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Gio
22 Mar 04,, 10:20
Republicans see push as boon for keeping control of Senate, House

A growing number of large U.S. corporations are offering services to register their employees to vote and mounting get-to-the-polls drives that advocates hope will swell the ranks of pro-business voters this election year.

Companies portray the voter push as a nonpartisan employee benefit. But Republicans see it as a boon to their hopes of maintaining control of the House and Senate and reelecting President Bush. And Democrats, who have long benefited from union-led get-out-the-vote campaigns, are worried that business finally has developed a vigorous counterpunch.

During the elections of 2000 and 2002, District-based industry groups launched pilot programs to determine whether such techniques would encourage pro-business voting or turn off workers. Polling afterward demonstrated that most employees welcomed their companies' involvement as long as it was done with a light touch. Firms also saw evidence that pro-business voting increased.

As a result, the number of companies that provide voter registration and other election-oriented services is expanding, with a special emphasis on voting via absentee ballot.

Of the 150 companies that belong to the Business Roundtable, an organization that represents the chief executives of the nation's largest corporations, 99 are participating in the voter registration program this year, a Business Roundtable spokeswoman says. Two years ago, only 27 Business Roundtable companies took part. A majority of the Association Committee of 100, a group that comprises the biggest trade associations in the country, are also operating versions of the program.

The Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) says it plans to increase the number of companies and associations that use its voter program to at least 500 this year from 184 in 2002. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says its version of the effort is to be used by 129 companies and trade associations, up from 50 two years ago.

So many trade associations are offering the service, in fact, that a handful of Republican-leaning groups have formed an organization to provide "best practices" advice to newcomers. The group has 65 members and is growing, said Jade West, senior vice president for government relations of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

"This development has been building for some time," said Michael E. Baroody, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers. "Now it's achieving critical mass."

The campaign uses customized Web sites to make it easy for workers to download voter-registration forms and apply for absentee ballots. It also directs company employees to sites that show how candidates for federal office have voted compared with the companies' position.

The message is subtle but clear: If you think your well-being is tied to the company's fortunes, please consider voting for the candidates that the company prefers.

Corporations have traditionally shied away from any sort of electioneering for fear that employees would resent the interference. Federal laws prohibit companies from expressly supporting the election or defeat of candidates to their rank-and-file workers. They can be more explicit to senior managers and officers -- a small slice of their employees -- but they almost never say "Vote Republican" or "Vote Democratic."

Still, the drive's pro-GOP tilt is not lost on top Democrats. Corporate representatives recently briefed top officials of both political parties as a courtesy. A spokesman for Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said, "These fellows came to him under the guise of nonpartisanship in the same way that wolves sometimes don sheep's clothing."

Democrats are clearly worried. Steve Rosenthal, who heads America Coming Together, an organization bent on defeating President Bush, called the program "a formidable piece of work" that merits "paying attention to."

Republicans are thrilled at the prospect. "The magnitude of these efforts could provide the margin of difference to reelect Bush," said David K. Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, an early and active participant in the get-out-the-vote effort.

"It's great," agreed Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who heads the Senate Republicans' reelection committee. "The more economically literate people who vote, the better."

Still, the impact of the program remains largely untested. "You won't see real evidence until the election in November," Rosenthal said.

Even some business leaders have doubts. "Everyone likes to say that they have a voter registration program," said Lee Culpepper, senior vice president of government affairs of the National Restaurant Association. "But you aren't necessarily moving the needle."

Chances are, however, that the needle will move noticeably this year. William C. Miller, the national political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says he is leery of using specific numbers to quantify the growth of the effort because "they sound ridiculous, they're so big." Yet he is comfortable estimating that number of workers who will be touched by the voter program will "certainly be in the millions."

Industry executives say such efforts invariably produce more pro-business voters. Focus groups conducted by BIPAC after the 2002 elections indicated that 60 to 70 percent of employees who used company-provided information voted for the pro-business candidates. In addition, workers who had multiple contacts by their companies about the election were more likely to show up at the polls than people who were not influenced by such a program.

"Employees will vote their companies' interest," said Brian Lunde, general manager at Edelman Communications in the District. "You just have to be very careful about pushing stuff down their throats." Lunde also served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee in the mid-1980s.

Since many executives are already registered, leaders of the program plan to target employees who travel a lot and encourage them to vote by absentee ballot. A study by the Census Bureau in 2002 found that 19 million registered voters did not vote in the 2000 election and that 10 percent of those non-voters said they stayed away from the polls because they were out of town. "This is 1.9 million voters, an astonishing number, [that is] almost certainly comprised largely of business people on travel," said John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable. "The tools now exist to change this."

There is so much interest in the program that there are at least three versions of Web site services being marketed to the corporate community. BIPAC's program is called the Prosperity Project. The U.S. Chamber's is VoteForBusiness.com, and unlike BIPAC's, is offered free to companies and associations. A third program, called HelpingAmericansVote.org from Edelman, concentrates on disseminating absentee ballots.

Companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG, Household International Inc. and Caterpillar Inc. and trade associations as diverse as Associated Builders and Contractors and the Credit Union National Association plan to use one system or another to engage employees. They will urge their workers to vote and, via the Internet, to help them register and apply for absentee ballots.

Each organization will tailor its program to its own culture. Exxon Mobil contacts its retirees as well as its employees with e-mails and other communications. Caterpillar supplements its Web-based efforts with messages from its chairman, including a voice mail the day before Election Day that reminds people to show up at the ballot box. The beer wholesalers distribute posters that read, "Be Sure to Vote Pro-Beer."

Then-Caterpillar Chairman Glen A. Barton implored his workers to vote by way of a column on the company Web site. His Sept. 6, 2002, dispatch was typical. "At Caterpillar, we watch the election cycle very closely and work to advance positions that help us do business both domestically and internationally," he wrote. "The . . . intranet site now offers tools to help you register to vote, obtain an absentee ballot and review candidates' voting records on issues important to Caterpillar." He concluded: "Many of the races are close, and now more than ever, your vote counts."

Business leaders are careful to say their voter-assistance system is not partisan. Still, industry leaders say the genesis of the election drive is an age-old complaint from GOP bigwigs that business does not do enough to counteract the get-out-the-vote drives of organized labor, a Democratic Party ally.

Union volunteers are credited biennially with turning out enough voters to keep the Democrats competitive. The Republicans' pro-business friends, on the other hand, have long been criticized for failing to match labor's tactics.

"There has been the feeling among Republicans that the business community has been willing to write checks but hasn't been willing to engage their employees," Miller said. "But now there's a recognition both from our friends and adversaries that the business community has done much more communicating with their employees and will make a difference in the '04 elections."

And for business, that would represent a major change. "Companies have been reluctant to do this for decades, but now it's not just acceptable, it's desirable," Baroody said. "The potential here is very big, even transformational."
2004 The Washington Post Company

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