Voter registrations soar in Minnesota

New registrations are skyrocketing in Minnesota. An analysis of the numbers would appear to reflect an apparent edge for the Democrats, particularly at the presidential level.

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Chuck Dusbabeck, 29, of St. Paul registered to vote outside the Electric Fetus music store in Minneapolis on Monday; reflected in his glasses is a voter registration form, part of the Rock the Vote effort that had come to the area to sign up new voters.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ, Star Tribune

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A surge of new-voter registrations in Minnesota this year is happening primarily in DFL strongholds, at a rate that could change the state's political landscape if those new voters show up on Election Day.

New registrations in solidly Democratic areas are running nearly 2-1 ahead of the number in solidly Republican areas, according to a computer analysis of the registrations and voting patterns conducted by the Star Tribune.

More than 100,000 new voters had registered in the state as of last Tuesday, about 46,000 of them in areas that Democrat John Kerry won by a margin of 10 percentage points or more in the 2004 presidential election. That compares with 25,000 in areas that President Bush carried by that margin.

Minnesota does not register voters by political party, so it's impossible to say where the new registrants' sympathies lie. However, the computer analysis shows that nearly three-fourths of the new registrations have come in places where the 2004 presidential margin was 10 points or more, which would give some indication of political leanings.

Sensing the tide from record turnouts at state caucuses in February -- about 200,000 participants at DFL gatherings and 60,000 at GOP events -- Democrats and affiliated organizations have been particularly aggressive in pursuing new voters. The increase comes as questions have been raised about voter registration drives elsewhere in the nation, but to date no indications of any pattern of impropriety have surfaced here.

The Star Tribune analysis shows that new registrations have been concentrated in urban areas such as Minneapolis, where more than 16,000 new voters have been registered this year and which John Kerry won by more than 56 percentage points. New registrations are also high in solidly Democratic-voting college towns such as Mankato, where Kerry won by more than 12 points, and Northfield, which he carried won by 36 percentage points. In Mankato, 71 percent of the new registrations were among people between the ages of 18 and 25. In Northfield, that figure was 26 percent, the newspaper analysis found

Angela Okon, a 20-year-old college student and nanny in Mankato, is one of the new registered voters. She signed up in August after being approached by a volunteer at a Dave Matthews Band concert in Alpine Valley, Wis.

The concert was part of a multi-city voter registration campaign staged by HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization seeking to register 18- to 34-year-olds.

"I want to have a part in what's happening in our world, and I want to have the right leader leading us," said Okon, who said she strongly supported Democrat Barack Obama but has been experiencing doubts about his leadership after watching him in debates. Most of her friends, she said, don't plan to vote and have not registered.

"They say they don't know who to vote for and they don't want to deal with it."

Seeing an opportunity

In August, Obama's Minnesota campaign manager, Jeff Blodgett, signaled that the state campaign would strive to identify new voters, particularly given that Minnesota offers Election Day registration. In 2004, about 69 percent of eligible 18- to 25-year-olds voted in Minnesota, more than the national average but below the state's overall voting rate of 77 percent. Blodgett said the campaign would seek to sign up new voters at campuses and high schools but also at events such as concerts and through street canvassing.

"We see that as a huge opportunity to take advantage of," he said.

The Minnesota analysis appears to closely follow patterns emerging elsewhere, particularly in battleground states. In Florida, Democratic registration gains this year are more than double those made by Republicans; in Colorado and Nevada the ratio is 4-1, and in North Carolina it is 6-1. Even in other states with nonpartisan registration, the trend appears similar; of 310,000 new voters in Virginia, a disproportionate share live in Democratic strongholds, a Washington Post survey found.

The new registrations in Minnesota could have an impact on closely contested congressional races as well. In southern Minnesota's First District, for example, Democrat Tim Walz defeated Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht by 15,000 votes in 2006. In that district, 11,000 new voters have registered this year. In the Sixth District, where Republican Michele Bachmann won by 24,000 votes in 2004, 9,500 new voters have registered this year.

Questions about registration

With the upsurge have come questions about potential registration fraud. Last week, authorities in Las Vegas raided the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which registers low-income people to vote, alleging that canvassers falsified forms with bogus names. Republicans in such battleground states as Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina have accused ACORN of extensive "voter fraud" for allegedly turning in dozens of duplicates and cards with incomplete information.

ACORN officials have said the complaints are false.

In 2004 in Minnesota, a 19-year-old St. Louis Park man who had worked for ACORN before being fired made news when he was accused of stashing hundreds of voter registration cards in his car's trunk and of forging names on duplicate voter registration cards to obtain extra money. He later pleaded guilty to forgery and failing to submit the cards to proper authorities.

There have been no indications of voter registration fraud in Minnesota this election cycle, state and party officials say. ACORN has registered 41,000 voters in Minnesota in the last two years.

Getting them out

Michael McDonald, an expert on voting with the Brookings Institution and associate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University, said that new registrations allow candidates and parties to secure lists and better mobilize efforts. While some groups, such as younger voters, are notorious for not showing up on Election Day, registering to vote is one of the prime determinants of who will participate, McDonald said.

But Minnesota's Election Day registration makes predictions more of a crapshoot, he said. GOP presidential nominee John McCain has outspent Obama on television advertising here, an indication that the state may still be in play.

"Minnesota for me looks like a best bet [for McCain] to pick off a blue state," McDonald said.

Republicans here have been aggressive as well. The state GOP has 16 Victory Offices for voter registration and recruitment and additional offices at some county party offices.

"It's all about who's there on November 4," said Gina Countryman, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party.

Mbrunswick@startribune.com 651-222-1636 Ghowatt@startribune.com 612-673-7192

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