Big Money Isn't Everything in Elections: Progressives Find Other Ways To Reach Voters

It was frighteningly typical. Last week’s Wisconsin recall election was a money machine. Analysts say there’s no doubt that big bucks played a big role in the outcome. Supporters of Republican incumbent Governor Scott Walker and Democrat challenger Tom Barrett dumped as much as $35 million into the election, in a state with just 5,711,767 residents. And because less than half of them voted, about 2.5 million people, it means the politicos spent $14 on every single voter.

In a year of super-PAC super-spending, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, it was just the latest outrage in a political system that has lost its way, even lost its soul, selling out to big money. And it raises even more troubling questions about runaway spending for the general election, less than five months away. But far from despairing about big spending for TV attack ads, some voting-rights and good-government advocates are coming up with easy and inexpensive ways to get people interested, registered to vote, and then to the polls on November 6, or before.

Indeed, 2012 may be shaping up to be the year big money was challenged by an equally powerful force: big and low-cost citizen participation. While it's always easier for GOP billionaires to write million-dollar checks, progressives know the lay of the electoral landscape and are working to reach voters and overcome GOP barriers.

“One of the real challenges I see for individuals trying to participate is getting trapped by rules they don’t know about,” said Ben Hovland of the Fair Elections Legal Network in Washington, DC, who is working to help prospective voters understand the rules that could prevent their participation. “Any type of system that makes it easier for people to get the information they need is going to help them.”

Online Voter Information

He cited development of new online tools, one in particular from the Pew Center on the States which champions a program called the Voter Information Project. “It gets information from elections officials or states put into a useable format that an average person can access,” Hovland said.

He recalled when he worked for the secretary of state in Missouri that the office would be overwhelmed with calls from voters, on or just before Election Day, asking where to vote. Now people can go to a computer search engine, type in their address, and get that information instantaneously.

Of course, people can’t vote unless they are registered. Hovland says as many as nine states now have online voter registration programs in effect so people don’t have to leave home to qualify. The system is based on having a driver’s license, so the very young and the very old may not benefit from it. Other states have created online forms that allow potential voters to fill out a voter registration form, print it, and mail it to the local elections office. Still other states have set up systems that alert people via e-mail or mobile phone text messages to voter registration deadlines, early-voting dates and how to get absentee ballots.

Another important development is a voter registration tool powered by Credo Mobile for Facebook users. It enables anyone with a Facebook account to ask their social network if they want to register to vote and helps them do that. Advocates have to make sure people know how to find all this information and use it.

Ben Hovland said another major problem for some voters is keeping their voting registration current. Students move away from their college towns, young adults move cities for new jobs, and older folks go to retirement communities in other states. 

That happened last week in Wisconsin. Scores of college students were not allowed to vote in the recall ballot. Carolyn Castore of the League of Women Voters Wisconsin/Election Protection initiative told the Madison newspaper Isthmus the League got some 1,700 calls about voting problems across the Badger State. She said dozens of students were not able to register and many left polling places without casting ballots. Wisconsin is one of the states that approved photo identification for voting. That was not in effect last week, because of court injunctions, but other parts of the Wisconsin Voter ID law were, including a requirement that people prove they had been living at their residence for at least 28 days. Previous law required just 10 days’ residency.

“In the past two years we’ve seen a lot of attacks around the country on the laws passed to make voting more convenient and easy,” Hovland said. “That’s a major concern.”

Real Conversations and Social Media

While some voters across Wisconsin encountered problems, it was much easier for others in Milwaukee. The League of Young Voters Education Fund, based in Brooklyn, New York, knocked on doors throughout the inner city, mounting a major campaign with two other groups, the New Organizing Institute and the Analyst Institute. The League’s Sam Patton says his non-partisan group works in many big cities with the aim of getting younger people, especially low-income and minority residents, to register and vote. The League has been active in Milwaukee since the group was formed in 2003 and its hard work paid off during the recall vote. “We had about fourteen- or fifteen-thousand young people vote last Tuesday,” Patton said, “and Milwaukee had a 75-percent voter turnout for the recall”.

But the League found that during its massive door-to-door campaign, as many as 85 percent of the “knocks” were unsuccessful because the targeted voters no longer lived at the address given on state registered voter lists. So the group is turning more to the Internet and social media to communicate with prospective voters. Patton says it’s far more effective and it’s cheaper.

“We asked ourselves how much money are we really spending to turn people into voters and get them to the polls?" Patton said. “And the cost-per-vote of a traditional field program like door-knocking can range up to $10 while the cost-per-vote for online voter registration programs can cut that cost in half or more,” he adds.

The League also tried another approach. It enlisted voters through arts and cultural avenues, working with hip-hop artists and others: “tastemakers” is how the League describes them, to encourage participation. Patton said his team also shares personal stories from city kids to get the message out about the importance of becoming engaged in the political process. “We’ve removed any argument people would have against participating. And we follow up via text or Twitter to create a groundswell of interest in voting,” Patton said. 

Nowadays, Election “Day” is much longer a single day, with early and absentee balloting. Hovland said local groups across America must start “get-out-the-vote” efforts as early as possible and develop strategies to get voters to the polls. “People need to reach out to new and other voters to make the process easy for them.”

Identifying and Overcoming Barriers

This April, Common Cause and other groups released the “Got ID? Helping Americans Get Voter Identification” report. It focused on how groups can help prospective voters, especially in states with photo ID laws. Hovland, a co-author of that report, said that some of the same less costly, person-to-person approaches outlined there can help guarantee that all who should vote will vote this fall.

And Wisconsin has created some of the most effective programs in the country. “Milwaukee provides free birth certificates to those who don’t have them so voters can get IDs,” said Tova Wang of Demos, another group that helped co-author the “Got ID?” report. Beyond that, the Wisconsin Voices project filed a public records request and got more than two million names of residents with driver’s licenses. They were cross-referenced with a voter management system and came up with 1.3 million people who needed to get photo IDs to cast ballots.

The “Be a Voter!” program helped to register people in Wisconsin. Inner-city churches in Milwaukee also pushed to get residents to register and then to vote. Its “9to5” effort helped low-income and young people get voting credentials. And those who work with senior citizens are trying to make sure elderly citizens who don’t have birth certificates get them, to use for voter registration.

Other states have similar programs. They don’t cost millions of dollars and yet they are capable of producing hundreds or thousands of votes. The nation is already being bombarded by political ads on television, radio and online. The onslaught will only increase over the next five months until the voting ends.

But for all the registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, there is still what Hovland calls the “multi-million or billion-dollar question:” how to get people interested in politics, government and voting and remain interested after the election is over. Patton described an appropriate analogy. “Political organizing is like running an ice cream stand. The presidential election year is the summer and people are buying ice cream then,” he said. “But what do we do in 2013 and for the 2014 midterm elections when interest in ice cream can drop off?"

That’s a question groups trying to get people energized ask every single day as they seek easy and cheap ways to reach potential voters. They may get answers before Election Day and surely will have to remain in touch with voters after the ballots are counted.


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