Campaign 2004: Voter registration workers cry foul
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
By Dennis B. Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An ostensibly nonpartisan voter registration drive in Western Pennsylvania has triggered accusations that workers were cheated out of wages and given instructions to avoid adding anyone to the voter rolls who might support the Democratic presidential nominee.
Sproul & Associates, a consulting firm based in Chandler, Ariz., hired to conduct the drive by the Republican National Committee, employed several hundred canvassers throughout the state to register new voters. Some workers yesterday said they were told to avoid registering Democrats or anyone who indicated support for Democratic nominee John F. Kerry.
“We were told that if they wanted to register Democrat, there was no way we were to register them to vote,” said Michele Tharp, of Meadville, who said she was sent out to canvass door-to-door and outside businesses in Meadville, Crawford County. “We were only to register Republicans.”
Tharp said volunteers were sent door-to-door to seek registrants but were instructed to first ask prospective new voters which candidate they planned to support.
“If they said Kerry, we were just supposed to say thank you and walk away,” Tharp said.
Brenda Snyder, a volunteer with the Republican Victory Center in Erie said workers “absolutely never” were told not to register Democrats. She said some workers were not paid “because of discrepancies in their paychecks” and said the party was attempting to correct the problem. Tharp, for instance, said she was paid only $14 for 15 hours of work after being hired at a rate of $11 per hour.
Heather Layman, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, confirmed Sproul’s role in the effort and said that complaints by 45 to 50 workers who had not been paid had been straightened out. Layman denied that the canvassers avoided registering Democrats and suggested that Democrats were orchestrating the charges.
“I do smell politics here if that’s what they’re saying,” Layman said.
Much of the controversy yesterday centered on the registration drive in Crawford County, where canvassers claimed to be owed thousands of dollars after hunting out Bush supporters.
“If they were a Kerry voter, we were just supposed to walk away,” said Michael Twilla, of Meadville, who said he has been paid for only eight of 72 hours he worked.
Twilla provided the Post-Gazette with a copy of the script he said he had been given.
It instructs the canvassers to hand unregistered Bush supporters a clipboard with a registration form, and to advise them the canvassers will personally deliver the forms to the local courthouse.
A lower portion of the form also advises the canvassers to ask undecided voters two questions: “Do you consider yourself pro-choice or pro life?” and “Are you worried about the Democrats raising taxes?” If voters say they are pro-life, the form says, “Ask if they are registered to vote. If they are pro-choice, say thank you and walk away.”
The form also tells canvassers, “If anyone asks who you are working for, it’s ‘Project America Vote.’ ”
America Votes, whose name is similar, is a self-described nonpartisan voter registration organization sponsored by generally liberal-leaning groups.
Several canvassers said they had been instructed to skip the lower portion of the form and others said they were told to say they were working for a local employment agency.
Twilla said the canvassers were told to say they worked for Career Concepts, a local employment agency. Career Concepts was contracted by a Florida firm, Apple One, to assist them in locating temporary employees. A spokeswomen for Career Concepts last night said her firm did not employ the canvassers.
Sproul’s role in voter registration drives this month triggered official investigations in several other states, with canvassers alleging they had been told to discard Democratic registration forms, leaving voters who thought they had registered off the rolls.
The firm has a contract with the Republican National Committee to register new voters and has operated using the name Voters Outreach of America. Sproul’s chairman, Nathan Sproul, is a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party.
The firm attracted attention in Pittsburgh last month when Sproul employees called a Carnegie Library official to request space outside the buildings to register voters.
Holly McCullough, special assistant to the library director, said a woman from the firm said they were working for America Votes, the nonpartisan but liberal leaning organization.
McCullough said she agreed to allow the group to set up at the libraries.
“I said there has to be no issue advocacy. It has to do nonpartisan voter registration and they said that was right,” McCullough said. Instead, several days later, McCullough received a call from Ryan Hughes, director of the Woods Run library branch, saying patrons had complained about the behavior of the canvassers.
Hughes said a patron came in the library Sept. 7 “and said ‘There’s this person out there asking me who I was voting for.’ “But McCullough said she also became concerned because she discovered that Sproul was not working for America Votes, and that the registration drive was being organized by the Republican Party.
(Dennis Roddy can be reached at 412-263-1965 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)