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.