Getting Out the Vote Door-to-Door

Chicago The Organizers’ Forum has been hosting a 2-day meeting of over forty community, labor and other organizers in a quick immersion discussion of new developments in political methodology here at Cenacle Retreat Center a few blocks from beautiful Lincoln Park along the Lakeshore.  The sessions have gone remarkably well due in large part to well prepared and thoughtful presentations from some of the best out there.   For once we are going to have to say that if the progressive forces lose this time, it’s not for lack of trying!

 In a few weeks you will be able to access the notes of this dialogue on the Organizers’ Forum website at or read about it in some depth in a coming issue of the magazine, Social Policy.   For now you will just have to take my word for it.   Look at the lineup alone and you will see why this was such a powerful session:  Cathy Duvall, National Organizing Director, America Votes (on the new alliances and configurations); Orrin Baird, SEIU Legal Department (about the new legal framework); Caitlin Murphy, Lake, Snell & Perry (on the pivotal single women’s constituency!); Professor Don Green from Yale (on what really works on GOTV efforts); Greg Naylor, ACT (on how the PA voter registration effort worked); Zach Polett, Executive Director, Project Vote (on how we are registering more than 1,000,000 new voters this year!); Sarah Buecher, Working Assets (on how they are funding a million new registrants); Jeremiah Baumann, PIRG (on how they are pulling out youth voters this election); Madeline Talbott, Illinois ACORN (on the turnout and registration efforts that lay beneath the Barack Obama landslide in the IL Senate primary); Will Robinson, MacWilliams, Robinson & Partners (on tying issues to voting and messaging); Charles Lester, Political Director, Los Angeles County AFL-CIO (with a case study on the GOTV and coalition effort behind the Inglewood victory in stopping Wal-Mart); Dan Cantor, Executive Director, Working Families Party (on the power of fusion politics); and Holly Minch, SPIN Project (on communicating messages).  Wow, huh?

 It’s hard to pull out all the gold in these mountains.  Some nuggets:

  • It was surprising to hear how much of accepted political truth about what works in media and mail was not been tested, and often when tested against control groups turns out to make little or no difference in motivating voters.
  • Single white women — of virtually any age — are angry about politics and dissatisfied with government and if we were really organizing them to participate, and they did so at the level of other women, they would tilt the elections in the swing states!
  • A non-profit, membership organization, even though not tax-exempt might be classified as a 527 committee under the IRS — this will not mean much to the casual reader, but it sure caught me short.
  • Tax-exempt organizations are close to the edge because of all of these new requirements, and one wonders how many organizers have good enough lawyers to keep them out of trouble?
  • Amazing what it can cost some organizations to register voters, when money is no object!
  • We learned there is such a thing as a “soft-hard PAC” — which sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it?
  • Framing matters and we need to be able to look separately at what it takes to reconstruct our messages to win.

We were all taken to organizing school by the Forum in Chicago, but after taking a lot of notes and benefiting from a lot of discussion, we are good to go, and we’ll get all of you there with us, too!

Charles Lester of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO shows people how turnout made the difference in Inglewood in beating Wal-Mart.

Looking Under the Hood

Kansas City: There is no small amount of excitement in writing about a significant victory in a serious and long-term fight as I did in reporting on the tentative agreement with H&R Block.  The campaigns are so intense and riveting that once done, the report feels mundane.  Partly because it is hard to adequately convey all of the events, large and small, which drive our work to victory and allow us to get the traction to win. 

 I thought about this today standing in the gray drizzle of the late Kansas City morning and helping the ACORN national board load-up on the yellow school buses to go on an action which in this case targeting Jim Oglesby, the CEO of MGE (Missouri Gas & Electric) to prevent continued shutoffs.  It made me smile remembering Mary Daley, the executive director of Northwest Bronx, Clergy & Laity Concerned, when she jumped up in a meeting in North Carolina some years ago and stated in the loudest terms that she wanted to address her remarks to real organizers, and not freelance activists.  She turned on the crowd and demanded to know how many of them had ever loaded up yellow school buses?  And, the organizers roared!  They knew what she was talking about, and the rest were clueless.  Little yellow school buses mean direct actions.  Actions mean members getting in the bench seats and rolling to action.  A modest count in a recent three month period indicated that “the little yellow buses” rolled on H&R Block more than 400 times between December and February alone! 

 Looking under the hood one can see how the engine driving these programs really works!  There are a couple of other stories that give the more humorous side of how actions, campaigns, and negotiations really work. 

 Yesterday, literally as our committee walked in after our prep session before what we hoped would be our final session with H&R Block, as I walked into the conference room, I took my glasses out of their case and they FELL APART IN MY HANDS!  So, there we are looking at the company spokespeople across the table, and I was blind as a bat.  Blackberry messages and cell phone calls vibrating at my hips, proposals being passed back and forth, and I had to get my fellow committee members to read me the documents every time we took a caucus and finger out the messages on the blackberry.  Madness!  We were bringing this agreement in on a blind man’s bluff!

 In a similar vein we had gotten some support to put up an “opposition” website directed at H&R Block called   Our contractor got the site up finally about a month after we had begun hitting the company, luckily the very weekend before our first meeting with representatives of H&R Block in New Orleans.  Like many of these sites, the whole point was to barrage the company throughout the campaign with emails from supporters.  We thought that was happening, but a rep of the contractor finally asked us right before tax day, April 15th,  if we wanted to send the whole 800 odd emails to the company then:  aaaarrgh!  In short this tactic had effectively yielded NO pressure on the company – so much for our slick stuff, eh?  Our web guy, the unparalleled Mark Madere, tried to make us feel better by pointing out that at least we were a little slicker than the company, because we (which is to say, he!) had figured out how to send all 800 emails out at once, and the company seemed to have been forced to literally have some person individually type out email answers to every one of the messages by hand.  Sort of a, “we may be horse-and-buggy, but they’re still caveman” kind of comfort, which is not much comfort, really!

 Our car drives smoothly and powerfully enough, and over the long haul can really purr, but often when one looks under the hood, the engine is a confusing and mysterious thing.  As one stares down in the guts of it, it is sometimes an amazement that it gets going on the highway at all.