Saturday, November 06, 2004

GOP Dirty Tricks?

This speaks for itself.

GOP surfed for voters at work
Greg Gordon, Star Tribune Washington Bureau Correspondent
November 6, 2004 BIZWAR1106

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Business groups picked Ohio two years ago as the first place to fully deploy a new tactic for turning out Republican votes in the 2004 election.

Managers at more than 50,000 companies in Ohio urged employees to vote, while trying to coax them in e-mails to look at customized internal Web sites rating politicians' votes on business issues, a project leader said. One rating gave Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry a zero last year on votes affecting manufacturers.

Now the business strategists are trumpeting their efforts in Ohio and several other battleground states as a prime example of how Republicans topped Democrats in turning out voters, clinching President Bush's reelection.

Greg Casey, a former U.S. Senate sergeant-at-arms who headed what he calls business' "below-the-radar" national effort, said it resulted in 30 million electronic contacts with workers, about 700,000 the day before the election.

He said 812,000 workers downloaded voter registration forms from the Web sites.

Casey believes that the "Prosperity Project" had a big impact in Ohio, citing research suggesting that for every 10 employees who scanned company Web sites, one was motivated to vote. He said Ohio companies made 1.3 million employee contacts, more than nine times Bush's 136,483-vote victory margin in the state.

Former Michigan governor John Engler, the new president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), said businesses' effort to turn out voters "has to be viewed as a resounding success."

Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist, agreed that "the days when the Democratic Party had a natural advantage in turnout are over," noting that Republican-leaning churches have also fine-tuned their voter mobilization tactics.

But Jacobs is skeptical of company managers' assurances that their effort is politically neutral and doesn't urge workers to vote for certain candidates.

"Employers know that they're into a dangerous territory" as they circulate political material in the workplace, he said.

"This is not nonpartisan, even-handed campaign material. It's material that's subtly, but clearly promoting one candidate at the expense of another. That's the line that's being crossed. It raises a lot of issues about the rights of employees not to be intimidated regarding elections. ... There's no democracy in a workplace."

Through the e-mails and Web sites, he said, it could appear that "your boss is giving you very clear signals about how he wants you to behave as a citizen. ... You're seeing a blurring of a line between the hierarchy of a workplace and the equal playing field of citizenship."

Casey and other Prosperity Project officials, however, say they are "respectful" to employees and merely offer them access to information affecting their companies' prospects in a tough global economy.

"At the end of the day," said Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturers Association, if employees and companies "aren't working together, all those jobs are going to China."

The customized Web sites include ratings of legislators' stands on issues such as trade, legal reform and proposed regulatory changes aimed at helping U.S. firms compete globally.

In Minnesota this year, Casey said, 327,800 employees opened Prosperity Web sites that display key business issues and business groups' ratings of votes by congressional members. Among Minnesota's delegation, Republicans rated sharply higher. GOP Sen. Norm Coleman got two 91 percent ratings, while Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton was rated from 8 percent to 45 percent. (Neither senator was up for election this year.) In the House, where every seat was up for election, Minnesota's four GOP members rated between 75 and 100 percent, while conservative-leaning Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson (52 percent to 70 percent) was the only one of four House Democrats to exceed 38 percent.

Minnesota participant

While many participating companies refuse to be identified publicly, Gordon Crow, director of government and community affairs for Schwan Food Co., said the frozen-food maker, based in Marshall, Minn., has operated a Prosperity Web site since 2002 and actively encouraged employees to vote.

Federal election laws allow companies to endorse candidates to senior managers, administrative personnel and shareholders, but bars such activity with most lower-level employees.

In Ottumwa, in southeastern Iowa, CEO Kendig Kneen of Al Jon, Inc., said he carefully walked the line in an election-eve e-mail urging his 110 employees to vote.

"I, in no way, want to influence anyone's vote or try to impose my intellectual views concerning the election," he wrote employees of the family-owned company that makes compactors and crushers for the solid waste and scrap metal industries. "I appreciate your interest in the materials we have distributed this year. ... The challenges to manufacturing are great, but ... given the right people in office, the job will get done."

Kneen, a national NAM board member and past chair of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, called the Prosperity Project "the most powerful tool that business has today as it relates to elections."

"Business has been throwing money at elections and candidates for years and not having much success," he said. Once employees were approached directly and looked over legislators' votes, they "figured out that what's good for business is good for them."

Jacobs, though, said he worries that employees who openly resist the approaches might suffer reprisals, such as bad job reviews.

Seeds for the Prosperity Project were first planted in 1999. Casey, president of the Business and Industry Political Action Committee that coordinates the project, said enthusiasm grew after a survey the next year showed labor unions were reaching 17 percent of workers on voting issues, compared with 7 percent for businesses. Businesses were failing to capitalize on the credibility that company executives have with their employees, he said.

While many e-mails get lost in the "clutter," Casey said, "if you get something from your plant manager, your CEO, you're going to open it."

Two years ago, leaders of NAM, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other associations ramped up just as a new campaign finance law was halting the flow of tens of millions of dollars in corporate donations to the national parties.

It turned out to be a bargain, costing less than $10 million this election cycle to gain participation from 800 to 1,000 businesses and trade associations, which in turn linked hundreds of thousands more corporate members to the system. Meanwhile, Democratic voter mobilization groups spent more than $100 million.

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