Political Eye: Mi Familia Vota registers 'anybody and everybody'

Leo Murrieta knows a few things about registering voters.

As Nevada director of Mi Familia Vota, he deploys more than two dozen volunteers and paid staffers into Southern Nevada each day with clipboards, pens and voter registration forms at the ready.

They stand outside grocery stores such as Cardenas, go to libraries and community events and walk up and down the line of people standing outside the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"We go to where the community goes," Murrieta said, adding that the hot Las Vegas summer days make the job a little tougher. "It takes a lot of water, but we're out there every day."

Mi Familia Vota is a national, nonprofit group with state chapters aiming to increase Latino and immigrant community involvement. In an election year, that means registering Hispanics to vote - and anyone else who crosses the group's path - Murrieta said, adding there is no discrimination allowed.

"We register whoever comes along," he said. "We register anybody and everybody."

People can register as Democrats, Republicans or nonpartisans or with third political parties. The Mi Familia Vota workers are trained by the Clark County Elections Department to follow the law and the rules, he said.

Still, President Barack Obama probably would benefit from Mi Familia Vota's work as the Democrat won about three-quarters of Latinos here in 2008 and is leading his GOP challenger Mitt Romney in the polls among Hispanics by 3-to-1 this year. About 15 percent of the Nevada electorate in 2008 and 2010 was Hispanic, but Democrats are hoping to push that up to 18 percent this November, giving the party a bigger edge.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., also could get a boost in her close race with U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. And the competitive congressional races could be affected in Southern Nevada, particularly in U.S. Rep. Joe Heck's 3rd Congressional District, where the Republican is facing Democrat John Oceguera, the state Assembly speaker.

Murrieta said his only concern is getting Hispanics like him involved in the election process.

At age 26, he is a recently naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico who will be voting in his first presidential election in 2012.

"The outcome I want from this election, regardless of who wins the White House, is to get more voices involved," Murrieta said. "If we vote, we win."

So far, Murrieta is winning the race to register voters in Clark County.

By Murrieta's count, Mi Familia Vota has registered about 9,000 voters since his group began its push in February.

Larry Lomax, the registrar of voters in Clark County, said Mi Familia Vota turns in more voter application forms each week than any other group.

"They're pretty darn active," Lomax said.

The Nevada Democratic Party also has been pretty active.

Since March, when tens of thousands of voters were put on inactive status, Democrats have registered more then 18,000 voters, according to the secretary of state's office. That compares with fewer than 9,000 for Republicans.

At the end of June, 41 percent of Nevada's registered voters were Democrats, and 37 percent were Republican.

The remainder were registered as either nonpartisan, 16 percent, or with third parties such as the Independent American Party and the Green, Libertarian and other parties.

Despite the activity, the pace of voter registration in 2012 in Clark County is far behind what it was in 2008, according to the Election Department. Four years ago, Democrats outregistered Republicans and ended up with a 100,000-voter advantage by the time the November election rolled around, helping Obama win.

Democrats are outpacing Republicans again this year by about 2-to-1 in registering voters, and the Democratic Party advantage over Republicans stood at 44,179 as of the end of June. Republicans are working to close the gap, but Democrats are confident they can increase it to 62,000 to 64,000 by the Nov. 6 election, according to insiders.

There doesn't appear to be a way to match the historic 2008 voter registration drive.

According to election records, 368,337 voters were registered in Clark County during 2008.

This year, a total of 96,257 voters have been registered in the county. That is about half the 188,839 voters that were registered at this same point in time during 2008.

The voter registration pace has started to pick up since the last drive ahead of the June 12 primary, Lomax said. The department has seen more than 5,000 voters register each week during most of the past six weeks.

Four years ago around this same time, the pace was averaging 6,000 to 8,000 a week before it picked up to double and even triple in the run-up to the election to a whopping 37,928 voters registered in one week.

Lomax said there may have been more enthusiasm four years ago in Nevada. But he said some of the explosive voter registration in 2008 also could be attributed to an illegal program run by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform. ACORN had an illegal quota policy that forced workers to register a certain number of people per shift or face termination, according to authorities who prosecuted the organizers.

The program, called Blackjack or 21-Plus, rewarded workers with $5 extra per shift if they brought in 21 or more completed voter registration cards. That resulted in some fake forms being filled out and some thrown out.

Lomax said there have been no problems this election cycle.

"We're not getting the fraud that we were getting" four years ago, he said.

Murrieta said his group pays staffers about $10 an hour to register voters, which is legal.

"We take it very seriously. We play by all the rules," he said. "The last thing anybody wants is a false form getting in or a voter getting turned away at the polls."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.