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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Arizona is in Play in November and It Could Matter

Promise Arizona Get Out the Vote Float

Promise Arizona Get Out the Vote Float

Rock Creek, Montana    Whenever a state is compared to Mississippi, it’s a sure fired signal there’s trouble coming, so I hunkered down to read an article in the recent New Yorker that referred to Arizona as “the Mississippi of the West.” Trust me, that’s not a complement, and trust me on this as well, Arizona has earned every piece of this putdown in the way that it has dealt with its Latino population, calling to mind in excruciating detail the way Mississippi has been infamous for its discrimination against African-Americans over the years.

No surprises, the article focused on the fact that there are huge efforts to register 75,000 Latinos to expand the voting pool. Most of the groups mentioned in the article are organizations we know well and have worked with at various times in the past in one way or another: Puente, Promise Arizona, and One Arizona. These are good people with deep commitments. There’s a real organizing community in Arizona, which makes it a pleasure to work there.

Given the fact there is always more turnout in a general election year, and that Republican nominee Donald Trump has gone out of his way to alienate the Hispanic population nationally, and especially along the border, this is an important peoples’ effort to make a difference and prevail despite incredible efforts by the state legislature to suppress voting access and create voting barriers. There isn’t a poll tax, but there’s’ almost everything else, including the kitchen sink that politicians have thrown in the way of voters. The recent scandal when polling places were reduced in Maricopa County, home of Phoenix the state’s population center where 40% of the electorate is Hispanic, to about one-third of what they had been, thereby creating huge lines and waiting periods is just one example. What’s at stake may not be the Presidential election, because there are other, larger battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania that will play a larger role, but to the degree that longtime Senator and former Presidential candidate, John McCain, could lose his seat, affecting the Senate majority, and that arch nemesis Sheriff Arpaio could finally fall make this coming election worth watching.

Last time a joint effort called Adios Arpaio came very close to throwing the Sheriff out of office. This could be the time, but only if the registration effort succeeds and voter turnout is high. A recent effort, covered in the article, was successful statewide when all groups joined together to push through a ballot proposition that will reallocate $3.5 billion from the state’s land trust to the public-school system where 44% of the population is Latino. Importantly, the measure won by 20,000 votes.

Much of the article focused on Petra Falcon, a former Industrial Areas Foundation organizer and longtime activist in the state, who directs Promise Arizona. It was fun to read that she still uses the old Fred Ross house meetings as a regular part of their methodology. The piece didn’t paper over the fact that the Latino organizing community is not monolithic. The religiosity Falcon and her organization attach to the work is not shared as widely by other groups and her support for the Gang of Eight immigration compromise, roundly attacked by almost all other immigrant groups when proposed, puts her a bit out of step with others.

More importantly though, on this election, everyone in Arizona is united and that could mean something great for the whole country and speed up the process of taking the Mississippi out of Arizona in the future.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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