Not Too Hip to Vote
The crowd lined up outside the Cooper Union great hall on March 25 for a gathering called "Where's My Democracy?" did not look like your typical participants at a political rally. There were no suits and ties, no pleated khakis or Izod shirts, no signs or buttons -- not even a single baby to kiss. No, this crowd, which formed a line that snaked around Astor place onto Lafayette, was garbed in American Apparel t-shirts, thrift store blazers, and the hyper pointy-toed shoes that are currently standard issue for women south of 14th Street.
"A week ago we'd only sold 200 tickets," said Elana Berkowitz, a member of Downtown for Democracy, the group organizing the event, as the crowd of impatient hipsters pressed to get in. "I can't believe we gave away tickets for free to try to fill the place!"
The packed crowd of over 900 had paid a minimum of $50 a head ($10 for students) to listen to readings from some of America's finest writers, including Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag and Jhumpa Lahiri. The event raised $75,000 towards D4D's ultimate target of $3 million, attracting the politically and literarily-minded alike. "When we saw this combination of writers and the cause, it's what we're into right now," said Libby McGuinness who lives in Chelsea and works in publishing. "I actually ran into someone I work with, a much younger person than we are, and you know she works two jobs to get by and ... I can't believe she got together $50 bucks to come here. To feel so strongly for her to give 50 dollars is great."
Though most of the writers read from non-political works in progress, nearly every one of them had something to say about Bush. "I want to speak at this moment sans hyperbole" said Michael Cunningham, author of the The Hours. "I've never known of an election that mattered this much and darlings, I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Bush #1!"
The event, which featured a voter registration table right next to a table hawking sleek D4D tee shirts, exhibited D4D's novel approach to political activism, a combination of edgy creativity and hard-nosed politicking -- Lou Reed meets James Carville.
But marrying innovation to pragmatism isn't just limited to this one group. With the John Kerry the clear Democratic nominee and the battle lines for the general election firmly drawn, a number of small, independent groups like D4D are coming up with innovative ways to maximize their electoral impact.
Swing State Spring Break, which sends college kids to swing states to canvass, and IMPACT, which trains law students to monitor polls on election day -- in addition to D4D -- are all seeking to tap the potential of specific constituencies, and leverage their abilities, talents and resource to maximum effect. While Bush has inspired a profound and energetic opposition from progressives and even many moderates, the fact remains that no matter how passionately an undergraduate, or artist, or law student feels about unseating Bush, they only have one vote. The challenge for progressives outraged at the Bush administration's abuse of the public trust is to convert depth of sentiment into breadth of influence.
On the Downtown Train
"Our goal is to invigorate progressive politics and defeat George Bush!" said D4D founder Erik Stowers, kicking off the reading to enthusiastic whoops from the crowd. "By mobilizing all those Americans who share our progressive values but don't actively participate in politics, D4D raises funds through contributions and cultural events like this one in Democratic safe states like New York and we spend the money in battleground states where this election is going to be decided."
D4D is the brain child of Stowers and his friend Mike Bullock, who works at the interview magazine Index. The two initially discussed starting a group called Downtown for Dean back when the Vermont Governor was the front runner for the nomination, but ultimately saw the group as "being much longer term and bigger than just the Dean campaign" and decided to file with the Federal Election Commission as a Political Action Committee (PAC).
Stowers, who spent several years working for New York's Working Families Party and the progressive advertising firm Avenging Angels, says he and Bullock saw a huge opportunity to harness the talents of their friends in creative circles for political ends. "There was a long-term permanent need for an organization that would provide a means of access into political activism for people in the culture community," Stowers says. "You do have these people who are culturally very liberal. If you sit down and talk to them they are down the plank: Electoral reform? Yes. The environment? Yes. Women's rights? Yes. But they don't participate in politics."
"Where's My Democracy?" was D4D's second fundraising event. The first, an art auction, raised $130,000, with 85 percent of the donors at that event never having donated to a political campaign before. Over the next seven months, D4D hopes to eventually raise millions of dollars, which they'll funnel to 527s and PACs operating in swing states, as well as to progressive congressional candidates like Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama.
Aside from fundraising, the group also plans to mobilize the "downtown" constituency of creative folks in the swing states. "We want to hit young, mostly urban voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania," says Stowers. "In the summer we're going to have launch events across Ohio and Pennsylvania, probably most of them will be concerts. The months following that will be about registering voters, getting their names in a database and building up a volunteer pool. And then in the few weeks before the election it will switch into GOTV [Get Out the Vote] to make contact with those people again and try to ensure that they get out and vote. What we're thinking about doing for the night of the election is having parties across Ohio and Penn where you can only get in if you voted."
Spring Break Madness
Like D4D, Swing State Spring Break is run out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though unlike D4D, which has an office in a converted industrial building, Swing State is headquartered in Sharif Corinaldi's apartment. Corinaldi is a computer programmer by training who had lost his job at a firm in the tech crash. He says he'd never done much political work -- but has been burning to dump Bush since the 2000 election. "I've just been doing nothing but eating, sleeping and shitting getting Bush out of the White House," he says. "I could either write a check for x number of thousand dollars to the DNC and they could put their own TV ads out there, or I could do something with this program and I could essentially get my own volunteers and do something that's more face to face."
The idea for Swing State Spring Break actually originated with two friends who tossed it out one night in a conversation about politics, but were too busy to follow up. Corinaldi then took the initiative, emailing nearly every College Democrats and Generation Dean chapter in the country, putting up a website and committing himself to the project full time. "We get kids to sign up and donate time to us and indicate where they'd want to do work against Bush or for Kerry," says Corinaldi. "We plug them in with a place that's near or at where they wanted to work and we find them housing; we get them a place to stay; sometimes we even subsidize travel costs. It's supposed to be an ultra convenient way for anybody who doesn't want Bush to be president to sign up and get involved and get active."
Over spring break, the group sent 80 students to swing states where they volunteered for 527s like America Coming Together. This summer, Corinaldi plans to send 150 students, possibly more. "It's all field stuff," he says. "Registering voters, fraud checks to make sure petitions signings are working. In Miami they're doing a minimum wage ballot initiative because that's supposed to boost turnout. We're doing huge canvasses in Philadelphia where they're registering huge numbers of progressive voters."
"I went to Philadelphia and I worked with ACORN [Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now] and it was like this amazing experience," says Emily Farris, a 21-year old journalism student at the New School in Manhattan. "The first day they sent me to Norristown which is a suburb of Philly... I actually ran out of registering cards. People were hugging me and welcoming me into their homes."
Farris said she hasn't been politically active in the past, but now she's hooked. "I think I was almost staying away from politics until the time was right and the time is now. We have to do something. George Bush has got to go." She had lined up a writing gig for the summer that paid well, but in light of her experience in Pennsylvania she says she's quitting that job to devote herself to the election. "I am going to single-handedly swing Missouri this summer."
Watching the Polls
While many groups like Swing State and D4D focus on registering voters and then turning them out in November, IMPACT, a group started by students at Columbia Law School, believes that "there is not enough done to protect and empower individual voters prior to and during the election."
To rectify this, IMPACT will send law students to monitor the elections at polling places in swing states where there has been a history of confusion or intimidation. "What we really want to do is get well-trained and effective law students at the polls on election day in the areas where they're going to be able to help the voters who are undergoing the most confusion," says IMPACT co-founder Maggie Williams.
A second-year law student at Columbia, Williams, says that the idea for IMPACT was born out of frustration over the voting debacle in Florida during the 2000 election. "The more I found out about what actually went wrong in Florida ... I just felt really powerless," she says. "On the one hand I feel like in those situations there are three options. One is just to sit back and to think well there's nothing really I can do, it's too complicated, I'm just going to cast my vote on election day. The other is to do something on a personal level and go poll watch on your own and the other is to start to talk to people and wonder why is this so intimidating? Why is this so complicated?"
Unlike D4D, which is officially a PAC, and Swing State Spring Break, which is in the process of incorporating as a 527, IMPACT is a 501c(3) which means it is officially non-partisan. The groups' members might have personal political objections to Bush, but in their capacity as IMPACT officers they say they are only interested in seeing one thing happen: making sure everyone has their votes counted.
After gathering interested students at Columbia, IMPACT has reached out to other law schools, attempting to put in place a national infrastructure for election day. They have joined the Know Your Rights Coalition, a consortium of groups dedicated to election protection (including Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, Brennan Center and People for the American Way), and are currently researching potential problems -- election-day complications that might result from the 2001 the Help America Vote Act.
IMPACT's operations' director Doug Jaffe says that while HAVA does provide some useful voter protection provisions (provisional ballots, for example), some of the new regulations might cause massive confusion on election day, as each state interprets the law in a different fashion. "Some states are giving a lot of discretion to turn away voters to the individual poll workers," he says, "which may not be such a great thing."
In order to effectively safeguard voters' rights, IMPACT plans to train 3600 students from law schools around the country in poll monitoring and electoral law. These law students will then be sent to the 50-100 highest risk polling sites in each of the 12 swing states in which IMPACT will operate. "There's a lot of work that has to happen beforehand," says Williams, who notes that the reception from other schools has already been enthusiastic. "To really do this well and effectively you need a lot of different groups who really know what they're doing and work together."
As John Nichols in the The Nation and Mary Lynn Jones in this publication have reported, there is no shortage of groups, large and small, serious and humorous who have dedicated themselves to unseating Bush this year. But what's particularly striking about these groups is that they are completely organic, born out of the passion of a few people, and incredibly shrewd and strategic in their approach. It is organizing that starts small, but by focusing on electoral pressure points, has the potential to make a huge impact.
In this way, they have more than a passing resemblance to the thousands of MeetUp-enabled groups that flowered during the short-lived Dean campaign. One-time Dean campaign manager and founder of ChangeForAmerica.com Joe Trippi says he sees the Dean campaign as the laboratory for much of the DIY-style activism that these groups embody. "I kind of think there's this great awakening going on," says Trippi. "The Dean campaign was the like the wink of the eye; it's going to be seen as so primitive five years from now, given all these groups that are doing things... These groups are the harbinger of much bigger things to come and we're just sort of at the early moment of it all."
By giving people an outlet for their anger and frustration with the current administration, all three of these groups seek to obliterate the obstacles that separate citizens from affecting political change. Most importantly, though, they help create a norm of political engagement that frowns upon idle complaining and pontificating.
Emily Farris, who canvassed for Swing State Spring Break in Pennsylvania, says she was motivated to get involved in part due to the chiding she received from a bartender at her neighborhood pub. After she had started drunkenly trashing Bush, she says "The bartender said to me, 'You're not doing anybody any good in here. If you want change, go out and make some change, instead of bitching to a bar full of drunken Democrats.' And I was like, he's right! The next week was when I saw the listing from Sharif. And I thought: this is the beginning of the end!"
Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer based in Chicago.