Fighting Back the Fear of Voter Registration

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.

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Project Vote Pulling the Plug When Its Work is So Badly Needed

New Orleans  Mike Slater, the executive director of Project Vote since about 2008, announced that the voter registration and voter accountability organization was going to close its doors on May 31st, largely because of a lack of financial support. He thanked longtime donors and supporters, but indicated there just was enough in the bank to keep fueling the machinery for voting participation and accountability. There is likely more to it than that, but I haven’t been close to Project Vote since 2008, so all I know is what the announcement says, but I do know enough to write in their obituary that it’s a tragedy.

In these days of voter suppression by one legislature after another, increasingly overseen by the chief suppressor now in the Attorney General’s office as well as one court case after another ending in clear judgments citing racism in restraining the vote, the history and experience of Project Vote is sorely needed. In the future, we will be on the field with one star player absent. Amazing to me, while reading of voter registration efforts right now in Georgia on a key Congressional race and hearing the news that millions have been raised to support the Center for Popular Democracy voter registration and other voting efforts that the space shrank so sharply that Project Vote couldn’t survive.

Project Vote was founded in 1982 by DC-based, activist lawyer, Sandy Newman. Virtually from its beginning Project Vote and ACORN worked closely together, welded in common purpose by our commitments to register voters in lower income and minority communities. Project Vote was nonpartisan and tax exempt, and the registration efforts were the same. Sandy was creative and managed to fund the operation largely through a network of private donors he cultivated assiduously who developed deep commitments to registration efforts during his service. By the early 1990s, Sandy wanted to spend his time on other interests and turn over the reins to a more diverse leadership who would continue to deepen its stewardship of this issue in communities. Zach Polett, ACORN’s political director, had developed a close working relationship with Sandy through our partnerships, so when it came time for a transition, there were two organizations who seemed ready and able to take Project Vote under their wings, the Industrial Areas Foundation, particularly Baltimore-based, Arnie Graf, and ACORN. There may be more to this story than I know as well, but Arnie was having issues with his back that led him to withdraw the IAF’s interest, while ACORN’s commitment remained enthusiastic, so it was there that Project Vote found a home.

There were several directors of Project Vote’s DC operation with different titles over the years, including Jehmu Greene, now a television commentator and advocate, but the real driver of the program within the ACORN family, regardless of title, continued to be Polett, who virtually commuted between Little Rock and Washington for fourteen years as the joint efforts between Project Vote and ACORN grew exponentially to the point where we were registering over one-million voters in 2008. And, then in the firefight that was the Obama-McCain contest, Project Vote and ACORN were both caught in the crossfire. Mike Slater, a longtime ACORN organizer, largely in Minnesota, was elevated to director in the aftermath and building more firewalls, managed to sustain the organization past ACORN’s reorganization in 2010.

To Project Vote’s credit, its website in the mid-aughts was clear about the ACORN connection. Slater acknowledged his time, the general counsel was a longtime ACORN veteran, and most importantly the organization had stood firm by Amy Busefink, an ACORN veteran who ran a big part of our 2004 statewide minimum wage fight in Florida and picked up her mail at our St. Pete office when we were working on the Walmart drives. Amy had been targeted by the right for her work in Vegas during the campaign in a drama of ridiculousness, and the organization never abandoned her, which showed good character.

Project Vote’s website has now been scoured of its ACORN ties, which leads me to believe that between the lines, they are the latest victim of the right wing attack on the organization and the left wing’s lack of backbone and tradition of struggle. It’s surprising that Mike couldn’t find a home for Project Vote in the way that Sandy had done so many years before. Is this more ACORN shaming, almost a decade later? Look at the internet. The right never forgets, even while the left too often shuns, waiting for donor handouts and fleeing any whisper of controversy, no matter how unjust.

Nonetheless, 35 years of work in registering voters and protecting their rights to the ballot, is a legacy drenched in accomplishment and pride. RIP to Project Vote, but let’s celebrate its work and life, because it made a huge difference, and it will be greatly missed.

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