Political Horizons: Young people work to help engage voters

It’s the legions of young people from other states who mark the difference between this campaign season and previous ones.

They moved here recently for campaign jobs. Many are being paid by national parties and pressure groups. Many of them email and tweet outraged commentary about their party’s opponents.

But a handful have been operating quietly, recruiting local volunteers and operating the technology that is supposed to nudge more Louisiana voters to the polls on Nov. 4.

Republicans need only pick up six seats to control the U.S. Senate and have focused on beating Democratic incumbents in solid red states. That includes U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana.

National Democrats are countering with a high-tech effort to mobilize voters who lean Democrat but often don’t bother to cast ballots. The theory is that these “irregular Democratic voters” far outnumber the Republican voters, even in red states like Louisiana, and if they would vote, then the GOP wouldn’t take control of the U.S. Senate.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has poured $60 million into what is being called the Bannock Street Project, with the goal of finding wayward Democrats in those states targeted by Republicans, socializing with them and nudging them back to the polls. The effort is named after a street in Denver where Michael Bennet had his campaign office and in 2010 used a similar strategy to win a U.S. Senate seat and surprise the pundits.

The Bannock Street Project is helping to pay for the staffing of 10 offices across the state, according to Kirstin Alvanitakis, who moved here from Michigan to be communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party.

Republicans are making a similar effort, but GOP voters go to the polls regularly without the need for the same level stimulus.

On Thursday last week, eight young Democrats with camera-ready looks sat at tables in what once was the living room of a Beauregard Town bungalow. Each was surrounded by electronic bling — laptops, iPads, a couple of cellphones and hard-lined phones with blinking buttons. The rooms are stocked with candy, junk food and bottled water. A handful of “mockingjay” stickers — from “The Hunger Games” novels about a dystopian future when youngsters are pitted against one another in battles to the death — decorate memos, scripts and reference books.

During the short time party officials allowed an outsider into the operation, most of the calls were fielded by answering machines. When they did get through to a human, the questions were conversational: Who is the person going to support and why? The callers recorded the responses.

The people being called were thought, at least by the sophisticated database software, to support Democrats. There are other lists, used on other days, of voters registered without party affiliation or even as Republicans who the calculations suggest might support Landrieu in November.

Arms folded, Alvanitakis divulges little about how the database is put together other than saying it merges the state’s voter registration records, which include how often the person actually casts ballots, with other “consumer information” into a formula she’ll only describe as “special sauce.”

Reports in technical literature indicate that Democrats — and now the Republicans — cross reference lists of voters with lists from charitable donations, special interest group memberships, magazine subscriptions and consumer purchases to develop profiles of individual voters.

Even when the formula misses, the volunteer callers report few hostile responses.

“We are in the South, after all,” said Kirk Green, who during his off hours walks Baton Rouge neighborhoods with the Democrats’ database in hand and knocks on doors. If people are not interested, they usually politely say so. The rejections are added to the database.

But, mostly, the voters are glad the party reached out and was interested in how they personally viewed politics and policies. That’s the most important information added to the database, Green said.

“My forte is conversation. I’m a teacher,” said Green, a seventh-grade U.S. history and government teacher at Westdale Middle School. “I never tell someone to vote more often, but I do try to educate them on how important voting is.”

Green does an exercise with his students. He separates the class in half and points to one side, saying they vote regularly, while the other side does not.

They then discuss how elected officials go about choosing where to spend limited tax dollars. The lesson leads to which side gets the services and why.

“It’s always the side that participates, that votes regularly,” Green said. “The kids, they get it.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com