Proving Registration and GOTV Work for Lower Income Voters Once Again

wards_keymapVancouver       It’s that time of the cycle.  Reporters are riding from paper to television shouting the warnings:  the elections are coming! the elections are coming! the elections are coming!  Time to hide the small children it seems.  And, of course do everything possible to suppress the participation of lower income voters.

            At the ACORN Canada board meeting, head organizer Judy Duncan, shared the results of a study commissioned by the Maytree Foundation called “Who Votes in Toronto Municipal Elections” by Myer Sieniatycki and Sean Marshall, which broke down the voting in all of the 44 wards of the city and across 140 identifiable neighborhoods.   The authors looked at elections in 2003, 2006, and 2010.  The one that the leadership studied the most closely though were the numbers in Ward 8 in the 2006 election where ACORN had done an extensive, pilot turnout effort fueled by ACORN campaigns to improve the landlord licensing program and increase the minimum wage. 

            Ward 8 is well known in the Toronto area.  The ward has a population of almost 50,000 with close to 40% in poverty.  Everyone knows the ward as the home of the Jane and Finch neighborhood and its extensive reputation as a center of social housing.  Usually, when it comes to elections, you can write off Ward 8.  In fact in this study it consistently ranked in the bottom 10 of Toronto neighborhoods in terms of voter participation.  In 2003 and 2010 Ward 8 was in the lowest participation category with less than one-third voting in 2003 and less than 44% voting in 2010.  But, when ACORN ran its program of intensive contact, door knocking, and issue focus in Ward 8 in 2006, bam, Ward 8 hit the top of the charts with the richest of Toronto’s wards with 50% turnout.   It’s no surprise of course that when people actually do the work to engage lower income voters with issues and the elections, boom, they respond.  Everyone doesn’t want this of course, but ACORN sure does, and when the opportunity presented, delivered with flying colors as documented in the Maytree report.

            People still care.  ACORN Bristol in England in the wake of an exciting first meeting with 100 people in the Easton neighborhood already heard members talking about whether they might have to run in local elections to get their voices heard.   An email came zinging out of the blue the other day from people in Redding, California looking for help trying to register 500 new voters to make a difference in local elections there. 

            Resources may be thin, but peoples’ aspirations for using elections as a voice for those unheard and unheeded continues, and, when given a chance, people respond, as evidenced once again in Jane and Finch.

Getting Elections Right and Hope for On-line Registration Potential

vrNew Orleans   The Pew Charitable Trust has an elections initiative that has been looking at election administration in the states over recent cycles.  They began by looking at 2008 and 2010, and most recently released a report on 2012 comparing both Presidential elections.  I won’t lie to you, it’s very dry reading, and given the contentiousness about elections these days, there’s little question that they made it deliberately boring.  But in talking on Wade’s World on KABF to Sean Greene, the research director who put the pieces together for Pew, we couldn’t help but uncover some interesting nuggets, some of which provide hope for the future.

One caveat to keep in mind is that many of the anti-democratic voter suppression laws passed in recent years did not go into effect during the period of this study.  That’s still a horror that awaits us.  Nonetheless, the Pew report found that for most states election performance improved around the country, based on the 17 criteria they examined.  That doesn’t mean that Florida still didn’t have an average 45 minute wait for voters, the worst in the country, but it does mean that their wait was somewhat shorter than it was – gee whiz!   Neither does the report disguise the fact that Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas among others all did worse as election tinkering in those states increases.

When it came to finding reasons to hope for the future, Greene underscored one finding he found promising, which was the increasing number of states allowing voter registration via the internet.  Between 2008 and 2012 the number of states with such provisions increased from only two to thirteen.  Initially in talking to Greene, I scoffed at the fact that in poorer cities and the South, the lack of internet access canceled out some of the potential benefits from such a provision, potentially increasing the gap between eligible lower income voters and higher income constituents with internet access.  While conceding the point, Green helpfully remarked that on-line registration significantly eased the process of third-party registration.

Bam!  I got it then.  The problems that plagued some of ACORN’s large scale registration efforts would be eliminated if registrars were able to immediately register new voters on-line where there would be no accuracy issues and no blowback from Mickey Mouse jokers.  Looking later at the website for the National Conference of State Legislators, it appears the up-to-the-minute tally on states with full or partial on-line registration is growing rapidly.  Their count was 16 had approved on-line registration through April 2014 with another 4, making 20, having passed the legislation, and another 6, simply waiting to enact, making 26.  Unfortunately, the table that followed didn’t add up to 26, but was still stuck at 24, so let’s not quibble, we’re almost covering half of the country, which means a “direct outreach – on-line enabled” registration program could be huge, effective, and involve less organizational and reputational risk.

The states are a hodgepodge, but include some battleground states at some level including Missouri, Ohio, New Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, Indiana, Virginia, Colorado, Maryland, and others.  They are light on the South, but Louisiana and South Carolina are on the list, Georgia and West Virginia are coming on soon, and while looking for the list I found that even Mississippi is debating making the switch, largely because it’s cheaper, but, hey, any port in a storm.  Of course you won’t find Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania on this list yet, but Greene and the Pew team are right, there’s hope if there were ways and means to scale up an effort with these tools in place, and an iPad with a computer air card in hand, and you could do some damage in getting more folks registered of all incomes and persuasions.

Political Ground Game in Ascendancy as Simple Math Triumphs with Big Data

dtodNew Orleans    What goes around, comes around, it seems, if you keep around long enough.

Reading about cutting edge political strategies, like the “Bannock Street project,” reminds me of frequent late discussions at the regular Wednesday night staff meetings of ACORN in Little Rock 40 years ago as we would debate whether to spend all of our efforts on voter registration to tip the political balance or put all of our marbles on getting our members and their neighbors to turnout to vote.

In the wake of civil rights victories in the 1960’s, of course voter registration was huge in the South as millions of disenfranchised African-Americans were enrolled in the wake of the movement and the Voting Rights Act.  Statistically, newly registered voters are also always more apt to vote than voters who have been registered for years, so this all made sense.  Political reputations were being made on the new outlines of the demographics whether the election of the first Republican governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, in Arkansas, or Moon Landrieu’s election as Mayor in New Orleans, by appealing to black voters where others had attacked them.

By 1970 the voter registration arena was filled and financed in places like Arkansas on the Republican side, but as we broke into electoral politics in 1972 in Little Rock’s school board races, we were looking at citywide elections always won in 5th ward in the western, hills of the city despite by then huge numbers of registered voters in the more low-and-moderate income precincts.  Working on the doors every day, our strategy then and it continued throughout four decades was all about the ground game, going door-to-door to turn out our voters, and register any, if we could, that we found while we were there.

Democratic Party strategists using “big data” and armed with computers rather than our boxes and boxes of 3×5 cards, constantly hand sorted, seem on the verge of finally winning the argument that no matter how much the candidate likes seeing himself on television, it’s all about one-on-one contact on the doors, phones, and anywhere possible to identify the your voters and then wrap them in a carrying case all the way to the polls on election day.  The Bannock Street project named after a similar effort in electing Senator Bennett in Colorado and of course the huge big data victory run by Jim Messina for Obama’s campaigns have been tilting more and more people and money to the ground game.  Looking at the numbers where Democratic registration gives the party huge advantages yet Republicans continue to win races, it seems we may finally be thoroughly shifting the political battles from the Fox News yelling to the trenches where our people live and are waiting for us to get personal to how to get them real candidates, real issues, and real help to get to the polls.

This is a winning strategy!

Proposed IRS Rules on C4s a Mixed Bag Likely to See Lobbying from Right and Left

4730557336_taxes_irs_building_xlargeNew Orleans   The IRS announced that it is proposing clearer rules to regulate the “social welfare” practices of C4 tax exempt nonprofits.   I should start with a disclaimer.   I’ve never operated a c4 organization, though I recognize the fact that they have recently become the rage, largely among lawyers and CPAs I would argue, but the mayhem that mass volumes of anonymous political money has brought to tax exempt nonprofits, largely from the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove, has muddled the mess past rational discussion.   The craziness may have infected the IRS as well.

The early blurbs say that the IRS wants to claim that voter registration and voter guides are “political” activity which besides being yet another example of voter suppression efforts and the politicization which has dramatically chilled nonpartisan voter registration efforts, have long been classified as tax exempt as long as they are demonstratively nonpartisan.   501c3 tax exempt organizations have long been permitted to do voter guides as long as they are nonpartisan and objectively present all candidate responses.   Additionally multi-state nonpartisan voter registration efforts have long tax exempt under a special section of the code, so why this slap down on the mildest of activities both of which have long proven civic value?

The heart of the rule making seems based on establishing a bright line test for the percentage of overall expenditures that would define an organization as not existing for a “social welfare purpose.”   Reports indicate that lawyers have been using a rough rule of thumb that organizations need to spend less than 50% on arguably political expenditures and that the IRS might be talking about as little as 10 to 15% in the new rules.  Hmmm.  The IRS has never definitively established a bright line test for c3’s which are much more numerous and instead has allowed lawyers and tax exempt managers to guess whether it might be 7 or 8% or whatever.   The notion that somehow the IRS is suddenly going to beef up its severely depleted exempt organizations branch to really police a number is somewhere between a fabrication and a fantasy.  It won’t happen and it can’t happen, if not no other reason that it’s a lead pipe cinch that Congress is not going to budget for an expansion of IRS capacity especially in this area.

Much of this seems to be more about the headlines and firing a warning shot at donors, both right and left, than about real guidelines and real enforcement.   There are huge loopholes, and they need to be closed, but the best way to close them may not be more toothless rules, but straightforward taxation.   If donations are disallowed for social welfare and simply taxed as political, then money will run like crazy away from c4’s even faster than the IRS can make the rules.   It’s probably running right now! This has never been about the freedom of speech for the rich, but only about tax evasion for such speech.

The wave of progressive community organizations that have also succumbed to c4 fever will be impacted as well.   Sadly, as I said earlier, there will be more curtailment of voter registration and voter education work, if the IRS tries to misclassify such work as political.   Lawyers and accountants will suck even more resources from desperately depleted nonprofits trying to hold onto c4 tax status.   The only silver lining in their cloud is the fact that most of their work is so clearly in pursuit of “social welfare” that they may become temporarily more popular while big money looks for new vehicles.

I think I’ll just stick with the plain vanilla nonprofit structure without worrying about the IRS, which has served us so well for so long, fads and fashions notwithstanding.

“Picking Up ACORN’s Pieces:” The Voter Registration Deficiency

New Orleans    Rob “Biko” Baker, the executive director of the League of Young Voters, wrote an interesting story in the Summer 2012 issue of Shelterforce daring to state plainly what has been obvious to virtually everyone concerned and biting their fingernails as the USA Election Day looms before us.  His article, entitled “Picking up ACORN’s Pieces”  is realistic and sobering.

When he wrote, he noted that,

In 2008 at this point in the election cycle, more than a million more voters had registered than they have this time around [2012].  Why?  Because after decades of empowering hundreds of thousands of voters, organizations that have historically run large voter registration canvasses – namely ACORN – are no longer around.

Baker is no sunshine liberal and continues to state the case flatly about our current predicament in an election that never should have been this close:

…opponents critical of nonpartisan voter engagement have also continued to exploit the false accusations against the organization to make it more difficult to both register to vote and participate in elections.

He notes that the suppression efforts in Florida aimed at ACORN and others in this battleground state for the last several cycles had left “100,000 fewer registered voters in the state than there were at this same time in 2008.”  Got it, yet?  Population grows over 4 years, but registered voters go down despite 4 years of haphazard registration efforts over two cycles in the face of oppression and legal threats.   This is painful to read.  I can easily remember almost a year ago exactly, right before Thanksgiving, hearing from a big time donor and political operator in Florida who was exploring whether or not to get me to come into the state to rev up their registration operation.  He ended up deciding that Florida “was good.”  The results, very dangerously, seem to say “not so much!”

Baker argues convincingly that the most impacted group are young voters of color, who also had been the ones most likely to vote in the last Presidential election.

…this is the same demographic hit hardest by the change in election law.  Young people of color are more likely to be registered by a third party operation and they are also more likely to not possess the proper ID needed to vote.  So when groups like ACORN disappear access to the civic process also disappears.

I hate to say this, but the expression, “truth from the mouths of babes” came to mind as I read Baker’s eulogy for ACORN in the section of his article entitled, “The Loss of ACORN:”

ACORN had faced repeated attacks by conservative opponents…Progressives may point fingers at conservatives for trying to suppress voter turnout, but the truth is that ACORN’s greatest attribute was empowering working class and poor communities to engage at the local level, where the Democratic Party is often dominant.  ACORN’s ability to bring new voters into the civic process made poor communities more powerful politically.  The organization took on both sides of the political spectrum, giving community activists and leaders a platform to stand in solidarity with their neighbors.  This level of civic engagement, while often ignored by political pundits, is exactly the type of democratic participation needed to rebuild the struggling communities ACORN targeted.  Most people, regardless of political background, would agree that self-determination is a good thing.  The truth is:  the entire country is hurt by the loss of ACORN.

Baker mentions the Bus Federation, Rock the Vote, Voto Latino, and the Hip-Hop Caucus as four of the “efforts picking up the pieces after ACORN….”  The smaller pieces of ACORN that reorganized on the local level are not mentioned.  Most of the ones that went this route are not in the battleground states, or where they are have either been shut out of the effort that they could have impacted or been too small to move the needle, even with a critical election and vital constituencies few are able to move as deftly as experienced ACORN organizers and personnel.

Finally, I have to find myself in total agreement with Baker as he finishes his piece and notes that

…the demand for civic engagement organizations in low-income communities of color remains at an all-time high, and there are huge opportunities for organizations to engage young people of color and take advantage of mobilizing the Millennial electorate.  The effect could be the building of major 21st century political movements, but we have to start now.

Amen!

Hating on ACORN as Election Countdown Nears in USA

Victoria   We are hardly more than a week until the USA Presidential election and predictably the conservative rightwing is pulling out the big guns and narrowing their sights for the kill, but surprisingly many are still aimed at ACORN, now almost two years gone.  Sure, it’s not as bad as it was four years ago.  One long screed I read this weekend even bemoaned the fact that ACORN did not come up in the debates between Obama and Romney as it did last time, but it’s pretty amazing how much hating on ACORN and grinding their teeth on the organization is still commonplace on the whack right.

For some of these commentators, almost of all of whom quote each other in this vicious circular fringe firing squad, it almost seems like nostalgia for them.  They want the old days back, when ACORN was alive and kicking, big and bold, and they could feel their own reflection in that sun.  Now they are left pathetic and pleading as the clock winds down on the last minutes of any interest in what they have to say.  They harrumph at the fact that Project Vote “didn’t even change its name” and neither did ACORN International.  Yet after their harrumphing, everything they say is time dated.  They have no capital letter, big sub-heads on their reports that even point a finger at work that Project Vote is doing now.  They simply roar signifying nothing.

They also rant and rave about the fact that some of the former state organizations have changed their name and managed to survive organizationally.  Sadly, they say don’t even try to lay a glove on any of them for any activity in this Presidential election cycle.  They have nothing to say about any of the rebranded organization’s work in voter registration or GOTV work.  There are no new accusations, just rocks thrown from an old discard pile.  I say, sadly, because it also may mean that many have not been engaged in these vital activities in the way low-and-moderate income families desperately need them to be.

One commentator tried to get a head of steam going about candidates for the US Senate who had been friendly to ACORN.  One sad thing about the ACORN reorganization is how few of the rebranded state organizations survived at a viable level for this contest two years later.  They can whine about Ohio deciding the election, but there is nothing alive of the vestiges of ACORN in that critical state where ACORN was so important previously.  The same could be said for Nevada, Colorado, and Michigan, all of which have been listed as battleground states.   Florida and Arizona are shadows of what they once were.  In fact if they looked at their own list, ACORN organizations largely survived, even if diminished, most robustly in states that mattered least in this contest because they were already dark, dark blue or bright, bright red:  New York, Illinois, California, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and so forth.  Our friends in Pennsylvania may be one of the only strong operations still in a state that makes the list as critical in this election.   Nonetheless, hating on ACORN as a parlor sport of the right goes on, largely unimpeded by any contemporary rational analysis.

It’s ok though.  Better for the right wingers to beat on a dead horse, than continue to hammer at some of our fewer and fewer progressive institutions that can claim to be “alive and well.”