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The Nation

Conservatives Put Faith in Church Voter Drives

Evangelicals seek to sign up a new flock of GOP supporters in states with crucial November races.

August 15, 2006|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As discontent with the Republican Party threatens to dampen the turnout of conservative voters in November, evangelical leaders are launching a massive registration drive that could help counter the malaise and mobilize new religious voters in battleground states.

The program, coordinated by the Colorado-based group Focus on the Family and its influential founder, James C. Dobson, would use a variety of methods -- including information inserted in church publications and booths placed outside worship services -- 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 reelection 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 puts a special focus this year on eight states with key Senate, House and state-level races. Turning out core voters is central to the GOP strategy to retain control of Congress, especially as the party struggles with negative public sentiment over the war in Iraq and other administration policies.

"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, devoting one or two hours per week, 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 IRS has launched a program to crack down on violators, with investigations pending against dozens of churches.

The IRS probe with the highest profile is that of All Saints 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 Episcopal church's tax-exempt status. No decision has been announced.

The Rev. Barry W. 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."

"He has made it abundantly clear that electing Republicans is an integral part of his agenda, and he doesn't mind risking the tax exemption of churches in the process," Lynn said. "Dobson wants to be a major political boss, and this is his way to get there."

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," he said. "There's nothing that prevents us from doing that."

He said that in Ohio, where this year's Senate and gubernatorial races are highly competitive, the plan calls for 3 million bulletins detailing voter registration procedures to be placed in publications distributed by 15,000 churches.

The group will also distribute voter guides listing candidates' views on same-sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research and other hot-button issues.

In 2004, Burress said, his group registered more than 50,000 voters, largely because of a ballot measure seeking a ban on same-sex-marriage, a campaign he headed.

This year, a potential ban on same-sex marriage is on the ballot in Tennessee, where there is a competitive Senate race. Legal and political battles are also raging over the issue in three of the other targeted states: Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Maryland.

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