom had delivered 164 people to the elections board. The vast majority were BGSU students, he said, and about a third said they registered and voted.

If Mr. Obama wins the presidency Nov. 4 and carries Ohio in the process, at least some of the credit will have to go to Ohio's same-day voting and registering process, ironically established by the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly in 2005.

The change in law allows Ohio voters this year for the first time to cast absentee ballots, in person or by mail, without a reason. Previous absentee balloting was available only to people in specific circumstances, such as being out of the county at the time of the vote, although generally, people were not asked to prove that they were eligible to vote absentee.

And by an unintended quirk, the early voting period that began Sept. 30 overlapped by five days the period in which people could register to vote.

The flood of new voters, such as the homeless and university students who may have school addresses and home addresses in another county or state, has Republicans questioning not their right to vote but whether they are properly registered.

John McClelland, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, said the process doesn't have the safeguards to prevent voter fraud.

"Ohio was not set up to be a same-day registration state," Mr. McClelland said. The party has accused Ms. Brunner of showing her partisan colors by not requiring boards of election to allow partisan observers, as are allowed on Election Day.

"I think there is the potential that people could register either under a false name or under a false address, and there is a question whether the boards of elections are going to have the opportunity or the time to verify those registrations," Mr. McClelland said.

"Though we hear there are safeguards in place to keep these same-day registration voters somewhat separate from other ballots, we're not so sure that's happening, especially in the urban counties," he said.

A lawyer for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, a group pledged to help poor people that has joined the Election Protection Coalition, said absentee voters who register on the same day are supposed to be allowed to vote only on paper so the registration can be verified.

"The secretary of state and the Lucas County Board of Elections have put in place all the checks and balances they need to make sure that people are registering properly and upon proper registration are voting properly," lawyer David Koeninger said.

David DeWitt, a political reporter covering the presidential election for the Internet newspaper politickerOH.com, said the Obama campaign is taking advantage of this window of opportunity. "I've heard of homeless people at the polls bragging about supporting Obama, and these are voters who normally aren't even registering before," Mr. DeWitt said.

"One of the more interesting targets they're going after is people who've had their homes foreclosed," Mr. DeWitt said. "A lot of these homes are in rural areas, not traditionally strong Obama territory. If he can peel off enough votes, he could win."

He said Republicans are focusing their get-out-the-vote effort on talks between neighbors and on phone banks.

Jo Ann Davidison, the former Ohio House speaker and now national co-chairman of the Republican Party, said the McCain Victory 2008 person-to-person contacts for GOP nominee John McCain are already 55 percent ahead of where the GOP was at the same time last election.

She said the Republicans are sticking with their strategy of focusing on suburban and rural voters and especially on holding Southeast Ohio.

Mr. DeWitt agreed. "I think the Republcians are targeting really getting the vote in southeast Ohio, and even the northwest as well, making sure they have that vote solid," Mr. DeWitt said. "They have a strategy of talking to voters and getting neighbors to talk to neighbors."

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.

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