POLITICS

GOP Tries ACORN-Like Voter Outreach Tactics In North Dakota

10/23/2012 06:16 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- If Republicans had an acronym for their aggressive voter outreach in North Dakota's oil fields, it could be ACORN'D: Association of Conservative Oilworkers For a Republican North Dakota.

That's because Republican operatives deployed in the western part of the state where the oil industry is booming are using the same tactics that conservatives have often complained the defunct ACORN used to help Democrats: signing up transient and recent arrivals, such as colleges students, as voters. But in this case, the prospective voters are oil workers.

The main effort is getting people who are drawn to the oil patch from far and wide to sign up as North Dakota residents, which automatically allows them to vote. The state has no voter registration process, and out-of-staters can vote legally in North Dakota as long as they have lived there for at least 30 days.

In the western part of the state, though, the effort has gotten so agressive that it's now targeting people in bars, temporary housing and even in RV parks and pop-up "skid shack" towns.

Most recently, the North Dakota Petroleum Council sent out an email telling oil and drilling companies to persuade their workers to vote, in spite of what could be viewed as temporary residencies.

"For skid shack parks, RV parks, and mobile home communities where you have no physical address for your unit, but have a nearby park office, we suggest [providing] the following: Name, Address of park office, Your specific lot/room number, City/State/Zip Code," says the email, which was obtained by The Huffington Post.

The reason for a voter drive that would make ACORN proud is clear in a state like North Dakota: Only about 310,000 votes were cast in the last presidential election, and in 2010, Sen. John Hoeven (R) won his office with only 182,000 votes.

A few thousand oil workers -- estimates of their population run up to 45,000 -- could make the difference in the deadlocked Senate contest between Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Rick Berg.

"The outcome of this election may have a direct impact on the energy industry and your job," the petroleum council says in its email pitch. "It may chart the course for national energy policy. You can make a BIG difference in this election cycle. Your voice is heard by voting."

"The Republicans know damn good and well they have a built-in advantage in oil country," one state Democratic official told HuffPost, requesting anonymity because his private business depends on Republicans. He added that he recently spotted posters by a new PAC called Brighter Future Alliance in bars in the boomtown of Williston, N.D.

"It was blatantly obvious," he said. "This was two weeks ago. Early voting started on Sept. 27 and we were in Williston on Oct. 9. There was no question on why it was posted when it was posted. There was no question on why it was placed in the bar. The bar is the main place for those from out of state to go."

The petroleum council's email also directs people to Brighter Future's website for voting forms.

An observer at a recent local political meeting -- who also requested anonymity to avoid angering Republican officials at the person's work -- forwarded a photo of an operative to HuffPost through Democratic channels. (The picture is below.) The source identified the operative as working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and said the person was informing oil workers of how to vote in North Dakota, including by getting driver's licenses there.

The NRSC declined to comment on the person, but did not dispute his roll. A state Republican official who was not authorized to speak for the national organization was willing to confirm on background that the NRSC has operatives in the area.

One of the organizers of Brighter Future -- described on its website as promoting "pro-business, pro-energy, pro-growth policies" that align well with the Republican Party -- was more willing to discuss its effort.

"We're just encouraging new residents in North Dakota to vote," said Shane Goettle, the former state director for Sen. Hoeven who recently took a job heading up a new public affairs division at the North Dakota advertising firm Odney. "Not all of them are going to vote here, but some of them are putting down roots."

According to federal election records, the Brighter Future Fund registered with the FEC in May of this year, listing as its treasurer Pat Finken, who runs Odney and was recently named a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's board of directors. Brighter Future's two field operatives also have Odney.com email addresses.

On Monday, the group reported spending $29,600 for get-out-the-vote efforts backing Berg for Senate and GOP Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer for the at-large House seat now held by Berg.

Lee Ann Oliver, an elections specialist with the North Dakota secretary of state, said that such activities are entirely legal, and a voter only has to prove he or she is at least 18, is a U.S. citizen and has been living in the state at least 30 days.

But Oliver also noted there could be problems for some of the oil workers if they are really residents of another state. For instance, Oliver said, a worker from Texas who gets a per-diem payment for toiling so far from home would lose that extra money. There could also be issues in their home states where they may get benefits as legal residents, or even tax issues.

"We want them to vote, we don't want people to be intimidated, but we want them to be informed," Oliver said. "We just don't want them to be shocked if they lose that [payment] or if they get summoned to jury duty."

Oliver said there's no requirement for operatives to inform potential voters of the downsides of becoming North Dakotans in order to vote, and she said both parties are guilty of leaving out such information, particularly on college campuses where Democrats have long panned for votes.

The email sent to oil companies specified that workers could not vote in two states, but it did not warn of the consequences of giving up residency elsewhere.

Goettle said Bright Future doesn't want anyone to run afoul of the law. He allowed that while it would be hard to stop people from breaking the rules -- perhaps even voting in two places -- Brighter Future was not encouraging or interested in fraudulent votes.

"We're telling people that they should check with their home state," he said.

And while he chuckled at the idea of GOP tactics being ACORN-like, in that they're backing candidates at the same time they're targeting voters, he said he doubted oil workers would turn in some of the same kinds of bogus registrations that ACORN canvassers sometimes submitted, especially since workers in North Dakota gas and oil fields wouldn't want to jeopardize relationships with the employers who brought them there.

Yet Republicans around the nation have consistently complained about such tactics when employed by the Democratically aligned ACORN.

The GOP has also been behind a string of efforts around the nation to tighten voter restrictions, to the point where Democrats charge Republicans are engaging in voter suppression.

Democrats are waging their own coordinated effort in North Dakota to get voters out. Heitkamp's campaign said they were targeting people based on demographic data and past voting patterns. They've especially targeted older voters, believing antipathy towards the Medicare plans of GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan works in their favor.

"We have a very agressive outreach program to get folks to vote by mail, because as you know, the weather can be difficult in North Dakota," Brendan Lorenz, a Heitkamp spokesman, said, noting the special efforts aimed at seniors.

Heitkamp, who used to work in the energy industry, also hasn't ceded the oil workers, and often sounds indistinguishable on gas and oil questions from Republicans.

Still, the GOP's efforts suggest they think they can do better in the skid shacks than the Democrats. Goettle said oil workers have a natural affinity for the GOP and understand that Republican policies are friendlier to the industry. "Some of these folks are going to vote for Democrat candidates, too," he allowed.

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