Top voter registration group pushes hard in Colorado as last-day deadline approaches

DENVER– Tuesday was the last day to register to vote in the Centennial state and New Era Colorado, a youth politics group that is also one of the most successful voter registration groups in the country, made the most of it. Staffers have registered upwards of 35,000 voters in the state this year, according to Director Steve Fenberg, and he says they’ll register somewhere between 500 and 1000 voters across the state Tuesday.

“We know how to do this now. The sun helps. So does the bus and the music,” he said. His eyes move from the blue sky to the New Era bus parked in the middle of a walkway on the Auraria University campus and then to speakers set up on stands around a New Era tent rocking beats at mid-level decibels. Staffers with clipboards are busy talking to students and filling out forms. Clusters of twenty-somethings pass by with backpacks. A line snakes from the popular hot dog stand nearby.

“We’re not competing with other organizations,” Fenberg said. “We’re competing with obligations and entertainment, ballgames, concerts… We want to make politics fit into young people’s lives.”

New Era Colorado is a juggernaut, and only partly because of the number of young people it has registered to vote here for the last half decade. Under Fenberg’s direction, New Era has become a player in state politics. The group runs popular candidate debates and lobbies at the capitol behind the scenes and in committee hearings on issues that matter to young people. The organization authored the bill that established online voter registration in the state and, most significantly, has notched an incredible turnout rate of the voters it registers. In the midterm 2010 elections, 55 percent of New Era-registered voters cast ballots. In the 2008 general elections, 88 percent of New Era voters cast ballots.

Fenberg said that, because the group targets first-time voters, there is added incentive.

“Research shows that if you get these people to vote three times in a row, then you’ve got a voter for life, which is the whole point because we’re looking to expand participation.”

By almost any measure, getting anything like 88 percent of a U.S. constituency of any age to cast ballots is an incredible feat. The voting percentage of the general population is roughly 60 percent and, according to Gallup, only 60 percent of Americans 18 to 29 are registered to vote and of those only 56 percent say they will definitely vote in this election. Although youth voters can be motivated to become committed voters and can generate energy for elections well beyond their demographic through volunteerism, the number of registered voters and the percentage of those who plan to vote within the demographic is well below every other age group, according to Gallup.

Analysts for years have pinned low voter turnout figures on some combination of disinterested contentedness, widespread political ennui, the limited two-party system and distasteful partisan politics. Fenberg, however, said he would address the problem by simply flattening the many on-the-ground unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that stand between citizens and the ballot box.

“In many ways, the voting process runs counter to common sense and practical concerns,” he said. “There are different rules in every county of this state. Do ballots go out to inactive voters? Why do the early voting stations pull up two days before an election? The polling place you passed by for weeks is suddenly gone on the day you want to vote. Why is that?

“I hear all these concerns, these problems, that legislators just don’t hear because I’m meeting with people all the time talking about registering to vote. This week I met a woman who has been in the state for years. She lives in Denver. She’s in the military. She’s becoming a citizen in the next couple weeks. So she’ll be eligible to vote before Election Day but not by today, the last day of registration. That we have a registration deadline 29 days before the election made sense in the era of paper and stamps but there’s no reason today. Something like 15 states now have same-day voter registration. In other words, there is no registration deadline anymore. You’re a citizen. You go on Election Day to the polls. You say ‘This is who I am’ and you vote.

“We make laws about how we run elections every year. It’s a patchwork. It’s a mess of laws. I live and breathe this stuff and it’s still confusing.”

Fenberg laughed off the concerns Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has voiced repeatedly for the last two years about an alleged “noncitizen” voting conspiracy in the state.

“We can’t even get all the citizens we register to the polls,” he said. “The problem in our democracy has always been lack of participation. The problem is that our democracy isn’t inclusive enough.”

[ Image of NewEra Colorado bus by TCI. ]

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