"An enormous voter-registration effort was made in 2008, starting in the primaries and carrying on beyond as a principal part of the Obama strategy in the fall election," said Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic consultant who has worked on registration drives. "The fact is none of that has happened in the same way this year. There's been some registration work, but just to stay even you have to do a lot." This year's efforts, he said, have probably not been enough to restore voter registration to its 2008 proportions, much less exceed them.
"Why have all this voter suppression? You can't win fair and square, so you decide you're going to rig it. Romney said what he meant."
Just look at Nevada, where I witnessed ACORN's work up close four years ago, and which is again a hotly targeted presidential swing state this year. In 2008, the state recorded a record 1.2 million active voters, including more than 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Four years later, the total number of registered voters is down to 1.1 million, and Democrats' advantage is only about 55,000.
The specter of ACORN hangs over 2012 in ways seen and unseen. There are the dozens of voter ID measures that have been enacted across the country to protect against largely imaginary fraud, some of which, like Pennsylvania's, are still being examined by courts six weeks before Election Day. States have shortened their early voting periods, tried to "purge" the rolls of suspicious potential voters, and restricted the ability of third-party groups to conduct voter-registration drives. A Tea Party-affiliated group says it will deploy an army of "observers" to monitor the polls in November, an effort that has the left alarmed about the potential for intimidation and harassment.
While all of these efforts push to shrink the electorate, their major erstwhile counterweight -- ACORN's grassroots effort to expand the electorate -- is gone. Lewis, the former ACORN CEO, admits there's a void.
"In 2008, we accounted for 25 percent of all new voter registrations -- our one organization, which took us years to get up to that," she said. After the election, "there were millions of dollars arrayed against us. That was the right's money well spent. Registration is way down. Engagement is way down. People are being threatened, and this Tea Party group now says it's going to show up at polling places. You've got to give the right credit where credit is due."
Lewis worries about what effect this will all have on the election, as well as the longer-term project of community empowerment. But with Romney making remarks like his 47 percent tirade, she finds hope that he will accomplish what organizers haven't -- galvanizing the poor.
"I was a little bit more skeptical," she said. "But I'm feeling a lot better now because Mitt Romney is such a gargoyle." By slighting the "47 percent," she hopes, Romney may just have given them the reason they need to sign up and vote.