Voter Registration Key to Obama's Efforts to Put Virginia in Play

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

RICHMOND -- Virginia has added nearly a quarter-million registered voters since the 2004 elections, and about half of that growth came from increasingly Democratic Northern Virginia.

With Virginia a battleground state in the presidential race for the first time in 44 years, the additional voters have the potential to alter long-standing electoral patterns in some historically Republican counties while reinforcing the Democratic tilt of others.

According to a review of registration statistics from Nov. 1, 2004, through Aug. 1 of this year, Virginia has 235,976 more registered voters than it did in 2004, when President Bush carried the state by 262,000 votes.

Democrats say the newly registered voters are fueling the Democratic resurgence in the state, including the election of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005 and U.S. Sen. James Webb in 2006.

As Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) battle for Virginia's 13 electoral votes, political strategists say these newly registered voters add another element of unpredictability to the November election.

New voters alone won't win Virginia for Obama, Democrats say, but they are a central reason Obama has decided to put so many resources into a state that last went for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964. Pennsylvania, historically a battleground state, has just 45,000 more registered voters than it did in 2004.

"This is why Virginia is in play," said Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "If Virginia was the same state as it was four years ago or eight years ago, there wouldn't be much discussion about Virginia being a swing state."

The 5.2 percent increase in registered voters corresponds with recent growth patterns in several areas of the state. But the registration figures in some Northern Virginia localities appear to be outpacing population changes.

About 105,000 of the new voters come from counties in the Washington media market, although political strategists say only a third of the state's residents live in the market.

In Loudoun County -- which Bush won easily in 2004 but Kaine and Webb won in 2005 and 2006 -- voter registration rolls have grown 21 percent since the last presidential election. Loudoun's population has grown about 18 percent during that period, according to county estimates.

The updated figures take into account people who have registered for the first time or moved into the state and those who have died or moved away. Virginians do not register by political party.

Almost every Virginia locality east of the Allegheny Mountains has had an increase in registered voters, including several jurisdictions that are losing population, such as Richmond.

But many counties in southwest Virginia, which is expected to be a Republican stronghold in the presidential race, have seen a slight dip in the number of registered voters compared with four years ago. Wise County, in Virginia's coal country, has 1,070 fewer registered voters than it did when Bush was reelected.

"From our perspective, the places we need to do well and, frankly, where we have the greatest support are the places that are growing the fastest," said Mitch Stewart, director of Obama's campaign in Virginia.

The campaign and its volunteers have worked hard over the summer to register tens of thousands of voters before the Oct. 6 deadline.

Democrats are especially targeting younger voters, black residents and people who have recently moved to the state's fast-growing outer suburbs, such as Fredericksburg.

Since the start of the year, 202,000 people have registered to vote in Virginia. Of those, 64 percent are younger than 35, a demographic Obama expects to win handily.

State election officials and the Obama campaign expect to add tens of thousands more voters by the deadline. Fairfax County, for example, is processing, on average, 1,800 registration applications a week, county officials said recently.

"The Obama campaign is changing the map. They are not accepting the rules of the game," said Scott A. Surovell, chairman of the Democratic Party in Fairfax, where there are 21,000 more registered voters than there were in 2004. "They are putting more voters in play. Obama has decided to put more cards in the deck, and they are dealing themselves more kings and queens."

The voter registration efforts have not been without controversy. Last month, Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William), chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, alleged that some groups were engaged in "widespread and coordinated voter fraud" after three paid canvassers were arrested and charged with submitting false names on voter registration forms in Hampton.

Democrats, who called the arrests isolated, responded by accusing Frederick and the GOP of trying to suppress minority voting.

On Thursday, the Fairfax County Democratic Committee filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections alleging that one of the elections board's members tried to intimidate Obama supporters at the recent Asian Festival in Reston by telling them they could not intermingle campaign literature with registration forms.

The board member, Harold Pyon, the only Republican on the three-member board, denied the allegation, saying he was only trying to tell the Obama supporters that they could not turn away people who wanted to register so they could vote for someone other than Obama or another Democrat.

Despite the Obama campaign's efforts, there is little historical evidence that registering more voters will help Democrats in a presidential race in Virginia.

About 700,000 voters were added to the rolls between the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections after a law went into effect that allows people to register when they obtain a driver's license. But Bush carried the state by a bigger margin in 2000 than Republican Robert J. Dole did in 1996. Then, between the 2000 and the 2004 elections, the state's voter registration rolls grew by 303,000. Turnout was also higher in 2004 than in 2000. In any case, Bush's winning margin in Virginia was essentially unchanged.

"Registering voters is incredibly important, but it is also about turning them out, and that is something I think we do a very good job at," said Rich Beeson, political director for the Republican National Committee.

Republicans may also be able to offset at least some of the registration gains in Democratic-trending or -leaning areas. Several GOP strongholds in suburban Richmond and the upper Shenandoah Valley, two areas where the population is growing rapidly, have increased their voter rolls by more than 10 percent since 2004.

Republicans say the new registrants in those communities will add to the GOP strength in Virginia's exurbs on Election Day.

But Lang said he suspects that many of the Virginians who have registered to vote in the past four years lean Democratic, regardless of where they live. If those new voters show up on Election Day, they could erode McCain's margins, he said.

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