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The Rights of Voters Got a Lot of Attention in '12 -- Here Are 10 Things We learned

Not since 1965 have the rights of voters gotten so much attention.

Reprinted with permission of For more news from a racial justice perspective, sign up to receive weekly at Colorlines Direct.

A little over a week after the presidential election has ended, many voting rights watchers are reflecting on all that we learned through this year’s campaigns: what went right, what went wrong, and the unresolved challenges that remain ahead. As for the overall takeaway, Advancement Project director Judith Browne-Dianis wraps it up nicely, saying, “The national conversation around voting rights was amplified like we haven’t seen since 1965.”

This year, more Americans arguably learned more about the voting process than any year in recent memory. Civil rights and election protection campaigns made people aware of things like the difference between a poll watcher and a poll observer; how people use data to purge voters; and what voters’ general rights are while standing in poll lines. On a more nuanced level, the discussion around voter ID laws gave Americans a greater understanding of not only how many people don’t have government-issued ID, but also the reasons why.

Probably most importantly, though, many Americans learned—or at least were reminded—about the history of our democracy, of how civil rights heroes helped the nation realize that democracy, by forcing an expansion of the electorate, which at core is an expansion of citizenship. “Americans began to recognize that democracy was under assault,” says Browne-Dianis of the past year. “And rather than concede to this partisan effort to restrict their vote as an insurmountable setback, they saw it as a challenge to be met.”

The effort to meet that challenge produced both victories and some remaining battles, but there are some specific lessons we can take away from each.

1. Data helps win elections, but it’s not everything.

The Obama campaign has well demonstrated how to identify and target new voters, while the Romney campaign has learned that data, like science, is actually necessary. But data only takes get-out-the-vote efforts so far, because someone has to actually get people to the polls. Black churches and NAACP chapters in Ohio and Florida turned out record-high black voters through their “ Souls to the Polls” campaigns, by shuttling and busing people straight from church services to voting booths. These campaigns, which were enormously successful in 2008 as well, have been a primary target of those who insist, beyond all proof to the contrary, that voter fraud is a problem. Defending them—or, the early voting rules that enable them—proved crucial in 2012 to increasing the number of black people who participate in democracy.

Meanwhile, sometimes the data just failed to identify voters of color in the first place. In Minnesota, Hana Worku of Voices for Voting Rights told Colorlines that most of the voters they made contact with were not people circulating in voter databanks. Rather, they reached “voters in low-income and communities of color that would not have been contacted otherwise.” In Tampa, I spent time doing “Knock n’ Grabs”—going door-to-door asking people if they’ve voted, and if not, taking them to the polls—with NAACP organizers. They ended up shedding their canvassing lists and instead cruising the streets literally picking up voters off of stoops, porches and corners because they knew the people on the data sheets likely weren’t home.

2. Voters of color were invisible, to their advantage.

In some ways, the fact that voters of color weren’t turning up in databases was a good thing. It kept people who may not have had their best interests in mind from targeting them, while throwing off Republican pollsters who thought they had the election in the bag. Campaign aides to Mitt Romney have said their calculations about possibly winning Florida were thrown off because “they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola, Fla.,” which is predominantly Puerto Rican, Latino and African American. In Maine, there was massive black voter turnout, but according to the Republican Party chair: “Nobody in town knew them.”