Tag Archives: voting rights

Can Nonprofits Increase Voting? Short Answer: Yes!

It’s an election year.

An important one.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one, too.

But it’s certainly not too early to think about precisely how we can engage in the civic participation/Get-Out-the-Vote/voter empowerment process, as nonprofit service providers.

So, in case you missed it, here’s a really inspiring report from Nonprofit Vote, with case studies about what different nonprofits did to increase voter participation, and what lessons they learned in the process.

A few highlights, just to tide you over until you get through the 73 pages:

  • Don’t forget to register your staff. Really. Don’t forget that.
  • If you want people to register to vote, ask them. Individually. Posters are not an invitation. Asking people if you can register them is an invitation. And it makes a difference.
  • You can register people beyond your walls, and getting out to register voters also means building your name recognition and community presence, too.
  • Figure out what you want to measure, and then measure it. Do you care most about the total number of registrants? Voter turnout among those you register? Increasing participation among a specific population? Set goals and then hold yourself accountable.
  • Invest in staff training. Now. Voter engagement doesn’t necessarily come naturally to nonprofit staff, so staff development is essential.
  • Get people to pledge to vote–if they’re already registered, if laws prevent you from registering them, if you just registered them and you want to make sure they vote. Of course it’s no guarantee, but it gets you their contact information, and it gets them to acknowledge–at least briefly–that it matters if they show up. Both are huge.
  • Use peer pressure, like in group sessions where the interest of just a few can prompt broad voter engagement.
  • Partner. Remember that you don’t need to know/do everything, and you absolutely can rely on your field to carry some of the weight here. There are organizations that specialize in civil rights law, and they can help you with complicated questions/concerns about voting eligibility and restrictions.
  • Don’t assume that clients will view electoral engagement as a ‘distraction’–some organizations found that there was tremendous interest in talking about the election and issues and their rights as voters. You may find yourselves having to bracket this work so that it doesn’t spill over into other programs, instead of it being seen as an intrusion.

I’d love to hear others’ reactions to these case studies, or, especially, your own lessons learned from your organization’s civic engagement work. What do we need to be doing in February to ensure that our clients’ voices are heard in August and November? What capacity and support do you need now to make that happen?

What will you do to make sure that we keep answering, “yes!” to the question: Can Nonprofits Increase Voting?

New hopes for the new year

These days, I run on academic time, which means that mid-December is, essentially, the end of the year.

I will have some posts next week before I take a holiday break, until the second week in January, to make cookies and wrap presents and volunteer and read and–I hope–spend some time in front of the fireplace reading juvenile fiction with some very special kiddos.

But, today, a sort-of tradition:

My hopes for the new year.

In the spirit of holiday giving, I hope you’ll share your hopes for the future, too. Good news on your horizon? Cherished dreams you’re clinging to? Promises of good things to come that you’re no longer keeping to yourself?

At the risk of sounding greedy, I want them all!

Here’s to a new year, a few weeks from now.

Together, let’s make it a great one.

What are you hoping for? What will you do to make those dreams come true?

The What: We Still Need Voting Rights

More ‘whats’, in policy change.

Or, in this case, policy not-change.

Because, let’s be real:

We still need The Voting Rights Act.

We’re in the era of evidence-based policymaking, right?

Has there ever been a more successful piece of civil rights legislation in the history of the U.S.? No, really?

And so the idea that its very effectiveness is reason to scrap it is not just offensive (and it is; I am fairly chilled by hearing an Alabama official refer to ‘state sovereignty’ as reason to oppose a federal civil rights law). It’s dangerous.

I’m all for the role of the courts in policymaking (more on that tomorrow).

I just think that the U.S. Supreme Court should rule that the Voting Rights Act stands.

I’m glad that there’s a tremendous amount of advocacy going on, even while the Court deliberates.

If you haven’t already checked out these compelling videos showing how VRA provisions in various affected states are making a difference in how people can exercise their civic rights, check them out.

Look at this really great (although, again, disturbing) infographic on why we still need the Voting Rights Act.

You can’t call Antonin Scalia to point out that, Mr. Justice Sir, the right to vote is not a “racial entitlement”, because, um, voting isn’t an entitlement. That’s why it’s called the Voting Rights Act (He, of course, took objection to that, too, supposedly because it makes the legislation too popular for members of Congress to vote against? Como on, two members of the Kansas congressional delegation voted against the Violence Against Women Act, for crying out loud. These people are not afraid of catchy names.)

But you can tell everyone who will listen (friends, family, neighbors, the guy waiting at the post office) that, yes, we still need the VRA. We still need voting rights, in this age of photo identification and proof of citizenship and long lines at fewer polling places.

People bled for the right to vote in Alabama. That history leaves scars, not just on individual psyches but on institutions and ways of doing business.

That is why we need the Voting Rights Act.


Top of my Christmas list: Restoring the Right to Vote

The blog e.politics had a post a couple of months ago with a map that I find fairly haunting. (I can’t get it to embed, so click on it. Trust me.)

It shows the concentration of voter identification laws primarily in the states that, at one time, had poll taxes, plus Kansas, which purportedly has the highest concentration of ‘voter fraud’ cases in the country.

At 97 total cases, out of millions of votes cast.

Then, more recently, the Government Accountability Office released a report that failed to document any cases of voter fraud in any of the numerous states that have recently passed stricter voting regulations.

What the GAO did find was a substantial increase in voting requirements over the last 10 years. Twenty-one states passed new voter I.D. laws and seven heightened requirements, bringing the total number of states requiring restrictive identification to 31.

To address a virtually nonexistent problem.

Primarily in a part of the country still grappling with a legacy of restrictive voting laws that denied democracy to millions over generations.

It’s an abomination, and its epicenter, today, is in my home state.

The land of John Brown and Jayhawkers.

So, dear Santa Claus, what do I want for Christmas?

It to not be 1964 anymore.

I want people’s right to vote to be respected, not trampled on under the trumped-up guise of ‘voter fraud’. I want people to stop using totally specious arguments like “but you have to show ID to get into a rated R movie,” like watching a movie is in any way comparable to exercising one’s most fundamental constitutional right. I want us to tackle real problems–there are plenty from which to choose–instead of wringing our hands over mostly made-up statistics.

I want the man who is homeless and lacks a photo ID to be able to vote. Just like me.

Vote: All the cool kids are doing it

I KNEW it.

In this case, that’s surprisingly unsatisfying.

See, I have felt for years that trying to guilt people into voting by emphasizing how few people vote, and how important it is, and how they’re really bad people if they (like all of those other degenerates) don’t vote…is really, completely ineffective.

And, here, research discussed in Nudge that confirms my practice experience, culled from hundreds of hours spent doing voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work, that telling people to vote because not very many other people do is exactly the wrong way to approach increasing voter turnout.

If we want to increase voter turnout (and, from the perspective of nonprofit organizations working with marginalized communities, we do!), what we need to do is channel people into voting, prime them for the voting experience, and, if we can…

make it sound like other people ARE voting, so they should, too.

I thought about this a few weeks ago in class when, despite the oncoming spring, 9 out of the 15 women in my class were wearing the exact same boots.

I mean, in marketing, no company would ever try to convince someone to buy something by stressing its unpopularity (“you should wear boots like these because only 35% of other young women wore them last season”? Not effective.).

We get people to do things, especially things they may have never done before, or may even be reluctant to do, by normalizing the experience, creating a like-minded community, and taking away as much of the uncertainty as we can, in order to make it really, really easy to make the behavior change.

So, what does this look like in the realm of voter engagement, since we want people to shape our electorate, not wear matching footwear?

What if we…

  • Had high school seniors register to vote as part of the classroom experience, when they turn 18, so that they’re registering as a group?
  • Used voter data to target those who are not engaged in the electoral process, by highlighting others within their social networks/peer groups who are? (“Can I register you to vote today? Your neighbors have really high voter participation, so I figured you would probably want to get registered, too.”)
  • Presented examples of reference peers voting, in a sort of micro-targeted ‘Rock-the-Vote’ way?
  • Implemented more user-friendly voting procedures, so that voting wasn’t such an extraordinary experience (like allowing online voting, or allowing people to vote in places they frequent (their own schools/colleges, for example) rather than the church down the street they only go in once every two/four years?
  • Invested in marketing campaigns that underscore not only the civic importance of voting but, indeed, its centrality to our understanding of what it means to be an American…a sort of, “everyone’s doing this, so we’d love you to join us” message?
  • Reached out to underrepresented communities year-round, instead of expecting that they’ll make a big behavior shift right around election time?

What kinds of approaches do you think would ‘nudge’ unlikely voters to civic engagement? How are you shifting from a ‘thou shalt’ to a ‘wouldn’t you like to, too?’ message?

How can we make claiming our civic right as ubiquitous as those boots?

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.

Remember: We’re the Sunflower State

This Sunflower hangs on a gate at my house, as a reminder of what we must be.

These are tough times, Kansans.

The economy isn’t great (although we ended last year with a healthy balance, thanks to some pretty drastic funding cuts whose effects will be felt for generations).

We’re in the middle of redistricting, which is ugly in the best of circumstances and potentially explosive with a polity as divided as ours today.

We face battles in this new legislative session around Arizona-style “show me your papers” legislation, raids of the Children’s Initiative Fund, an attack on our revenue foundation, and more cuts compounding the cuts.

It’s a good thing we’re the Sunflower State.

Sunflowers were adopted as a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement by Kansas suffragettes, I think mainly to ensconce their movement fully within the social mainstream. It has been used in advocacy campaigns repeatedly since, according to my research, because sunflowers can take the heat.

And they always face the sun.

And that’s what we need today.

As advocates, we’ve never felt more heat. The stakes are high, and the threats are real.

But we know what our vision looks like, too, and that’s the promise, the sun, towards which we must set our sights, unwilting, unbending.

Hook us up, Santa

My kids are pretty into Christmas, I’ll admit.

Somehow, despite watching absolutely no television (they can only have ~20 minutes/day of a video from the library, with no previews or commercials) and having parents who very rarely buy anything (Mommy does not have time to shop), they have grown some of the same propensity to “want” as most of the rest of our society, and this manifests itself, each year, in a Christmas list.

Truthfully, it could be a lot worse. My oldest son has asked for some paint in his stocking for the past couple of years, and they LOVE fruit snacks, so they each get a box of those, too. Other than that, it’s mostly some books and maybe a puzzle, some pajamas, and one special present for which they’ve been longing. It doesn’t get too out of hand, and we work in a lot of giving–the kids each choose one brand-new present they receive to give away without opening, and we divert much of what others give them before they even see it.

So, in all honesty, Mommy’s Christmas list is probably a bit more audacious than the kids’, a bit longer, and certainly more aspirational. Mommy wants a lot, and, while I’m committed to working hard to bring much of this about, it’s been a rather rough couple of years, and I figure that we could really use some help, you know? So if Santa can bring my daughter the dolls with snap-on outfit changes that she’s been coveting for months, surely he can hook us up with some social justice, too.

Here’s my list, edited to not seem too greedy.

What’s on yours?

  • Election protection: I want people’s votes to count in November 2012. I’m very concerned that efforts in states around the country, including notably my home here in Kansas, are eroding individuals’ abilities to exercise their constitutional rights, and that elections will be truly stolen under the guise of ensuring their “integrity.” Our nation cannot, and should not have to, withstand a confusing and unnecessarily contested election that destroys our confidence in the democratic process.
  • The DREAM Act: I’ll admit, Santa, that my faith is waning a bit, since I asked REALLY nicely for immigration reform last year and didn’t even get the DREAM Act in that December 2010 vote. Is there an example of more commonsense legislation that we’re stubbornly refusing to pass, even though it’s in our best interest? I’m not sure that I can think of one. These kids are incredible. Even our most ardent anti-immigrant policymakers, when confronted with them face-to-face, acknowledge that. Let’s give them a chance and give ourselves a break.
  • Progressive tax policy: OK, so maybe this is a bit like my daughter asking for Barbies (not going to happen). But what is Christmas if not a time to dream? Instead of a long list of what shouldn’t be cut (and what should be restored) in our state and federal budgets, what I want is a revenue foundation that would make those investments possible, while at the same time addressing the tremendous inequalities that are corrosive in themselves. We should have the money to do what we must, but we’ve got to collect it in a way that makes sense. As one of my students said in class this fall, “it’s all about the orange.”
  • Foreign debt forgiveness: Can’t we get out of the international payday loan business? We’ve collected what we were owed, many times over, and yet we’re still holding developing countries hostage so that we can receive our interest payments, despite the fact that their debt service cripples their ability to invest in their own economies (and people) in ways that would not only relieve suffering but contribute to prosperity (thereby reducing the need for our later intervention)! I’ll compromise; it doesn’t even have to be across-the-board, but let’s put real debt forgiveness on the table, now.
  • An invigorated movement for social justice, to make it all possible: Santa, I know you’re getting older, and I’m sure you’d like a break. The truth is, unlike elaborately hand-crafted wooden toys or correctly-assembled dollhouses, we can take care of this list ourselves, if we can build the kind of grassroots cohesion necessary to chart our own collective futures. I see signs, in the labor movement and with immigrant youth and in exciting campaigns that integrate social technologies, that this potential is within our grasp. I hope that this is the year that we look back on as having made the difference.

    I’ll set out the cookies, Santa. You know what to do.

  • 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.

    Celebrate your citizenship!

    This year notwithstanding, the 4th of July is all about family and fireworks for us these days; my husband and boys truly love to set stuff on fire, and this is their one chance to do so.

    But I make sure to always work in a celebration of our most precious privileges and responsibilities as citizens, especially after having spent years of Independence Days registering voters, rallying folks for comprehensive immigration reform, and reminding others of our shared heritage in this nation where so many are immigrants, or their descendants.

    So, this Fourth of July, in between firework displays or family cookouts or parades or however else you celebrate, here are five ideas for how to celebrate this country, and, in the process, keep the true spirit of Independence Day (rowdy uprising against an oppressive power) alive. Happy celebrating!

  • 1. Protest something: Grab some posterboard and a marker or sign a petition, or even dump some tea into the harbor, but make your grievances heard. There’s nothing more truly American than collective resistance, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.
  • 2. Register someone to vote: Voting rights are being restricted all over the country, and, if we don’t change the political tide, the kinds of grassroots, community-based voter registration and GOTV drives that have brought people newly into the democratic process for years may become illegal, or at least very impractical. Before it’s too late, print some registration forms for your state and grab some pens. I used to register hundreds of people during some 4th of July celebrations; people are ashamed to say no on this most patriotic of holidays!
  • 3. Help someone become a citizen: There are literally millions of people who would love the chance at what so many of us take for granted–our U.S. citizenship. And there are so many ways that you can help these aspiring Americans: donate to an organization that provides legal and other assistance to future citizens, write to your member of Congress demanding action on humane and workable immigration reform, help someone study for the English and civics exam required for citizenship, babysit while someone takes an English class. It’s truly an awesome thing that so many people long to be part of this great country, and their full participation can only make it greater.
  • 4. Discover your family’s own immigrant story: If your family came here from somewhere else, do you know that story? When I ask my students to trace this journey, they often discover surprises: someone whose arrival wasn’t quite “legal”, stories of discrimination endured and heartaches transcended, and inspiring tales of those who risked everything to start anew in a strange land, much as today’s new arrivals do. If you don’t know those stories, it’s worth exploring them.
  • 5. Make our democracy work better: I can’t imagine a system of governance more suited to human liberation than a democratic one, and, every day when I raise my voice, I’m very grateful for the right to do so. Still, our democracy could be stronger, and there’s much we can do to work in that direction. Today, in honor of those who gave so much to forge a new vision, how about making a donation to an organization working for campaign finance reform or government transparency? Or advocating reform of voting laws to expand suffrage rights? Or investing in organizations that do community organizing and find ways to engage people fully in the system that represents them?

    You don’t even have to ride a horse at midnight to make a difference. Although a little “the budget cuts are coming!” might not be a bad idea….

    Happy Independence Day!

    Use it!