One American. 1,136 New Voters.
By Al Giordano
In 2004, Republican George W. Bush won York County, Pennsylvania, by a whopping 28 percentage points: 114,270 votes (63.7 percent) to just 63,701, or 35.5 percent, for Democrat John Kerry (a meager 0.7 percent went to other candidates). Kerry's total was roughly equal to the percent of registered Democrats in the county, with Bush winning the overwhelming majority of Independents. And yet Kerry still won the state.
It's in places like York County - and other parts of the "outer ring" around Philadelphia - that the Obama campaign's voter registration drive is changing the map. The York-Hanover region is the fastest growing area of the Northeastern United States. Urban sprawl from Baltimore and even Washington DC has reached over the Pennsylvania border.
As of November 2007 there were 94,986 Democrats (34 percent), 142,137 Republicans (51 percent) and 41,856 Independents and others (15 percent).
What a difference a year makes.
As of September 15, this is the new electoral make up of York County:
Democrats: 109,106 (37 percent)
Republicans 141,563 (48.3 percent)
Independents and others: 42,351 (14.5 percent)
Even if McCain wins, as Bush did, virtually all the Independent voters (a generous and also doubtful proposition), it means that Obama is primed to get a minimum of15,000 to 20,000 more votes out of York County than Kerry did four years ago, while McCain won't likely match Bush's total.
Part of the surge in voter registration came during the hotly contested April 22 primary between Senators Clinton and Obama:
Almost 53,000 cast Democratic ballots - not as many votes as Kerry won in 2004. The real surge in new registration has occurred since the primary.
Similar trends are occurring in Philadelphia's inner suburbs (Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties) and in the outer ring (Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties) as more and more people move into the region.
But it's one thing for a megalopolis to grow, and another to get those newcomers (along with the longtime but politically alienated residents) signed up to vote.
That lady in the photo above - York native Leslie A. Wars - is the walking and breathing reason why, in 2008, the electoral map of Pennsylvania has changed.
Not everybody goes out daily to register new voters. But multiply a single afternoon by thousands of people, and four or five new voters at a time adds up to be the difference between victory and defeat in many states.
Wars works a demanding job as a resident service worker (non union) for a mental health group home: She reports at 9 p.m. and remains at her post until 8:30 a.m. - working 80 hours in seven days - and then gets the alternate week off.
Until this year, the 51-year-old Wars had never been active in politics.
She had never even voted.
But she was flipping the channels one night last spring when she came across a concession speech by Barack Obama, after losing the Ohio and Texas primaries. "When I had first heard of Obama, I laughed," she remembers. "I said, ‘There's no way that America is going to vote for an African American by the name of Barack Obama."
But something about his words that night moved her. "I thought about it for two weeks, began following the campaign, and finally I registered to vote," she tells The Field. "I'd never had any interest in voting. I was very cynical about politics and politicians. But when he came to Pennsylvania I went down to headquarters and jumped in, head over heels."
After campaigning for Obama in the April 22 primary, she wondered what to do. In June it hit her: she would go out and register new voters. As of Monday at noon, Leslie Wars had single-handedly registered 1,136 of them. Her best days came when she joined a registration drive on the York College campus - 92 new voters in eight hours of walking around with a clipboard. Her worst day: four voters. She finds that 80 percent of the new voters she enlists sign up as Democrats, "but I'll sign them up whatever their party."
She goes in front of the stores at strip malls outside of town, to laundromats and and supermarkets, and walks the neighborhoods downtown. "I approach people in the street," she explains. "When I first started I would do it three or four days a week. Now I do it every day, sometimes up to eleven hours. On the weeks that I work I do three or four hours a day." When it rains, a local store lets her stand under the awning in front.
"Evenings are best," she tells, "when people are off from work. I say, ‘Hello. My name is Leslie. I'm a volunteer with the Obama campaign. May I ask if you're up to date with your voter registration?"
"I'm so proud to represent Obama and I think my enthusiasm is contagious," she laughs.
Wars says that you can't judge people's politics by their appearances: "When I would try to guess before approaching them, I was wrong every time." So she approaches every person that she encounters.
She finds she has to explain to many people that registering to vote "doesn't mean you're required to vote, and it doesn't mean that you get called up for jury duty."
"The last half hour, before a store closes, when people are just rushing around, I tend to get a lot of them in that last half hour."
Now, when she walks down Market Street, children proclaim, "Mom! There's the Obama lady!" And many folks that initially turned her down approached her later and asked to be signed up to vote. "I'm not pushy," she says. "I say thanks and move on. And you'd be surprised how many come back later on."
1,136 new voters since June.
That's about one out of every 15 new voters in York County, signed up by Leslie Wars.
And you - yeah, you, reading about this one American here - how did you spend your free hour today?
If the results on Pennsylvania on election night turn out as close as Florida in 2000, well, we've just met one person that might just have made the singular difference in who the next president of the United States of America will be.
As we left Leslie Wars she was heading out to register more voters, which she plans to do daily until the October 6 deadline.
And what will she do after October 6?
Wars smiles and say, "Oh, then I'll do persuasion canvassing."
Demographic shifts alone don't change electoral maps. It's happening this year because people like Leslie Wars of the swing county of York in the swing state of Pennsylvania decided to seize the opportunity and make it happen.