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Finding unregistered voters can be a costly process

Eunice Warren, a New Georgia Project volunteer, waves a clipboard at people entering a Wal-Mart outside Atlanta, as part of a voter registration effort.  Johnny Kauffman/wABE

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On a Saturday morning, Wayne Brumfield is on his way into a Wal-Mart outside Atlanta to shop for his mom. He just moved here from Louisiana.

“She’s getting a little older and my brothers are in the service, so I was like the only one left,” Brumfield said.

Before Brumfield gets inside he’s stopped by people with clipboards. Staff and volunteers are here with the New Georgia Project, a non-profit. They’re focused on registering minority voters, but they don’t turn anybody away. This neighborhood is about 75 percent African-American.

Brumfield just signed up. He said he’s voting for the good of his three boys.

“I had it hard coming up, so I know what it’s like. I’d rather them have a better chance than I did,” Brumfield said.

Between work and family, Brumfield doesn’t have a lot of time, and said he might not have registered if it weren’t for what he calls the “curbside service” at the Wal-Mart. If this is a drive-thru for voter registration, the New Georgia Project is best known for its delivery service. Half of its registration work is door-to-door canvassing.  

“That’s expensive work,”  said Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s democratic house minority leader, and the founder of the New Georgia Project. “For a lot of the states where this work could be done, they simply don’t have the resources,” she said.

In many places it’s expensive to find and register voters, and that leaves a lot of people out of the democratic process: about one in four Americans. Some states make it easier than others. Oregon voters are now automatically registered when they renew or apply for a license at the DMV.  Minnesota allows voters to register as late as Election Day. But in other places, civic groups do much of the legwork to register voters ahead of earlier deadlines. That’s the case in Georgia.

Abrams said the New Georgia Project is unique because it does the labor-intensive work of finding voters at their homes. “These are folks no one talks to,” said Abrams. “You’ve got pay literally hundreds of people to go and knock on doors and stand in the hot sun in July in Georgia and get people to engage.”

Stacey Abrams, the founder of the New Georgia Project, says Democracy benefits from more people being involved in the electoral process. 

The group’s registration effort has attracted harsh scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans. In 2014, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State opened an ongoing investigation into the New Georgia Project over allegations it submitted fraudulent voter applications. A counter-suit by the group, alleging voter suppression, was thrown out. Some Democrats said the New Georgia Project should be signing up more people, given the amount of money it has raised from private donors.

Brennan Mancil, chairman of the Georgia Association of College Republicans, said registration is a focus for Republicans too. “You have to involve people who are going to be the voting base of the future, and by and large that’s going to be Hispanics, blacks, and to a lesser degree than now, whites,” he said.  

Mancil said his group registers voters in student centers, and at debate watch parties.

Those kinds of high-traffic areas are the most common and most efficient way to sign people up.  But it can be expensive to try and find people who don’t have stable housing, a listed address or a phone, according to Bradley Spahn, a Stanford graduate student who studies unregistered voters.

“Even if we wanted to register them we wouldn’t be able to find contact information for them, we wouldn’t know how to register them, because we would never know they existed,” said Spahn.

Democrats probably have the most to gain from registering those hard-to-find voters, who tend to more liberal, said Spahn, but in addition to being costly, it takes time.

“Party politics is run by short-term considerations. Campaigns disappear in the middle of November,” Spahn said.

Back at the Wal-Mart, the New Georgia Project’s long-term plan is paying off, at least with Wayne Brumfield.  He’ll be casting a vote for himself, but with his young sons in mind.  

“I have an 11, an eight, and a six-year-old, so it will be a while before they get a chance to do that,” said Brumfield.   

Many voter registration deadlines are in October, though they vary from state to state.

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