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The difficulties of getting voters invested and informed about elections

Inside the quiet lobby at Norwegian Hospital in Chicago, Martin Torres quietly approaches people with a pen and clipboard. He’s with the Latino Policy Forum and this day happens to be the last day people can register to vote for the upcoming midterm elections.

He’s turned down several times. Some people are already registered, some cannot vote because they’re not U.S. citizens. He enters a full waiting room and goes straight to Charnese Stevens, 19, and her friend Kabronte Hicks, 18. Stevens tells Torres she registered and tells Hicks to get registered. She even tells him to check the box where he can work as an election judge.

As Hicks fills out the voter registration application, Stevens looks up at me and asks what the election is about. I explain she can vote for the next Illinois governor, candidates for U.S. Senate, state races and several ballot initiatives. When asked if he’s going to vote, Hicks says that until he was asked to register on this day, he never thought about voting. Torres says that’s common.

“A lot of people register when they’re asked to register. That’s when they get involved,” Torres said. “Otherwise, it’s not the first thing they look forward to doing when they first get up.” That’s what dozens of organizations are counting on for election day. The umbrella organization Every Vote Counts registered more than 100,000 people as the deadline approached. Torres explains by registering today, they can vote in next year’s mayoral election.

But Stevens doesn’t know who’s going to be on that ballot. When I asked her if she knew who Rahm Emanuel was, she said no.

Rudy Garrett is laid back with her approach to getting people to register. At the CTA Red Line stop off Roosevelt Road, Garrett fist bumps people she meets and even when she’s turned down, she offers a smile along with a high five.

Along with getting people to register and getting her offer turned down, sometimes she’ll have to teach a mini civics course to explain the process. She’s had to explain that Nov. 4 is election day, that this is not a presidential election year, who the candidates are for governor and some of the ballot questions. This doesn’t surprise Tari Renner, professor of political science at Illinois Wesleyan University.

“That’s unfortunately part of the American political culture. We know the least about our politics compared to any other society. Bar none,” says Renner. “It’s one of the reasons campaigns cost so much. It’s the least engaged who tend to be the swing voters that decide elections. And that’s why we’re inundated with negative ads.”

Renner knows a little about this process. He’s also the mayor of Bloomington and has seen all kinds of political campaigning in his time. In 2009, Renner lost a municipal election, in a population of 80,000, by 15 votes. He says disengagement happens despite civics education and the constant barrage of political ads. Renner cites an election tactic from a decade ago that’s still being used today.

“The Bush administration back in 2004 had these anti-gay marriage, protection of marriage referenda on the ballot in many states. They never thought that any of these things would come to fruition, that we’d actually ban gay marriage,” Renner said. “They knew that would motivate their base to get to the polls and that would help Bush in some really tight races.”

On the November ballot, there’s an advisory question about whether the state’s minimum wage should be raised to $10 an hour, up from $8.15. Many community groups have pushed that non-binding referendum to get their base out on election day. Katelyn Johnson, executive director of ACTION NOW, says that issue, and not the governor’s race, will motivate people to vote.

“I think any time people have a chance to vote in their self interest and to vote in a way that can actually speak powerfully to the demand, I think people get excited about that,” Johnson said. “I think this is an opportunity that people can see themselves as being a part of a process and have an additional meaning to that vote.”

That’s the message Garrett relays as she approaches people. She knows some may be lying just to get away from her. Garrett just moves on to the next one.

“Sometimes you just get people who are like ‘I just don’t know. I’m not sure. Maybe I should get registered’,” Garrett said. “It’s just making sure you ask every single person. Because the more people you ask, the more people you’re likely to get more registered.

That’s whether they know about the issues or not.

Follow WBEZ Reporter/anchor Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews & Google+

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