Monday, July 23, 2012

The impact of community organizations on party politics

Voter registration drive.
Source: Planned Parenthood
In Hungary, it does not often happen that non-profit organizations would encourage their constituencies to participate in elections. In the United States, however, it is a very widespread activity. If they wish to vote, citizens of each state except North Dakota have to register themselves before (or in some states, on the same day of) the election. Before major elections, non-profit organizations, especially the majority of community organizations, run voter registration drives to increase civic engagement, mainly for constituencies who have been historically underrepresented at the polls.

Activists do door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods, or go to universities, churches, or talk to people standing at bus stops and have them fill out their voter registration forms, which activists collect and submit to voter registration officials. The approach, commonly referred to as "civic engagement", is a strategic opportunity to involve new people and raise awareness. In Hungary, for example, The City Is For All made an attempt to use this tool among homeless citizens before the 2010 elections.

Naturally, it is against the law that organizers and their non-profit organizations agitate people to vote for a specific party or a political candidate, but in an indirect way (and mostly due to the two-party system), they may have an impact on the outcome of the elections. There are usually overlaps between the agenda of community organizations and that of the Democratic Party, so these organizations will more likely register potential Democratic voters.

It was not accidental that the very influential Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) received a lot of accusations before the 2008 presidential election. They were accused of forgery of voter registration forms because those who lost the election felt that their work registering voters contributed to the victory of President Barack Obama. (The charges helped lead to the downfall of the organization.)

Due to the overlaps, several community organizations purposefully build on potential Democratic voters in recruiting more members or in increasing the number of supporters for a campaign. For example, it is a widespread practice for community organizations to gain access to a public voter database (with a lot of information such as name, phone number, address, gender, age, voting history), which a vendor has merged with commercially obtained data to create a more comprehensive database. The program generates a list based on the needs of the customer, which (besides political organizations and corporations,) non-profit organizations also use as a source for phone banking: they call hundreds of people and urge them to register to vote, to support a cause, to call an elected official or to become a member.

American tax-exempt non-profit organizations come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Even groups that are non-partisan have figured out ways to be effective in lobbying, as well as electoral politics, through voter registration, voter education and get-out-the-vote efforts, based on the issues that are important to their members. Organizations have also built relationships with key people in non-profits that are more actively engaged in political campaigns (because they have a different tax status).  A creative example of how this is done in Montana is reflected in the work of two groups, the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), a community organization fighting for the rights of farmers and ranchers, for clean water and healthy food in Montana and a lobby group, the Montana League of Rural Voters (MLRV).

Read it in Hungarian.

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