Evangelical leaders gearing up to turn out November vote
Registration drive comes amid IRS probe of churches
Peter Wallsten, Washington Post
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
(08-16) 04:00 PDT Washington -- As discontent with the Republican
Party threatens to dampen the turnout of conservative voters in
November, evangelical leaders are started a big registration drive
designed to reach religious voters in battleground states.
The program, coordinated by the Colorado-based group Focus on the
Family and its influential founder, James Dobson, will use a variety of
methods -- including information inserted in church publications and
booths placed outside worship services -- to try to recruit millions of
new voters in 2006 and beyond.
The effort builds on the aggressive courtship of evangelical voters in
2004 by President Bush's re-election campaign, even as the Internal
Revenue Service has announced renewed scrutiny of nonprofit
organizations, including churches, that engage in political activities.
The new voter-registration program -- with a special focus on eight
states with key Senate, House and state-level races -- comes as
Republicans are struggling with negative public sentiment over the
war in Iraq and other administration policies. Turning out core GOP
voters is central to the party's strategy to retain control of Congress.
"Any time you go from a big presidential year like 2004 to an off
year like this, there's going to be a drop-off" in voter interest, said
John Paulton of Focus on the Family Action, the political arm of Focus
on the Family. "It's a question of how much. You could argue that the
fear of what could happen if many more liberal politicians take over
could be very motivating to get out and vote as strongly."
The program, announced in an e-mail to activists last week, is
seeking county and church coordinators in the targeted states
of Maryland, Montana, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
New Jersey and Minnesota.
"In 2004, about 25 million evangelicals failed to vote. Now is the
time to reverse the trend," the e-mail said.
According to the e-mail, county coordinators are being asked to
work about five hours a week and would be responsible for
"recruiting key evangelical churches."
The church coordinators would be in charge of "encouraging pastors
to speak about Christian citizenship, conducting a voter-registration
drive, distributing voter guides and get-out-the-vote efforts."
Registering voters in churches is not a new tactic for either party,
but Republicans have proved far more effective in recent years
at combining religion and politics for electoral gain.
Critics say the practice is potentially illegal, citing tax laws that
prohibit churches from engaging in partisan activities. The
Internal Revenue Service has launched a program to crack down
on violators, with investigations pending against dozens of churches.
The IRS investigation with the highest profile is that of All Saints
Episcopal Church in Pasadena, one of Southern California's largest
and most liberal congregations. After a priest delivered a sermon
critical of the Iraq war two days before the 2004 presidential election,
the IRS began reviewing the church's tax-exempt status. No decision
has been announced.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United
for Separation of Church and State, called the evangelical
voter-registration drive a "blatant effort by Dobson to build a
partisan political machine based in churches."
Organizers of the drive say they pay careful attention to the
law -- focusing on registering voters and discussions of values,
not endorsing a specific candidate or party. But, they acknowledge,
the goal is reaching the conservative base.
"Everybody knows where their audience is, and we know who
our audience is," said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for
Community Values, an Ohio-based group coordinating voter
registration with Dobson's organization. "Absolutely we can target
who we want to register to vote. There's nothing that prevents us
from doing that."
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