Tag Archives: elections

2010 Turnout Gaps: Our Marching Orders for the 2012 Elections

Yes, I am haunted by voter turnout statistics.

And you should be, too.

Because this report from Nonprofit Vote has some fairly alarming data about what happened to voter turnout in 2010, particularly compared to 2008.

All of which matters tremendously for 2012.

And these figures should serve as a challenge for nonprofit organizations, because we are uniquely positioned to move the needle on these particular populations’ voter turnout.

And so we must.

Some of the “highlights”:

  • Only 24% of youth (ages 18-29) turned out in 2010, a sharp drop from 51.1% in 2008. When so much is at stake for future generations–the state of the economy, the future of entitlements, the availability of higher education, the likelihood of future foreign conflicts–allowing these decisions to be made, essentially, with only marginal input from those most affected is unconscionable.
  • There was a 20 point turnout gap between members of lower income and higher income households. Nonprofit organizations have strong relationships in many low-income communities, and significant presence as institutions shaping their lives. If we want to be a true, vibrant democracy, we’ve got to do better than this.
  • Only 35% of those with a high school diploma or less turned out in 2010, compared to 61% of those with a college degree or more. We will end up with policies that only work for those highly-educated, if only those who have been so advantaged are writing the rules.
  • There was a 34 point turnout gap between individuals who had resided in their home for less than a year (28%) and those who had resided in their home for at least 5 years (62%). Because this is often a proxy for both age and income, and because mobility is associated with some technical difficulties in actually registering and voting, we should make it a priority to reach out to those who are new in our communities, and to pursuing public policies (same-day registration, anyone?) that remove barriers to voter participation for these more mobile citizens.

There’s nothing magic, or even all that shocking, about these statistics; we know that those who are marginally connected to our political life 364 days a year–separated from the policies’ development, although certainly not from their impact–do not magically connect on Election Day.

But these statistics should be alarming to us, both because of what they represent about the failings of our representational system, and because nonprofit organizations need our constituents, including those who fall into the categories above, to participate in the electoral system if we hope that it will ultimately reflect our concerns.

So, I see these data as a to-do list. We know who we need to target for voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work, and we even have some benchmarks that can guide our definition of what “success” looks like.

Let’s produce some different figures in 2012.

And close the gaps.

Spend your “extra” day fighting a losing battle

The way I see it, folks, tomorrow is a freebie.

It’s a totally bonus day that we only get once every four years.

You won’t have a February 29th next year, and you got by without one last year. Since we don’t plan on it, then, it’s essentially a total bonus, right?

So here’s my thought:

Let’s “waste” this extra day fighting some battles we’ll almost certainly lose. You know the ones–they need to be fought, to right a wrong or just stir up some trouble for those who need to be troubled. But we avoid them, because it seems more prudent to focus our energies on more attainable victories.

But not tomorrow.

Those 24 hours are a calendar’s gift, so we might as well throw them away on some of these hopeless causes.

My list, to get the day started:

  • Public assistance eligibility for immigrant families–can you think of a less popular cause? But economic hardship sentences some citizen children of immigrant parents to a lifetime of reduced life chances, and financial desperation traps some immigrant women in violent homes. Our public assistance systems are designed to reduce hardship and provide a safety net, and these families–part of our communities–deserve that, too.
  • Tax fairness–okay, so I fight this one on some of the other days, too, but I figure I can spare a few extra hours today. We need a revenue system equal to the challenges that face us, as a state and a country, and maybe this Leap Day can put us over the top.
  • Electing truly progressive candidates to my state legislature–most of the year I’ll do some campaigning for some allies whose relatively moderate views make them important stopgaps in our current political environment, but I have dreams of seeing some folks with big plans and huge hearts elected, and maybe some fundraising calls on this extra afternoon can help.
  • Peace on earth–yeah, I know. But, then, I ask myself: what have I done lately to try to stop war and promote peace? The answer, sadly, is not much, even though I very much want my kids to grow up in a safer world. I’ll spend some time today checking out the activities of peace groups local and international, and find a way to contribute some of my time (or, most likely, my money) as an investment in the future I want for them, and for us all.

The way I see it, we spend too much energy talking ourselves out of some of the fights we really should embrace.

Pragmatism is overrated, and the greatest movements for social justice certainly never conducted a feasibility analysis first.

We have to be strategic, but we also have to be bold. And stubborn. And, sometimes, a bit foolhardy.

So, what’s on your list of losing battles for our bonus day?

Happy February 29th.

Mission-driven, Committed to Clients…and we VOTE

Which one is a nonprofit employee?

My day with Robert Egger last fall prompted some new thinking, and reading, about nonprofit civic engagement. Where I have long helped nonprofit organizations to unleash the civic participation potential of those they serve, through client-based voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote activities, I realize now that I had largely overlooked the employees of nonprofit organizations as a powerful electoral force themselves.

Not anymore.

One of Robert Egger’s new projects, as he described it, is to mobilize nonprofit employees for advocacy and social change, independent of the organizations they serve, as those organizations are often difficult, especially in the short term, to pivot to this transformational work. And we face urgent challenges, not necessarily amenable to a long revisioning of the nonprofit sector.

I’m still committed to harnessing the resources–financial, reputational, human–of nonprofit social service agencies, to build a strong and sustainable movement for social justice.

And I think that that’s compatible with efforts to help nonprofit employees integrate their work lives with their whole selves, to become part of something larger than their own work contexts, and to, collectively, create the “army” of social change advocates that we need…today.

A big piece of that, I think, that can be immediate and tangible and, if we are careful with messaging and organizing, a first step towards the kind of engagement we want to see, is leveraging nonprofit employees as electoral agents.

We start from a strong position here: there’s evidence that nonprofit employees vote more regularly than the rest of the public. That means that, if we can organize so that they are voting from the values of the missions that their work supports, and from the knowledge that they accumulate every day that they’re working for the public good–in the arts, education, health, and, especially for our interests, social services, then we will see a much larger and more active “pro-justice” electorate, the kind we need in order to elect public officials who will be our partners in reshaping the policy landscape.

So what will it take to help our employees claim and exercise their civic power? To do so as individuals, in their own capacities, and yet motivated by the same mission that drives them every day (and, OK, some evenings and weekends) in their work?

What we have to do, I believe, between now and November, to lay the foundation for this “nonprofit employee voter brigade”, includes:

  • Talk with our employees about elections, and about electoral issues–of course we have an obligation to be nonpartisan, and that’s not just the legal thing to do, but it’s the smart thing, too; our employees need safe spaces in which to talk about the connection between their politics (the issues they care about) and Politics (the election cycle that we sometimes want to avoid)
  • Remove barriers to electoral participation–this means giving people time off work to vote, and providing registration materials at work, and answering people’s questions about the electoral process
  • Transform our organizations into forces for social change, because working in a climate that focuses on root causes and encourages people to ask “why?” over and over again will push people to think about the kinds of structural challenges we face together
  • Empower and recognize individuals, because people who are empowered to see that they can make a difference, especially when they unite with others, will be able to transfer those lessons, and that inspiration, to the electoral context, too
  • Help non-citizen employees become citizens, by providing tutoring on the civics exam, free legal advice, and even scholarships for the naturalization fee

For many nonprofit employees, our jobs are callings. We live our missions every day at work, and we bring them home with us at night, too.

And we can take them into the voting booth.

And we should.

Because when we do, we will be a force with which to be reckoned.

Stuff I Love

It’s Valentine’s Day.

And, you know, I’ll admit that it’s not much of a holiday around here–we fall into the “it’s a commercialized ploy that doesn’t capture our feelings for each other” camp.

But, perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that I, too, can pour forth my feelings on February 14th, here is some stuff I totally love.

What are you loving this Valentine’s Day?

There’s a lot of love to go around, folks.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Reserving a seat on the justice bus

When I’m registering voters or talking with my students about the importance of their civic participation, I fairly frequently hear this lament:

Why would I want to get involved in the political process, when all that politicians care about is their own reelection, not the issues that really matter to me, or to my country?

That’s a paraphrase, but the sentiment is there, and it’s real.

Why would we sully ourselves by venturing into an environment laden, so the story goes, with greed and arrogance and raw ambition?

I used to try to counter this with my normal blend of righteous indignation, cheery optimism, and Protestant guilt.

We should vote, and pay attention, and agitate, because someone needs to have our collective best interests at heart, because there are always ways to make things better, and because, well, because it’s our duty.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, that never worked too well.

So awhile ago, in the midst of one of these same lopsided arguments with one of my friends, a social worker who used to be pretty politically involved but has now largely retreated, I tried a different tack.

I just told a story.

I told a story about my friend David Adkins, a now-unfortunately-retired-from-elected-office former Kansas state senator, who, while as imperfect as all the rest of us, is, I think, one of the more compelling examples in recent history of an elected official who put policy above politics and virtue above ambition.

And he did it on behalf of arguably the most marginalized of populations in today’s political debate: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals seeking the protection of their core human and constitutional rights, in a system bent on denying them.

He stood up, essentially alone, against the proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage in our state, and he did so by constructing a passionate and procedurally solid debate that, ultimately, allowed his colleagues to avoid a recorded vote on this most contentious issue. In the process, he made compelling arguments about the wisdom of equality and about the inevitable march of justice. And he also, when asked, looked right into the TV cameras and answered another senator’s question (“Does the Senator support ‘homosexual marriage’?”) with a firm “yes”.

His vote, and his statements, attracted threats and effectively ended his elected career. But his actions also provided hope and inspiration to GLBT individuals in the state, who saw someone use his power to stand up for them, and to be willing to stand beside them.

And, when I contacted him recently to tell him how what he did that day, and on this issue, continue to provide a counterpoint to the perception that individual participation doesn’t matter in the scope of the political process, and that there is no longer any room to stand on principle, he responded in a way that, for me, provides new motivation in a landscape where, even I’ll admit, it can be hard to find spots of hope.

He said that what he said that day was true–you can’t stop the march of justice. “It wasn’t all that courageous to hop on the bus before all the good seats were taken.”

That’s modest, of course.

But it’s also true.

I’m in the state where Brown v. Board of Education originated. In 1953, there were a lot of seats left on the school desegregation bus. But time shifts opinions, and justice marches on.

Today, we see a lot of empty seats around us, and it can especially feel lonely to jump into the electoral process, wrapped in our social work values, when we don’t see many others who share our commitments.

But we are not totally alone, as this story shows.

And, if we want a good seat, we must mark our stance today, taking comfort in the fact that, eventually, right wins, and others will join us.

What does it mean?

We’re two weeks now from the November 2011 elections.

There has been a lot of tea-leaf reading, with pundits trying to figure out the 2012 implications of the Ohio referendum against the anti-labor legislation, the defeat of Mississippi’s ‘personhood’ amendment, and the victories by more progressive candidates and causes in some parts of the country.

And me?

I just keep thinking about Kris Kobach’s response when a reporter asked him about the significance of Russell Pearce’s recall in Arizona.

Pearce was the key sponsor of SB1070, the first harsh anti-immigrant enforcement measure Kobach got passed. Voters were, by all appearances, tired of his rhetoric, knack for dragging Arizona into costly litigation, and other ineptitude (not all immigration-related). So he was recalled, which is rather noteworthy, and then lost his recall election.

A reporter in Kansas asked Kobach about the defeat of his colleague, and he retorted that, if it had been a closed Republican primary, Pearce would have retained his seat.

But he was, after all, defeated by another Republican. Just in an election in which any Arizona voter could vote.

So what I keep thinking is this:

Did the intellectual architect of the legislative attacks on immigrant families just admit that these ideas only resonate, today, with Republican primary voters? If so, then, given that there’s obviously a general election in every cycle, did their guy just acknowledge that their days are numbered, at least at the ballot box?

There’s never been the kind of electoral evidence of support for anti-immigrant extremism that anti-immigrant organizations and politicians allege. Polls show that most voters don’t make their decisions based on immigration issues, and that Latinos and Asians–mostly with pro-immigrant positions–are the ones for which immigration is the deciding priority.

But it’s a far cry from believing that most voters don’t mark their ballots with an eye towards immigration policy to thinking that we could see an electoral scenario where anti-immigrant extremism is truly marginalized…and that one element of the electorate may cling to those positions long past the point at which they become toxic.

The truth?

I don’t know what it means. Is it that proverbial pendulum swinging back? Is it changing demographics within the electorate? Is it an isolated example in an off-year?

Or is it something more? A symbol that Americans, in this case specifically Arizonans, took a look at what they had become and, not liking it at all, got rid of the man they held responsible?

November 2011 was surely about May 2010. Let’s hope it holds some insights for August and November 2012, too.

Election Year Resolutions

I’m a resolution-maker.

My husband, quite emphatically, is not. He claims that, if there’s something he wants to change about himself, he just does, and he doesn’t need to wait for a new year to do it.

The crazy-making thing is, he really does.

For me, though, there’s something powerful about the symbolism of committing oneself to a new goal, and of starting fresh towards a new end. And I love, love, love crossing things off lists. I’m eternally grateful for a husband who lets me even cross things off his list, since he just doesn’t get the same satisfaction out of it that I do.

I have some rules about my resolutions, primarily that they have to be things entirely within my own control (so I can’t make resolutions about things that I want done around the house, since it’s seldom I who do them, or about the state of the world, since, regrettably, I’m not in charge there, either), and they have to be concrete (so no, “exercise more” or other vague statements; those are too easy for me to forget about, or to fudge).

This year, I’m setting a special set of resolutions for a special “year”, the countdown to the very important 2012 elections. It’s just about one year until our nation will not only elect a President but also send a strong statement about the direction of the country, and, here in Kansas, of our state Senate, in particular. And there are some things that I simply must do, if I’m going to be able to look myself in the mirror, in November 2012, and feel that I’ve done my best this year. So these are my Election Year Resolutions.

As always, I’m most interested to hear yours. What are you planning to do to make your mark on the electoral process, and how do those goals fit into your overall advocacy vision between now and next November? Or, if you’re not a resolution person, what are you doing today to shape the course of the next election?

  • Donate at least $100 towards citizenship application fees for a new applicant: It costs more than $600 to become a U.S. citizen, even if you don’t have to pay an attorney. In today’s economy, and given the labor market facing many immigrants, that’s a pretty steep entrance fee to our democratic process. I know many people who really want to become citizens, and whose voices are desperately needed, for whom the fees are a real barrier. We need to provide some financial assistance in order to broaden the scope of political participation; it just might mean public policies that reduce the demand for ameliorative services on the back end, too.
  • Organize another citizenship workday: One of the most fun and rewarding activities in doing immigrant rights work is helping people become citizens, and, when you can work with dedicated immigration attorneys who donate their time, it’s a true joy. We processed 85 new citizens at a workday last July, and those folks should be eligible to vote in 2012. Individuals applying for citizenship now may not complete the process in time, but it’s about building momentum for the future, and about redeeming the vision of an American Dream.
  • Register at least 50 new voters: So registering voters can be a drag. I know that all too well. I’ve been cursed at while conducting nonpartisan voter registration drives in 100+ degree heat, and that’s no one’s idea of a great time. But I’ve also received phone calls of gratitude from new voters who relished their first ballot, and those make it worth it. I’ll volunteer my time to work on voter drives, either in conjunction with nonprofit organizations, organized voter efforts, or through my own connections to grassroots groups.
  • Door-knock at least 5 days for candidates I support: Going door-to-door is abundantly more fun now that I can take a kid with me; people just don’t yell at people with kids as much. We’ll probably do some primary work in June (hopefully before it gets too hot) and again during the general election. My sons like to race each other to see who can get up to the door first for literature drops, too which saves me a few steps!
  • Make at least 5 campaign contributions, most likely at the state level: We have four kids, so money doesn’t exactly flow abundantly around here, but money is a critically important part of the political process, and there is a real satisfaction in supporting candidates whose vision I believe in. I started to receive solicitations a few months ago, so the hardest part will be winnowing those requests down and being strategic about my contributions, but they’re in the budget, so we can make them happen.
  • Provide at least 25 hours of pro bono consulting assistance to nonprofit organizations looking to integrate GOTV strategies into their work: I don’t have a lot of time, either, but I know a fair amount about how nonprofit social service agencies can be effective in their voter engagement work, and I know that I can make a contribution in that arena. I’ve started to talk with some organizations that are interested, and we’re working up some strategies that will, we hope, have both a 2012 impact and lay a foundation for years to come.

    So, again, what are YOUR election year resolutions? What will you do to influence the world we’ll wake up to on Wednesday, November 7, 2012?

  • Like a Horror Movie: Voter ID Laws…Coming After You

    Restrictive Voting Laws=Way Scarier than this Guy

    You want to be scared on Halloween?

    Really, really scared?

    Like “a threat to all you hold dear and potentially the end of life (okay, democracy) as we know it” scared?

    Then think about this:

    In Kansas, and, increasingly in other states around the country, politicians have used the completely ridiculous (would be laughable if not for the end result) allegation of undocumented immigrants voting to push through voter identification laws that will seriously harm voter participation of low-income and marginalized populations, primarily through their effects on nonprofit and community-based groups’ voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work.

    Because when these laws are fully implemented (which, in Kansas, won’t be until January 2013, largely because some senators felt guilty and so postponed it until after the 2012 elections), conducting a voter engagement drive in the community–at a festival, on a street corner, on a public bus, as people are leaving a rally–will be nearly impossible. Every new voter will have to prove citizenship upon registration, and who carries copies of their birth certificate with them (to be submitted with the registration)?

    There are obvious obstacles to actual voting for some of these same populations, too, particularly that the rules for obtaining a free photo identification (yes, there absolutely are U.S. citizens without photo ID) are convoluted and involve considerable exertion on the part of the (by definition) indigent would-be voter.

    Those barriers are real, and they fall disproportionately on low-income individuals of color, particularly the very youngest and very oldest in the electorate.

    But what scares me the most is the way that these laws will completely take nonprofit organizations–social service agencies, health centers, senior centers, ethnic associations–out of the voter registration and civic engagement business. We know that we’re particularly good at bringing these often-marginalized groups into the electoral process, after all. We build on our relationships, connect people to the issues that affect their lives, and walk alongside them to ease their first voting experiences.

    We don’t do it nearly often enough, but, when we do, we make a difference–on individual lives and on how elected officials view those with whom we work.

    But that’s all going to go away.

    And what’s even scarier, really?

    The way that such a totally invented risk, for which there is absolutely no evidence and which defies all logic to anyone who can imagine even any facts about immigrants, can frighten away the allies who should have stood with us, creating this specter of fraud that silenced too many voices. I mean, really? With voter participation dismally low among U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants are supposedly risking felony convictions and permanent deportation to make their mark on our democratic process?


    We’re at the point in this terrible saga when the huge blob, or scary ax-murderer, or ghastly ghoul is running for us, and we’re all kind of cowering behind the half-open door.

    And we know enough about how these things turn out to know that we’ve got to come up with a different plan.

    First, we need to register as many people as we possibly can before these laws kick in. Second, we need to educate our communities about these laws and what they will mean, and we need their help documenting the very real ways in which U.S. citizens are affected. Then, we need to take that information, along with a value-based appeal (justice, freedom, and democratic participation, anyone?) to legislators who knew better but voted for these horrible laws in the first place.

    They can be undone.

    We need a legal strategy that attacks the laws’ undue infringement on our core constitutional right to vote, a legislative plan that mounts the strong attack that was missing initially, and an organizing effort that recognizes this threat as what it really is:

    Paving the way for all of the threats that are to follow, once the demographic shifts that could reshape the social contract in this country through electoral transformation have been thwarted by systematic disenfranchisement.

    It’s time for the hand to reach up from the grave, or the girl to step out from behind the curtain (you know that I don’t watch many movies, so fill in the blanks here).

    We can write a different ending.

    But we have to open our eyes.

    Mission Essential: Nonprofits Vote

    One of my favorite finds, in some of my research for this blog several months ago, is Nonprofit Vote, an organization dedicated to helping nonprofits do voter engagement work right. That means that they identify, support, and applaud efforts that are sustainable, integrated, mission-consistent, and, most of all, impactful.

    As we tick down to one year until one of the most important elections I can remember (and, yes, I do kind of say that about most of them!), I’ve been reading through some of the case studies and empirical analyses of what makes a successful voter effort by a nonprofit organization, particularly with an eye towards models that work for social service agencies. Nonprofit Votes has hosted some webinars highlighting successes, and there are some lessons learned that are very much worth sharing.

  • Face-to-face contact is by far the most effective way to increase voter turnout (increasing turnout anywhere between 6-14%, depending on the population and the type of election), especially with underrepresented populations. Of course, making those face-to-face contacts with potential voters is very time-consuming and extremely expensive…unless you happen to see them on a regular basis anyway because, I don’t know, maybe they are your clients?
  • The particular study from which I’ve pulled these data was conducted with nonprofit social service agencies, working with a variety of constituencies, in Michigan, and it’s a scientifically rigorous examination of how agency-based voter engagement, specifically, impacts voter behavior. That means that they had random assignment to control and “treatment” groups, the latter defined here as one group at each agency that received a voter registration appeal only and one group that had more sustained communication around voting and its significance. Importantly, some of the participating agencies had NEVER done voter work with their clients before, which makes the results all the more promising, especially for those who might be (wrongly!) thinking that it’s too late for them to develop a 2012 strategy.
  • The key findings, the ones that I think are so exciting? Clients in both treatment groups had a higher likelihood of voting than those in the control group. The likelihood of voter turnout increases proportionally with the nonprofits’ level of voter engagement effort, so it really does pay to go beyond just putting up the “Please Vote” posters (probability of voting increased by about 9% with each contact). Clients in both treatment groups were not only more likely to vote, but also more likely to encourage their family and friends to vote, which means that the same “word-of-mouth” system on which we rely for referrals and health education and so many other critical functions works for encouraging civic participation, too, allowing nonprofits to expand their reach far beyond those they directly serve. Among all forms of voter assistance nonprofits provided, new voter registrations and voting reminders were the two forms of contact that make the biggest difference in increasing voter turnout.

    There’s nothing “magic” about these organizations, or about the people they serve. Your clients are likely just as responsive to thoughtful, targeted, sustained communication about voting and why it matters as these folks were, and your organization just as capable of integrating these activities into your work.

    In the world of social services, we devote considerable energy to emerging practices with success rates that are anything but guaranteed.

    We know that changing the face of the electorate in the United States will make a difference in the kind of hearing our concerns receive, and the kinds of public policy priorities that rise to the top of the agenda.

    And now we know something more about how to make that happen.

    And so we must.