COULD THE liberal-left coalition be revived with a massive voter registration campaign? Could newly enfranchised poor people, blacks and Hispanics halt the Reagan revolution? That dream attracted millions of dollars and mobilized thousands of people during the past year, but by all indications, it is a dream that will not come true.
In some of the worst slums in the nation, where the pool of unregistered voters is massive and the probablity of anti-Ronald Reagan sentiments highest, local Democratic organizations are actually opposing voter registration. They are intent on maintaining a small, controlled electorate, guaranteed to cast majorities for endorsed candidates in Democratic primaries. They bitterly oppose letting outside groups add unknown voters to their rolls.
Individuals and organizations drawn into voter registration by the prospect of millions of new dollars have often spent more of their energy competing for foundation grants than actually signing up the disenfranchised.
And, perhaps most deflating for the original dreamers, the Republican Party succeeded in putting together an $11 million registration program which, backed up by a drive to mobilize fundamentalist white Christians, produced more new GOP voters than Democrats in such states as Florida and California, and matched liberal/Democratic efforts in many other states.
The dream of creating a 1980s version of the New Deal coalition through massive voter registration grew out of decisive Democratic victories two years ago in such states as Texas and New Mexico where there were massive and unexpected increases in voter turnout on election day.
Within the liberal community, the belief that registration was the key to a fundmental change in government policy reached a high point at a September 1983 meeting in New York sponsored by the New World Foundation, a liberal philanthropic organization.
One hundred fifty men and women representing the extremes of wealth and poverty -- from the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation to the back roads of Quitman County in the Mississippi Delta -- reached the conclusion that they just might be able to change the balance of political power in America.
That diverse group determined "that political participation is a central staging ground" to alter "the conditions of life and work for people who do not have a fair share in the power, wealth and income of this country."
That meeting was a critical step in a process that turned voter registration into a multimillion dollar proposition, a source of cash, patronage, prestige and power. Money for voter registration from foundations alone increased by an estimated 500 percent, from about $1.2 million in earlier years to $6 million this year.
At the same time, the prospect of a revived Democratic coalition prompted a number of wealthy donors to pull out their wallets and checkbooks.
At a breakfast meeting during the Democratic National Convention, a newly formed group called the Committee to Register and Vote the Missing Half claims to have received $1 million in pledges, half of its total for the year. Richard Dennis, a wealthy Chicago commodities dealer and strong backer of Walter F. Mondale, put up $500,000, according to one credible account.
For organizations working with the poor, the money was a godsend. Beleaguered by Reagan administration budget cuts and defeat at the polls, the cash offered the possibility of restored political muscle, and the chance of winning sympathetic representation in Washington and in state houses across the country.
As the deadline for voter registration is now passing, there is no question that the cash resulted in a sharp increase in the number of people registered to vote. In New York state, for example, election officials were swamped with registration applications before the Oct. 13 deadline, and around the country there has been an unprecedented surge of blacks and Hispanics signing up to vote on Nov. 6.
Throughout the South, the surge of new black voters has been countered by a mobilization of conservative whites unprecedented in recent memory. And throughout the country, polls suggest that the newly registered are not a driving force for a revival of liberalism; instead, they are as pro-Reagan as traditional voters.
Dispirited by Republican success and the inablity to achieve its original goals, the massive effort to revive the liberal-left coalition through the mobilization of minorities and the poor has left deep scars and, in some quarters, a pervasive sense of failure.
"It's been a year and a half of disappointment," Hulbert James, director of the Human Serve Fund, which sought to register voters in welfare centers, unemployment lines and food stamp offices. "In spite of all the efforts of everybody, we still are going to be standing still."
Norman Adler, political director of New York's District 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who set up a computer-based Network for Voter Registration, said:
"I'm discouraged. Einstein once said at the end of his life that he felt like a small boy playing with pebbles on the beach and a whole ocean lay out before him. We have been sitting here playing with a lot of pebbles and there is still an ocean out there."
In New York State, Adler said, "we had a potential audience of one and a half million of which we estimated we would register half a million. We have actually registered -- between us and other groups -- maybe 350,000. Maybe."
Both James and Adler can provide a litany of what James calls "bitter organizational feuds" and what Adler calls "turf wars, people wanting to take credit, a lot of ego, a lot of internecine battling between groups. It's not healthy competition. It's like a roller derby, everybody trying to kick everybody else over the rails, edging people out."
And the voter mobilization drives have, in some cases, deepened racial conflicts. "Liberal organizations that have been out saving the whale and the redwood forrests and the snail darter are now coming into the black community talking about they want to save, you know, me," said Joe Madison, director of voter registration for the NAACP.
Madison, whose organization received relatively little foundation money because it lacked a special tax designation for non- profit organizations specializing in voting registration, complained: "Most of the money went basically to white liberal organizations."
Gracia Hillman, of Operation Big Vote, a black registration orgranization, saw her group's budget grow from nickels and dimes before 1984 to $650,000 this year, is far less bitter than Madison. She complained, however, of a "delay (resulting from) some miscommunication between what I will generally describe as the black community and the foundations . . . . On the face of it, I'd have to say, yes, there was the appearance of some racial overtones, or undertones, however you want to describe it."
All these groups are nonpartisan, but the Democratic Party was depending on them to produce a wave of pro-Democratic new voters for the 1984 election. An extensive Washington Post-ABC News poll late last month of 2,092 voters who said they registered after the 1980 election, including who signed up to vote this year, showed President Reagan running ahead of Mondale among the new voters by a 54-40 margin.
If this pattern holds through election day, it will raise a number of basic issues in the strategy of voter registration as a political tool. The most important issues involve financing, centralized coordination and the choice between partisan and non-partisan registration drives.
The cash-poor Democratic Party depended on a decentralized collection of liberal and left-wing, technically "non-partisan." organizations to do its work mobilizing the electorate. (The Democratic National Committee did distribute less than $3 million to state parties in September, but this came very late in the process, leaving no time for effective planning.)
The Republican Party, in contrast, ran a highly centralized, party-financed program putting at least $10 million into voter registration in 28 key states. The high-tech GOP program began n 1983, well over a year before the election. The partisan GOP effort was supplemented by a major drive to enroll white, conservative fundamentalist Christians.
Despite the fact that the pool of 30 million or more unregistered people should offer a bonanza for Democrats -- it is disproportionately black, Hispanic and poor, groups that are traditionally Democratic -- preliminary evidence suggests that the GOP succeeded in taking the edge off Democratic voter registration, if not equalling it.
The final results will not be known until the polls close on Nov. 6, and even then it will be very difficult to accurately evaluate the success or failure of competing registration drives.
Developments in New York, however, and interviews with organizers and backers of national drives, make a strong case that the lack of a powerful central organization severely weakened the effort to mobilize blacks, the poor and Hispanics.
In one of the ironies of pro-Democratic, but nonpartisan, voter registration, some of the strongest opposition to voter registration emerged in the poorest, most solidly Democratic, urban sections of the country.
In New York, Adler, the political director of AFSCME, set up a system in which all voter registration groups could funnel names into a centralized computer. Any participant could get their own names back coded by election district, zip code, phone number, councilmanic district and assembly district; any participant providing at least 3,000 names could have access to the entire list of names.
In a city where the key election is the Democratic primary, not the general election, many local political groups, public housing tenant organizations and ethnic political leaders had no interest in participating in a drive that would result in sharing the names of the newly registered.
"Everything in poor neighborhoods is political and has got money behind it," Adler said. "Our people go in and register and it goes into our computers. Any affiliate can have that list. If you are a housing project tenant leader, you register them (the residents) and only you know who's on that list, nobody else. You control the information.
"Everything is locked into this control. Who the district leader is, who the assemblyman is, who the city council member is, what kind of multiservice grant money comes in, what kind of money comes in for tenant patrols, what money comes in for CB radios, what money comes in for part-time jobs."
In this terrain -- where, for a local leader, control over a small list of registered Democrats is more important than an unknown, expanded electorate -- the Network for Voter Registration was barred from working in a number of major housing projects and much of the Lower East Side. In addition, a key Brooklyn assemblyman, Albert Vann, who had been conducting a registration drive among blacks, refused to work with the network, seeking instead to protect the confidentiality of his names.
"The worst voter registration was among the Hispanics," Adler said. "A lot of the Puerto Rican leaders don't want anybody else to vote because there is a very small turnout in Puerto Rican neighborhoods and they want to keep it that way."
Another disabling force was the competition for cash and for power.
Margaret McEntire, of Women USA, a New York-based organization set up by Bella Abzug, said that for many groups, "looking for money" often superseded voter registration. The question became, she said, "Are you out in the streets registering voters, or are you in your office rewriting grant proposals?"
The competition for "names" -- lists of people who had been registered that were used to persuade foundations and individuals to give more money -- created a host of problems.
As an example, she said one group, Physicians for Social Responsiblity, registered about 1,000 people. The group then wanted to make sure that the newly registered would be contacted for get-out-the-vote purposes, and separately told both Women USA and Human Serve that they could have the list.
In the confusion of events, however, Human Serve organizers "thought I was making a raid" on the names, preventing Human Serve from taking credit for accumulating these new names. "It seems very nit- picking, but it blew up in our faces," she said, briefly creating a conflict when in fact she said there was no reason not to share the names.
Cate Bowman, who works with Adler at the Network for Voter Registration, said registration among women's groups was slowed "by a terrible war between the New York Women's Political Caucus and NOW (the National Organization of Women). There was a chairmanship fight, and voter registration became one of the rocks they were flinging at each other."
On a much larger scale, the sudden influx of cash grants for voter registration from liberal, but financially cautious, foundations produced a racial split within the liberal-left community no one had initially anticipated. It grew out of what some of the participants call the "4945(f) problem," referring to a section of the tax code.
Under the law, foundations can make "general support" grants to any non-profit organization with the required tax status (technically 501(c)(3)). But if a foundation wants to make a grant specifically for voter registration, the recipient must have special 4945(f) status, which stipulates that the primary purpose of the receiving organization must be voter registration; that it must be active in at least five states, and that its activities must extend beyond one election.
Before this year, when voter registration was not a central concern within the foundation community, these classifications were of little importance. Many civil rights groups did not seek to get 4945(f) status, because they were active in many more areas than voter registration and foundations were giving general support grants instead of grants specifically for registration.
When, however, voter registration jumped from a $1.2 million proposition within the foundation community to a $6 million-a-year source of cash, 4945(f) suddenly became critical, as many of the foundations getting into registration for the first time wanted to be sure they complied with the letter of the law.
Caught behind the eight ball without the protection of 4945(f) status were such groups as the NAACP, the National Urban League, Operation Big Vote and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- all black.
At the same time, such new groups as Project Vote and Human Serve, which are integrated but are seen by some of the blacks groups as heavily influenced by whites, had received 4945(f) status and, as the foundation cash began to flow, were fully "qualified" to receive it.
Most of the black groups sought and received 4945(f) status, but nonetheless there was a substantial delay getting money -- "by the time it was straightened out, it was May of this year," Hillman of Operation Big Vote said -- and the NAACP is still awaiting final approval.
Madison of the NAACP said: "Nuclear freeze groups called my office consistently and said, 'Will you give us the names of your NAACP branches so we can get them involved in voter registration, because we've gotten a grant from a foundation and we need your branches to help us implement it?' Well, goddam. We were being, for lack of a better word, pimped."
The racial tensions within voter registration efforts were not limited to New York, but involved a nationwide competition for cash from California to New England.
And the conflicts between local political organizations and voter registration groups, while intense in New York, emerged in a host of Democratic enclaves across the country, from Boston and Bridgeport, Conn., to rural communities in Arkansas and predominantly Hispanic sections of South Texas.
"We got a lot of stuff," Adler of AFSCME concluded, "but the opportunities were so much greater and we never succeeded in getting them. What went wrong? All the things that divide human beings, both institutionally and individually -- jealousy, ego, the search for financial reward."