Democracy Alliance Blog / September 27, 2016

Today and Every Day, Maximizing Participation Strengthens Democracy

Julie Kohler
Senior Vice President, Strategy and Planning

Shehn Datta
Strategy and Planning Manager

Last night's Presidential debate gave Americans lots of reasons why voting is important. The differences between the candidates on issues such as the economy, race, national security and more could not have been more stark. But one issue that didn't come up was the issue of voting rights. In the last decade, countless regressive laws have been passed to limit Americans' access to the ballot. And Donald Trump is a cheerleader for this erosion of our fundamental rights. Trump has stated he favors onerous voter ID laws and opposes same-day registration laws.

Unlike Trump, the Democracy Alliance chooses to celebrate voting, not restrict it. As we celebrate the work that so many progressive organizations are doing to make today's National Voter Registration Day a success, we spotlight our Democracy Fund's complementary investments, which seek to reduce barriers to the ballot box and ensure that Americans have the opportunity to have their voices heard.

Today is National Voter Registration Day. Across the nation, hundreds of events will be held – many organized by Democracy Alliance APOs, organizations on the DA’s Progressive Infrastructure Map, and many of the DA’s 2020 State Funds’ grantees. They share simple goal: to maximize the number of eligible voters who are registered to vote this November.

The rationale is clear – maximizing participation strengthens democracy. And for those of us who care about a progressive America, maximizing participation among the New American Majority is our best strategy for electing leaders who share our values and will work to enact policies that advance our 2020 Vision.

This is, of course, the reason that voting rights have been such hotly contested terrain over the past several years and why the Right has been unrelenting in its efforts to systematically deny millions of Americans – particularly the New American Majority – access to the ballot. For the last several election cycles, progressives have been fighting defense, trying to fend off the Right’s efforts to restrict the vote by enacting onerous and unreasonable voter ID requirements, reducing early voting, and eliminating other pro-voting reforms like same-day registration and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year olds.

On that front, there’s some good news to report: the tide appears to be turning. Over the past two months, voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Texas, and North Carolina were struck down as unconstitutional, with some judges writing scathing opinions of the laws.

  • In the Wisconsin case, US District Judge James D. Peterson wrote, “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”
  • In striking down the North Carolina law, thanks in large part to the legal efforts of DA-recommended Advancement Project, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, wrote that “the new provisions [which imposed a voter ID, reduced early-voting days, and changed procedures for voter registration] target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
  • And thanks to the legal efforts of DA-recommended Brennan Center for Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and others, an appeals court recently issued a temporary injunction, preventing Kansas, Alabama, and Georgia from requiring proof of citizenship when their residents register to vote.

The battle over voting rights, however, is far from over, and progressives will need to continue to prioritize – and fund – additional defensive work that will beat back further legislative restrictions in state legislatures and strike the laws down in the courts.

But the premise of the DA’s Democracy Fund is that the best offense is sometimes just that – a good offense. Rather than being satisfied by fighting the Right on their terms, the fund invests in campaigns that turn this issue around and fight for game-changing reforms that make voting easier. By supporting campaigns working to enact automatic voter registration, the fund is helping add millions of voters to the rolls, remain registered when they move within a state, and register to vote online. And by working to enfranchise those who have lost the right to vote due to a prior criminal conviction, the fund seeks to address one of the manifestations of our criminal justice system’s structural racism: the fact that 6 million citizens – and nearly 1 out of every 13 Black Americans – is currently ineligible to vote.

“The battle over voting rights is far from over, and progressives will need to continue to prioritize – and fund – additional defensive work”

There are real opportunities to advance this agenda in 2017, 2018 and beyond, and the fund’s early investments are already yielding important results:

  • Thanks in part to Democracy Fund support this year, New Virginia Majority helped to enact automatic voter registration in Fairfax County and is laying the groundwork for statewide implementation in 2017.
  • In Arizona and New Mexico, fund grantees One Arizona and the Center for Civic Policy have taken advantage of Arizona’s recent election administration debacles and a statewide election for Secretary of State, respectively, running earned media and legislative advocacy campaigns designed to start new conversations with the public on voting rights and laying the groundwork for automatic voter registration ballot campaigns in 2018.
  • A ballot campaign led by Democracy Fund grantee Florida Rights Restoration Coalition – with the potential to re-enfranchise 1.8 million citizens rendered permanently ineligible to vote due to a prior criminal conviction – just cleared an important hurdle last week, when it surpassed the necessary number of petition signatures required for a review by the state Attorney General, the first step to getting on the ballot in 2018.
  • And the Democracy fund grantee Oregon Motor Voter Coalition has partnered with the Analyst Institute to learn more about the Oregon voters who have been automatically registered through their interactions with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Initial findings from the May primary show that it has been Oregon’s New American Majority that has benefitted the most from automatic voter registration, with young Oregonians and people of color being automatically registering at much higher rates.

Independent voter registration efforts like those undertaken on National Voter Registration Day are critical to maximizing participation this November. But to truly transform civic participation in this country, we must invest as much in permanently expanding the electorate through structural reforms as we do registering (and often re-registering) voters each cycle. The Democracy Fund has identified several promising campaigns and hopes to expand our work in 2017, when there could be additional opportunities to enact proactive reforms in states like Colorado and Minnesota. But if we are going to capitalize on this window of opportunity and shut down the Right’s voter suppression efforts for once and for all, additional investment is needed. As the terms of the debate over voting rights shift, the time has come to think and act boldly.

How are DA-Recommended Groups Engaging with National Voter Registration Day?

  • Advancement Project has sent a toolkit into the field with talking points, graphics, a sample op-ed, and social media tools. They are also engaging partners online throughout the day.
  • America Votes will be conducting a social media-based education campaign linked to helpful resources on getting registered.
  • The Brennan Center for Justice will be active on social media throughout the day, and will include new graphics developed in co-sponsorship with Rock the Vote, the Election Protection Coalition, and LatinoJustice.
  • The Center for Popular Democracy will be participating through action emails and digital outreach. Some affiliates will be engaging in activities ranging from canvass days to block parties.
  • Color of Change will be reaching out to its membership online to raise awareness about NVRD while continuing to push for contact and engagement during this election cycle.
  • Demos will be promoting NVRD on social media, and are likely producing a blogpost on the issue.
  • PICO National Network is working with congregations across the country for their #TogetherWeVote Voter Registration Sabbath. Activities will range from registration, pledging to vote, and GOTV.
  • Several State Voices affiliates are engaging in voter registration efforts and pushing non-partisan voter registration communications.
  • We give special thanks to the Youth Engagement Fund grantee, the Bus Federation, for leading the path to National Voter Registration Day as well as the charge on creating stronger civic engagement awareness.