Santa Fe After watching the “The Organizer” and hearing questions at the Santa Fe Film Festival, several of us were having lunch, and invariably as these things go, we were following up on the follow up questions, most interestingly about the need for a return to robust voter registration efforts along the line hallmarked by ACORN. One of our friends underlined the point most dramatically when looking at the prospects of coming elections in New Mexico as one example, and New Mexico has sometimes been a battleground state.
The question after the documentary from one of the audience had focused on the relative vacuum that had emerged in the wake of the concerted attacks on ACORN, especially around voter registration. Many community-based organizations, caught in the quandary, had found the ACORN experience chilling, and were afraid to run voter registration campaigns fearing they would be caught in the same crossfire. It is simply impossible to run a perfect or error-free voter registration campaign, because those involved in registration are legally required to turn in signed forms, even when they know them to be false, but open records laws mean that any fake forms are open to attack in our polarized climate, regardless of the fact that forms do not equal votes, and, as I have often said, everyone knows Mickey Mouse can only vote in Orlando.
Our friend mentioned the recent registration efforts in New Mexico, where no organization was willing to have the work done under its own banner, so a separate organization was created to do voter registration, so that if attacked, it could simply be disclaimed and killed. This was not a strategy unique to New Mexico, but how tragic for our democracy. Voter registration efforts should be a proud banner hanging in any organizing office, not something to be feared. Building cycle to cycle experience and trust in organizational registration efforts builds power and legitimacy in the campaign, as it did for ACORN. One off efforts, opened and closed after elections, are inevitably ad hoc and don’t build capacity.
Our friend confirmed that fact, noting that the effort hardly yielded 10% of the results that had been common with ACORN’s more widely touted and aggressive registration campaigns. He spoke wistfully on the need and potential to rebuild such efforts so that 150,000 people might be registered in New Mexico in the coming cycle, sufficient to turn the tables with the swarm of new, but fully qualified voters.
As organizers and stewards of organizational and social change, we have to fight the fear and embrace voter registration and GOTV efforts. If we can’t defend democratic practice and voting, how can we pretend to build power? If we can’t finally mobilize defense and advocacy for voting and voter registration, as one of the most fundamental of citizen rights, how can we hope to ever win on any progressive plank?
The old Roosevelt line that we only have to fear, fear itself is still true, and the more we confront it, the sooner we can eradicate it from registration, and, eventually, from voting itself.