On Nonprofits and the Electoral Process

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Each national election year brings a surge in interest and media hype, but 2004 already has a distinctly different feeling. With people having seen firsthand the bitter fruits of state and local budget cuts triggered by tax cuts and recession, there is a more serious atmosphere. People are talking about what the next several elections will mean, and they express a desire to be more engaged. Yet most hold back. Indeed, we understand the reticence—exciting people about the current range of political choices is often a stretch for even the most change-oriented of nonprofits. But, if we remove ourselves from the electoral mix, what does that leave? At what risk does it put our programs and constituents? Shouldn’t we have a more generative part of crafting a national agenda? Scott Harshbarger, former head of Common Cause, and others in past issues of the Nonprofit Quarterly have addressed the need for nonprofits to be active participants in the development of political policy, platforms and alliances.

Against the backdrop of increased polarization and low participation, Geri Mannion and Curtis Gans seed our dialogue with you, providing their analyses and agendas for nonprofits in the electoral process. Nonprofits are seen as—and in the past have acted as—great vehicles to encourage voter participation and education because they engage with so many people, including groups with the lowest participation.

As Gans and Mannion point out, there is a lot nonprofits and philanthropy can do—dozens of possible actions to engage in from short to long term—but we fear that most nonprofits will do nothing. In the short term, that will mean no voter registration of clients or students, no posters alerting people to the date of the election, no transportation to the polls, no promotion of the candidate forum in the community center, not even encouragement of their own employees to vote. In the long term it will quite simply mean an electoral system more driven by big money and special constituency lobbies.
While our counterparts in the new democracies of Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa are in the forefront of the pro-democracy movement (sometimes risking all), most U.S. nonprofits are disinterested bystanders.

Inaction would be the worst choice here. We’d like to hear from you about this: What do you think nonprofits should be doing before the election and between elections? What are the obstacles you face, and what are the opportunities? What has your organization done, and what will it do? —Eds.

By Geri Mannion

With the 2004 presidential election year heating up, a buzz is stirring about voter registration, voter education and mobilization. A growing number of voices are urging nonprofits to be more aggressive in carrying out their civic responsibilities by encouraging the nation’s unengaged citizenry to get off its collective duff and march to its local voting booth. That is a good thing— most nonprofits should include civic engagement among the tools they use on an ongoing basis to achieve their mission and objectives, and all nonprofits should be getting out the vote.
Yet it would be an error if nonprofits focus only on voter registration and voting. While an important civic action, voting by itself will not re-energize our demoralized and cynical electorate. Nonprofits would be making a mistake to get on the voting bandwagon without also putting attention and elbow grease into curing some of the structural and attitudinal deficits in the electoral system that contribute to our current voting malaise. What follows are some of the impediments that rise to the top of my list.

Obviously, having your vote actually counted would help restore the public’s faith in the electoral process! So nonprofits should help ensure that the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 is implemented well and fairly at the local and state level—and that includes making sure that the federally funded voting technology currently being installed is accessible to seniors, the disabled and the technology-phobic and is not an open i nvitat ion t o hackers. Nonprofits should encourage their constituents to participate in public forums that debate HAVA’s implementation at the state and local level. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (civilrights.org), Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action (demos-usa.org), Common Cause (commoncause.org) and the National Association of Secretaries of State (nass.org) are all resources for taking action on voting reform.

If there are glitches on Election Day (such as a voter not being on the roll), provisional ballots should be available as required by HAVA; poll workers should be trained to be helpful and encouraging, especially to new voters. At the local poll, sample ballots and/or voting machine prototypes should be available, so that new or infrequent voters especially should feel comfortable in casting their vote. In fact, nonprofits with a volunteer base, and especially those with a youth constituency, could train and send out Election Day poll workers to help at the polls or to act as poll watchers to ensure voters know how to use the voting machines and aren’t intimidated, an experience too frequent for new, immigrant or low-income voters. People for the American Way (pfaw.org), for one, is organizing election protection projects in a number of states this election year and could use volunteers to lend a hand on Election Day.

Voting should be easy. Same-day voter registration has been proven to substantially increase turnout, especially among infrequent voters, and there is no evidence of fraud. Mail-in and advance voting should be allowed, it should be easier to do an absentee ballot, and polling-place hours should accommodate workers (including those who work two jobs or commute long distances). While making voting easier and more accessible won’t automatically solve the problem of civic apathy, it does remove some of the unnecessary or cumbersome barriers to voting.

Voters also need to be educated, through better civic education in the schools starting at an early age and continuing through the provision of nonpartisan voter information. Nonprofits, for one, could provide links to that kind of information from their Web sites, linking to such resources as Vote Smart (vote-smart.org) and civicmissionofschools.org. Educating members or constituents about important public issues in a balanced and nonpartisan way (from the environment to health to community economic development, etc.) is an important and often neglected part of the political process, especially at the local level, where it could be argued more citizens would be interested. Given the increasing number of immigrants i n the United States, efforts should also be made to help them naturalize, register to vote and understand our political system. That means providing English language training and civics training and, in areas with large numbers of people for whom English is a second language, providing access to bilingual ballots. The National Immigration Forum (immigrationforum.org) can provide information on a wide range of organizations at the state and local level working on these issues.

A variety of new, interesting candidates would also be refreshing—ones interested in building bipartisan relationships and in protecting the larger public interest and not just special interests. And why don’t we see “the best and the brightest” of our citizens willing to run for office? Unfair redistricting practices are increasingly one reason, leading to fewer competitive races and depressing voter interest. Winner-take-all election systems are another barrier. The Center for Voting and Democracy (fairvote.org) is one organization that is promoting full representation as an alternative to winner-take-all elections and instant runoff voting as an alternative to plurality elections and traditional runoff elections.

And that, of course, leads to another huge barrier: the way campaigns are financed. Our current system does not work; this is why public financing systems currently breaking through at the local and state level are one of the more positive examples of how democracy can be revitalized. In Arizona and Maine, both with full publicly financed systems for statewide office, early research shows an increase in the numbers of women and minorities running for office, increased voter interest and turnout on Election Day and, it is hoped, better legislation that serves the larger public. Public Campaign (www.publiccampaign.org) can provide links to state and local resources that will help nonprofits and individuals get involved in the “clean elections” public financing movement.

Finally, and most importantly, voting is only the first step. If citizens are to feel empowered, they also have to track the actions of their elected officials after they are elected. If officials renege on their campaign promises, voters need to learn how to contact their legislators and register how they feel. They have to learn the power of a phone call or letter or a visit to their legislator’s office. And, if necessary, they can vote them out during the next election.

Voting is the easy part; democracy’s the messy reality—and the United States’ democracy will not be re-energized and turnout will not improve until the electoral system’s structural problems are addressed and voters are part of the action. Nonprofits, given their long-time role in civil society, have a very important part to play in reenergizing U.S. democracy and in reengaging voters—and not just in presidential election years, but on a continual basis. If they only call for an increase in “rote” voting, they will be contributing to the status quo and to the public’s cynicism. About the Author Geri Mannion is the Chair of the Strengthening U.S. Democracy Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

By Curtis Gans

Those who seek remedy to the 40-year, 25-percent progressive and generational decline in America’s rate of voter participation and civic engagement tend to look to procedural solutions. They are looking for love (and redress) in all the wrong places. For four decades, the United States has been making its procedures for voting and registration easier and voter turnout has declined. Minnesota and Wisconsin, which adopted election day registration in 1976, had a lower turnout in 1988 and in many elections since than before the procedure was adopted. The states which have adopted no-excuse absentee voting, early voting and mail voting all have had a poorer turnout performance (lesser increases in years of turnout increase, greater decreases in years of decline) than states which did not adopt these procedures. The nations which have noncompulsory voting and vote on weekends and holidays have, in the aggregate, lower turnout than those who vote on workdays when the instrumentalities for mobilization— teachers, employers and shop stewards—are in place. And while the reforms put in place following the 2000 Florida debacle are highly desirable, there is likely to be no connection between them and voter participation. It is and has been for some time incandescently clear that the central problem underlying civic disengagement is motivation. And many of the causes are equally clear:

A majority of young citizens grow up with parents who neither vote nor discuss politics. They go to schools, particularly in urban America and in places that have restricted funding, such as California, whose quality of education has been declining, as has the quantity of civic education. They no longer read newspapers nor study, debate or are tested on current events. Commitment to the mediating and training institutions for the young—student government, student newspapers, Wesley, Hillel and Newman clubs—has diminished as the commitment to training citizens has decreased.

No wonder 18-to-24-year-olds vote at a rate below 30 percent in presidential elections and below 15 percent in mid-terms. Our sense of community has been fragmented and atomized: physically by the Interstate highway system, suburbanization and the strip mall; political ly by single issue and identity politics; and by modern media—in television, which tells us it brings the world community into our living rooms, but most profoundly brings us into our living rooms as individual spectators and consumers; in cable and satellite, which fragment the viewing audience across 200 channels, the overwhelming majority of which have no public affairs content whatsoever; and by the Internet with its 500 million self-selecting outlets. As Robert Putnam writes, our integrating institutions—the churches, the schools, the unions, the clubs and the political parties—have all grown weaker. The parties no longer provide a consensual program nor sustaining grassroots mobilization. Our sense of civility has been destroyed by parties which are misaligned and by a system of creating political districts that heightens polarization.

Trust in leaders has been eroded by their own words and actions (“I’m not going to send American boys to do what Asian boys are supposed to do,” “Read my lips—no new taxes,” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” to name but three), which, in turn, has produced cynicism in the coverage of politics. Our broadcast outlets have abdicated their role in the coverage of politics and public affairs. Our political campaigns are a national disgrace, dominated by unanswerable attack ads that create a miasma over the entire political process and by candidates unable to say an unprogrammed word. No wonder we now stand 139th of 163 democracies in the level of voter participation. If we are to make a serious attempt at restoring vitality to our politics and rekindling the will to engage, then we must address those of these larger issues we can—in improving the quality of education overall and reinstilling as a primary mission within it the training of citizens; in restoring public service as a primary role for the media; in rebuilding, strengthening and giving sinew to our integrating institutions; in recreating, as possible community from chaos; in returning civility to our politics, content to our national debate, and sense, purpose and rationality to our political and governmental institutions.

None of this is easy. To restore civic education alone will take the development of a longitudinal curriculum of academic, activist and experimental elements which begins in the third grade and carries forward to college. It will take agreement on that curriculum from a political spectrum from just to the right of the multicultural left and just to the left of the anti-government right. It means imposing it without legislation on 144,000 school districts and 3,000 colleges. It means changing the nature of teacher education and the content of textbooks. It means weekly news magazines in the classroom for the study, debate and testing on current events. It means considering a mandatory year of national service after high school for all.

There have been some small but not unimportant beginnings on aspects of the agenda of civic re-engagement. Several institutions are working on the content of a civic education curriculum. A few organizations have made changing the way the states configure districts after the decennial Census a priority project. At least one organization has attempted to tackle the execrable nature of American political campaigns. And for the upcoming election, there appears to be a somewhat greater emphasis on grassroots campaigning. But, given the extraordinary dimensions of the problems which underlie civic decay, it might be well to think of an approach which might be commensurate with the nature of the problems—perhaps an institution like those created to help new foreign democracies build the underpinnings of durable popular rule, an Endowment for American Democracy, if you will.

If we are to be serious about a renaissance of the civic religion, then we have to cease spending the majority of our intellectual, human and material resources pursuing the chimerical panaceas of procedural reform and move toward addressing the serious substantive and structural issues that underlie the decay of American democracy. The problem is large, its causes are large, and about its remedies, we should not think small.

Curtis Gans is the director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which has been studying the problem of citizen disengagement for the past 27 years.