Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Nonprofit VOTE in 2010

A lot happened this year, and we want to thank you for the work you did on both the Census and the election.

2010 was a busy year for Nonprofit VOTE, and an opportunity to connect with many new nonprofit partners in all 50 states. We kicked off the year with our Nonprofits Count! Census campaign, inspiring nonprofits to take the lead in reaching out to their communities' hard to count populations. Over 20,000 local nonprofits signed up for our webinars, used our Census toolkits, ordered our "Be Counted" posters, downloaded our bi-lingual fact sheets, and organized their communities around Census response. Others became official Census Questionnaire Assistance Centers or Be Counted sites.

An even greater number of local nonprofits participated in voter engagement activities ahead of the midterm election. Nonprofit VOTE delivered more than 33,000 voter participation toolkits, posters and other resources to local nonprofits in collaboration with our state and national partners. This year, more than 2,500 local and national nonprofits joined or downloaded our webinars. Nonprofit VOTE also conducted in person trainings in dozens of states including California, Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Louisiana, North Carolina and more.

Our 2010 report will highlight the innovative ways local health centers, neighborhood groups, and human service agencies integrated voter engagement into their ongoing services. This year, voting rates equaled or exceeded 2006 turnout in most of our benchmark counties. Nevertheless, it is clear we must expand our efforts to close persistent participation gaps among the younger and lower income populations served by nonprofits, particularly in midterm years.

In the coming weeks we'll be looking at ways that nonprofits can further impact the fields of voter and civic engagement. Our popular webinar series will return next year, with updates on the Census, redistricting, election reform, and more. We're looking forward to 2011, and are already planning for 2012!

Lastly, many thanks to our partners for their amazing work this year, we couldn't have done it without them!

Protecting Arizona's Family Coalition * California Participation Project * Colorado Nonprofit Association * Colorado Civic Participation Project * Connecticut Association of Nonprofits * Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations * Maine Association of Nonprofits * MassVOTE * Providers' Council of Massachusetts * Michigan Nonprofit Association * Minnesota Council of Nonprofits * Mississippi Center for Nonprofits * Montana Nonprofit Association * Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington (DC) * North Carolina Center for Nonprofits * New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits * New Mexico Center for Nonprofit Excellence * New York Council of Nonprofits * Coalition on Housing and Homelessness of Ohio * United Way of Greater Cleveland * Nonprofit Association of Oregon * Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership * Wisconsin Nonprofits * Alliance for Children and Families * American Association of People with Disabilities Vote Project * Girls, Inc. * Independent Sector * Lutheran Services in America * NAACP * NALEO Education Fund * National Association of Secretaries of State * National Association of Community Health Clinics * National Congress of American Indians * National Council of La Raza * National Council of Nonprofits * National Low Income Housing Coalition * United Negro College Fund * VolunteerMatch * Center for Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute * CIRCLE * Voto Latino

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Monday, December 27, 2010

(Broken) Campaign Promises

Now that all the presents have been unwrapped, are you a little sad that Santa didn't leave you a gadget (or an app) that holds candidates to their campaign promises?

If so, you're not alone. Many voters wonder if they have any recourse should they discover a candidate has misrepresented him or herself during the campaign. Can you force a newly elected politician to fulfill the declarations he or she made while campaigning for your vote?

The short answer is no; but in 1912, a voter in New York State tried after a candidate failed to fulfill his campaign obligations once elected. The voter reasoned that he had given his vote in exchange for oral promises made by the candidate, constituting a verbal contract. Thus, he brought a suit against the politician on the grounds of breach of oral contract.

However, the judge disagreed, ruling that "a contract cannot be based on an ante-election promise to voters generally by a candidate for public office, so as to give a voter a right to restrain the promiser from violating same." Simply put, politicians are free to say what they like while chasing votes, and there is no legal recourse the electorate can take to force them to fulfill campaign pledges once in office.

But don't be discouraged! While you can't take your elected official to court over broken promises, that doesn't mean you're powerless. Voting is the best way to hold elected officials accountable. Make sure you're registered. Besides voting, you can also call or write to your representatives and let them know you care about an issue. Don't be afraid to craft a letter to the editor--it's a simple way to let representatives (and your community) know that you care--and you might be surprised how many other voters agree with you.

The full court opinion is under O'Reilly v. Mitchell, 85 Misc. 176, 148 N.Y.S. 88 [Sup.Ct. 1914].

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Census Bureau Releases Population and Apportionment Data

Earlier today, the Census Bureau announced the total U.S. population, each state's population, and the new number of representatives each state will have in the 113th Congress. This map (also at the left) shows which states gained and lost seats based on the data. Here are a few highlights from the release:
  • The resident population of the U.S. on April 1, 2010 was 308,745,538, an increase of 9.7% from the 2000 resident population.
  • The most populous state was California with 37,253,956 people.
  • The least populous was Wyoming with 563,626 people.
  • Texas gained the most numerically since the 2000 Census, while Nevada gained the most as a percentage of its 2000 Census count.
  • Much of the population increase came in the South and West.
When the first Census was conducted in 1790, each member of the House represented about 34,000 residents. Since then, the House has more than quadrupled in size, with each member now representing about 21 times as many constituents.

The Census Bureau will be distributing demographic data to states in February and March, which they will then use to redistrict based on population shifts and the new apportionment numbers.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Arizona Nonprofit Fights Ballot Measure

Nonprofit organizations have played an increasingly important role in organizing supporters for and against ballot measures. In the most recent election, Southwest Human Development--Arizona's largest nonprofit child development agency, serving children ages 0-5 and their families--turned their attention to Proposition 302, which aimed to repeal the First Things First Program, an early childhood services program.

A member of Protecting Arizona's Family Coalition and the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, Southwest Human Development set the tone for issue-based work. After staff sat down to learn more about voter engagement, they carried the work forward with enthusiasm. Those responsible for home visits were trained to conduct outreach with clients as well as their family members. Southwest Human Development organized numerous phone banks and sent out election reminders through their many networks. They also spread the word about voting by mail, a necessity for many of their clients who lack ready access to transportation.

Southwest Human Development used their get-out-the-vote and registration efforts to talk to the community about Proposition 302 and encourage a "No" vote. Their advocacy and extensive engagement work--not to mention the support of other nonprofits and community members--paid off with the proposition's defeat.

Southwest Human Development was not alone in taking action this year. What issue(s) inspired your nonprofit to act?

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Impending Apportionment

It's not as doom and gloom as it sounds. Apportionment is simply the process by which we determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives. With the Census set to announce state populations and the new apportionment numbers next week, now is the perfect time for a quick refresher.

But first, we should thank a few (thousand) people. Apportionment wouldn't be possible without the decennial Census results, so thank you to 257,000 organizations--including countless nonprofits--that partnered with the Census Bureau to help spread the message about the importance of mailing back the Census questionnaire. As a result, 74% of households returned their Census form by mail this year, and twenty-two states met or exceeded their 2000 Census mail participation rate. The 2010 Census was the 23rd Census in our history.

As for apportionment, we'll explain how it works with this two minute animated video, produced by the Census.

The Constitution originally set the number of representatives at 65 until the first Census was conducted in 1790, when membership was increase to 105. There are currently 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and each state is guaranteed at least one representative.

We mentioned on Tuesday that people living in the 50 states as well as military and overseas federal civilian employees (and their dependents) are counted in the apportionment population. However, residents of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Islands are excluded from the apportionment population because these areas do not have voting seats.

After the 2000 Census, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas each gained two congressional seats. New York and Pennsylvania each lost two seats, but 32 states did not gain or lose a seat. To learn more about the allocation of seats over time, check out this interactive tool from the Census that displays apportionment and population data for the last 100 years.

Once the seats are apportioned, states will redraw their district lines to reflect population changes. The reapportioned Congress, based on 2010 Census data, will convene in 2013 for the 113th Congress.

For more information about apportionment, read this Census fact sheet and check back next week for the results!

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Census Numbers, Coming Next Week

The Census Bureau is required to report the first set of data from the 2010 Census to President Obama by the end of this month. However, they announced yesterday that they're going to be ready 10 days before their deadline. On Tuesday December 21, the Census Bureau will release the national and state populations, as well as the congressional apportionment totals for each state.

Each state will have two different population numbers: the first includes overseas military and federal civilian employees--which is used only for apportionment--while the second does not include those individuals and is used for all other purposes. The release of the count is greatly anticipated because the data will determine which states lose and gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Next week's release will not include characteristics data such as age, race, and gender. That information will be released on a rolling basis in February and March. After releasing the official count, the Census Bureau will still have work to do. To keep citizens informed, the Census has produced a timeline that tracks the upcoming release of demographic and redistricting data. Stay tuned for updates on the Census count and what it means for your state and your nonprofit!

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Felon Disenfranchisement in 2010

Felon disenfranchisement has received a lot of press this year, bringing the issue a bit of celebrity.

In January, a three-judge appellate panel applied the federal Voting Rights Act to Washington’s felon disenfranchisement law, overturning a state law that bars felons in prison and under community supervision from voting. However, in October a full sitting of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and upheld Washington's ban against felon voting. In the process, the court rejected the claim that the constitutional ban discriminates against racial minorities and violates the Voting Rights Act. To challenge the ban, the court said that inmates would have to show that the criminal justice system is "infected by intentional discrimination or that the felon disenfranchisement law was enacted with such intent."

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a legal challenge to the Massachusetts constitutional provision that denies convicted felons in prison the right to vote. The petitioners claimed that the law is racially discriminatory (and in violation of the Voting Rights Act) because blacks and Hispanics are imprisoned at disproportionate rates.

Despite the rulings, a New York Times editorial postured that "Their Debt is Paid." The editorial also found that more than five million Americans were unable to vote in November because of what the author described as "unjust and archaic state laws that disenfranchise former offenders, even when they have gone on to live crime-free lives."

However, there is hope as many states begin to revisit these laws. The Sentencing Project found that in the last 13 years, 23 states have given convicted felons increased voting rights, adding 800,000 former felons to voter rolls. Nine states have either repealed or amended mandates that permanently disenfranchised convicted felons, while eight have made the process to have an individual's voting rights restored easier, and three states have given those on probation and parole the right to vote.

To learn more about the voting rights of felons in you state, visit our website and check out our fact sheet, available in English and Spanish. In the meantime what’s your take on felon voting rights? Should felons be allowed to vote while incarcerated (as is the case in Vermont and Maine), should full voting rights be restored automatically upon release, or should ex-felons have to finish their parole term first?

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Mayor Bloomberg Pushes for Election Reform

After voicing his support for San Francisco's Saturday Voting Act, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg is stepping up to the plate. Earlier this week, Bloomberg proposed a series of election reforms, including provisions for early voting, moving the registration deadline closer to Election Day, simplifying the ballot, and making absentee voting easier.

His proposals are based on this study, and will require the approval of state lawmakers in order to be implemented. Bloomberg stressed the need for reform, citing the state's low turnout--in the last three federal elections New York averaged 47th in voter turnout. The mayor was supported by activists and state lawmakers who argue that New York has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. If approved, these changes will increase access to the vote, and hopefully create more competitive elections.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Students Draw the Lines in Virginia

The 2011 Virginia College and University Legislative Redistricting Competition was recently announced, and will allow students to take a stab at redistricting their state. After Census data is made available, student teams will draw Virginia’s congressional and state legislative districts using software developed by the Public Mapping Project. (See our earlier post for more on this tool.)

Their redistricting plans will be judged on whether or not the districts are: compact; contiguous; equal in population; in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act; encompass communities of interest, and; respect existing political subdivisions. In addition to educating students and the public about the redistricting process, sponsors also point out that the maps will "demonstrate alternative ways to draw Virginia’s districts, which may be compared favorably or unfavorably to the maps produced by the state government."

And for the less studious, or those just looking to express themselves, the Sunlight Foundation has developed "Better Draw a District", which allows you to draw over districts and "encourages you to add graffiti to any and all congressional districts." (Note, this is a self-described "crude, far-from-serious, yet very fun" project.)

Both of these projects make it clear that this redistricting season will have something for everyone.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

'Tis the Season to be…Cordial?

By the time a political campaign season wraps up, most of us feel as though we barely survived a wild west, mud slinging throw-down. Of course, voters have grown increasingly tired of that narrative, and some election reforms might be changing what we can expect from campaigns.

Phil Ting recently announced his bid for San Francisco mayor, and within hours, one of his competitors, Leland Yee, welcomed him to the race. Perhaps most surprising was that the gesture wasn’t sarcastic and there was no trace of irony. Yee voiced his respect for Ting, in addition to listing some of his opponent’s accomplishments. Of course, Yee plugged himself briefly, touting his commitment "to run a different kind of campaign for Mayor" that involves working with other candidates. Still, this kind of introduction marks a sharp break from campaigning as usual.

Yee’s friendliness may stem from the rise of ranked choice voting (RCV), which brought victory to Oakland Mayor-elect Jean Quan. Although Quan was not in the lead after the first round of ballots were counted, she had collected enough second choice votes to propel her to victory, emerging as the overall preference for most voters.

Fair Vote’s Rob Richie said that a decline in negative campaigning is "the clearest effect of RCV" because "candidates going for the same voter base have to balance competing hard with not alienating that constituency." And more positive campaigning seems to be something that voters--at least in California--are interested in.

Earlier this year, California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was booed when she refused to take down attack ads airing on her behalf. Whitman was making an appearance with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and opponent Jerry Brown at the annual Women’s Conference when NBC’s Matt Lauer asked if both candidates would be willing to pull their negative campaign spots. His question drew loud applause from the crowd, as well as from Schwarzenegger who was seated between the two. Brown agreed, as long Whitman did as well. She refused, and the audience voiced its displeasure. You can watch the scene online.

This year, the Pew Research Center found that 88% of voters said they had seen or heard campaign commercials, and 56% said they had seen a lot of ads. Negative ads continue to be pervasive as more than 55% of voters said that both parties spent more time attacking one another than explaining what they would do if elected.

Governor Schwarzenegger voiced the public’s growing displeasure with bickering politicians: "People are sick and tired of politicians accusing each other of things and attacking each other and calling each other names. It's a waste. It's much more attractive if candidates go out and talk about what is the vision of the future." It’s too early to tell how the campaigns for San Francisco mayor will be conducted when the heat is on, but judging from recent events, these candidates could set a new tone for how races are run, and won.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Who's Who of Voter Turnout and Partisan Choice 2010

Interested in the who’s who of voter turnout and voter preference in the midterm election? Here are four places to start.

CNN Election Exit Polls
CNN has the best presentation of the main national exit poll shared by all major media outlets. The exit polls show the voter preference by all major demographics – age, income, ethnicity, gender, etc. In parenthesis is each demographic group’s share of the 90 million voters that voted this year. For the national perspective, look at the House national exit poll. For a state by state view, look at the exit polls in Governor or US Senate races.

New York Times Exit Poll Tool
The NY Times has a clever tool that let’s you instantly compare the voter preference of different demographics to exit polls from previous national elections.

Pew Hispanic
The Pew Hispanic Center is the most comprehensive source of Latino voter turnout. Latinos are the fastest growing part of the American electorate. While making up only only 8-9% of the actual turnout in 2010 and 2008, their share of the electorate grows with each cycle.

CIRCLE has extensive research on youth civic engagement. Their site has an up to date analysis of voter participation of 18-29 year olds, the most ethnically diverse part of the American electorate. As CIRCLE just reported, the national exit poll just revised their first estimate of youth turnout upward from11% to 12% of the electorate. Still youth turnout in midterms remains a big challenge. There were an estimated 13.5 million fewer younger voters turning out in 2010 than did in 2008, the largest percent drop off of any demographic.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Volunteers of America

With the holiday season upon us, many nonprofits are looking for volunteers to help staff special programs and services, as well as continuing to recruit folks to help with day-to-day activities. Thus, December is the perfect time to talk about this particular aspect of civic engagement.

People volunteer for a variety of reasons: it makes them feel good, they believe in a cause, they like spending time with other volunteers or clients, and they want to give back in some way. However, many might not consider what they're doing to be civic engagement. Nevertheless, volunteering is an effective way to promote quality of life in our communities, and is a core component of civic engagement.

In 2009, 63.4 million Americans volunteered, 26.8% of the U.S. population. Check out this map to see what percentage of your state volunteered compared to the rest of the country.

If you’ve been thinking about volunteering, there’s no better time to get started. Places like your local school, food pantry, animal shelter, and more are always looking for help. The possibilities are virtually limitless, especially because many organizations also recruit volunteers that can work remotely, often on technology-based projects, such as website design and social media. The best thing about volunteering, is that there's something for everyone. For volunteer opportunities in your area, check out VolunteerMatch, Idealist, or your local newspaper.

For those of you that already volunteer, what are your motivations? Do you think your actions contribute to the civic health of your community?

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Putting History Online

Michigan’s Macomb County is a historian’s dream come true. The county has posted a plethora of information online, including death records, campaign finance reports, and county commissioner minutes dating back to 1924. Now, the county will also be posting its election journals.

Election records from 1998 to the present are already available online, but commissioners approved almost $4,000 for a project that will electronically scan election journals dating back to 1838. The handwritten records from 1838 to 1909 will be indexed by year, and typed records will be text searchable.

The project could be completed by the end of the year, allowing residents, historians, and researchers to learn more about "why certain measures are passed or laws are on the books." Best of all, access is free to the public.

Macomb County is at the forefront of transparent governance, also publicizing its expenditures online, where the public can access reports and records, and "trace the activity of county government spending."

By making this and other information available online, Macomb County is allowing the public to access the things that have effected their lives, whether they happened last year or a century ago. Thanks to Macomb for making information available to residents, and people who just want to learn more!

What kinds of information does your local government make publicly available?

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Casting a Ballot for Haiti

On Sunday, Friends of Haiti 2010 organized a mock election allowing Haitians living abroad to cast ballots just like their friends and family in Haiti. The only difference is that their votes won't count.

Because of their contributions—financial and otherwise—Haitians living abroad want representation and a greater voice in the future of the country. The World Bank estimates that the 1 million Haitians living abroad (half of which reside in the United States) send upwards of $1.5 billion to the country every year. That money usually pays for schooling, medicine, and food, and these contributions have become even more important in the aftermath of the January earthquake and recent cholera outbreak.

Immigrants cast ballots in Boston, New York, Miami and more, making it clear that although they may reside elsewhere, they want the right to vote in Haiti. Voting was an informal affair—at one location, ballots were held in a shoebox—but it nevertheless underscored the deep ties between the Haitian community and their country.

Unfortunately, as election day progressed in Haiti, reports of street protests, inaccurate lists, and claims of voter fraud became a prominent theme across the country. Results are not expected until next week, and a second round of voting is scheduled for January if no presidential candidate secures a majority of the initial vote.

However, balloting went smoothly in Massachusetts, and after counting 54 votes in Boston and Brockton, Michel Martelly emerged as the local favorite with 75 percent of the vote.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nonprofit VOTE Gives Thanks

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, so we wanted to share with you the many things Nonprofit VOTE is grateful for this year. For starters, we have amazing state and national partners who are doing wonderful work, in addition to an incredible network of supporters spread across the country.

We’re also thankful for the many nonprofits that worked on ballot measures this election season. These nonprofits demonstrated the sector’s strength by playing a crucial role in defeating numerous revenue cutting ballot measures.
  • The Colorado Nonprofit Association worked to help Colorado voters reject three ballot measures that would have cut vital services provided by nonprofits and local government.
  • In Massachusetts, MassVOTE, the Providers’ Council, and the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network rallied voters to preserve funds for economic development and education by voting "No" on a rollback in state sales tax that would have cut over $3 billion from the state budget.
  • Arizona nonprofits were part of an effort that overwhelmingly defeated a proposed repeal of the First Things First program, which provides funding to early childhood development and health programs.
  • In Montana, nonprofits like NeighborWorks Montana helped pass a measure capping interest rates at 36% on payday loans that were typically 300% or more.
Nonprofit VOTE is thankful for the local nonprofits that do this work on a daily basis, who promote voter participation, and who have incorporated voter engagement into their year-round advocacy and civic engagement programs. Lastly, we want to say a big thank you to all the nonprofit organizations working every day to improve the lives of our neighbors and to strengthen our communities.

In honor of Thanksgiving, make sure to thank your favorite nonprofit for the hard work they do year-round!

You can find a full list of Nonprofit VOTE's 2010 partners here.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter in Our World

This past weekend, you probably saw long lines of avid Harry Potter fans waiting (perhaps in costume) to see the first installment of the seventh film. And while you and your children might know all about muggles, he-who-must-not-be-named, the Weasley family, and Dumbledore’s Army, you may not have heard of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA).

The Harry Potter Alliance is a 501c3 nonprofit that promotes civic engagement "by using parallels from the Harry Potter books to educate and mobilize young people across the world toward issues of literacy, equality, and human rights." The organization encourages youth to follow in the footsteps of their fictional heroes and work for a better world.

And while the organization is inspired by a fictional world, it is achieving real-world success. The HPA has raised $123,000 for supplies in Haiti, donated more than 55,000 books, and registered over 900 first time voters through the Wizard Rock the Vote campaign.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, said herself, "We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

The Harry Potter Alliance is another example of an innovative movement designed--and inspired by--young people, with a focus on civic engagement. While some may ignore the youth vote (or lament lackluster turnout), movements like this serve as a reminder not to underestimate the potential of today's youth, in the voting booth and beyond.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Expanding Access to the Vote

Redistricting measures weren’t the only important electoral reform passed this November. This year’s midterm election also heralded other important changes, including expanded voting access.

In Vermont, voters passed a constitutional amendment that will allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries as long as they will be 18 by the date of the general election. In doing so, Vermont joins a growing number of states that are empowering these young voters.

Meanwhile, Kansas voters passed a law that eliminates mental illness as a voting disqualification. Previously, the state constitution allowed legislators to limit an individual's suffrage rights.

The Saturday Voting Act was approved in San Francisco, requiring the city to open all polling places on the Saturday before Election Day in the November 2011 city election. Proponents argue that a weekend voting option would make it much easier for working citizens to get to the polls. The Census Bureau reported that in 2008, the most common reason registered voters said they did not vote was because of their busy schedules. Even before the act passed, New York City Mayor Bloomberg announced his support for the initiative, signaling that NYC might be next.

These and other ballot measures were a positive step forward, but naturally there is much more we must do to make our democracy more inclusive and ensure that those who can vote have a vested interest in doing so.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Voter Registration Begins in Sudan

While the midterms are behind us, an election is looming in Sudan. Sudanese voters won’t be electing congressional representatives, but will instead be casting their ballots to determine whether or not the country will be split into two nations.

Voter registration has already begun, with individuals waiting in line outside one of the 2,630 registration centers in Southern Sudan to ensure that they will be able to participate in the referendum. In Northern Sudan, registration has begun at 165 centers, but turnout appears to be lower than in the south. Voter registration ends on December 1, and so far the effort has only received minor complaints--generally about long lines and paperwork.

The referendum is a component of the 2005 peace agreement that halted civil war in the country, and there are still challenges before the election; the north-south border has not yet been decided (mostly due to the location of oil fields), and general preparations for the election are behind schedule.

Nevertheless, many Sudanese are compelled to vote for many of the same reasons we are, such as interest in the welfare of their children and for a chance to be heard: "I came to register to determine the fate of South Sudan," said one voter,

Voting is scheduled to begin on January 9 of next year.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Redistricting Reform

Last week we discussed the basics of redistricting and gerrymandering, and today we’re going to cover how voters are taking back the process from legislators.

Each state redistricts differently. In Iowa, two men and a computer are responsible for the process. In some states—like Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington—special bi-partisan commissions draw the lines. But in the remaining states, politicians--who are concerned with their own careers--direct the process. Current estimates reveal that one of the two major parties will have unilateral control over the redrawing of 140 congressional districts. The remainder are in states where either both parties have a chance to influence redistricting or where decisions will be made by independent commissions. For a complete look at who draws the lines, visit the Rose Institute.

However, on November 2nd, voters in California and Florida passed legislation that effects how each state draws the lines. In California, the new Citizens Redistricting Commission had its authority expanded with the passage of Proposition 20. The Commission was originally charged with drawing the lines for state legislative districts and Board of Equalization districts (Proposition 11 in 2008), but is now also responsible for drawing congressional district lines. The 14-member commission will be made up of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four commissioners from neither major party. Learn more about the commissioner selection process.

In Florida, Constitutional Amendments 5 and 6 (approved by over 62% of voters) incorporated language into the constitution that limits the power of legislators to draw their districts to guarantee reelection. The amendments prohibit drawing district lines—both congressional and state legislative—to favor or disfavor any incumbent or political party; they require districts to be compact and to utilize existing political and geographical boundaries, while at the same time protecting minority voting rights.

Reforms in both states are designed to limit the scope of political gerrymandering, which allows legislators to pick their voters, rather than the other way around. In a further effort to increase redistricting transparency, researchers have released District Builder—free, open-source web-based software—"that will enable greater public participation and transparency during the upcoming electoral redistricting process."

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ranked Choice Voting debuts in Oakland - History made

Oakland elected its first mayor elected using “Ranked Choice Voting”, Jean Quan. She became the nation’s first Asian-American mayor of a large city. With ten candidates vying for Mayor, voters were able to express second or third choice should their preferred candidate trail after the counting first place ballots.

Alameda County ran a strong educational campaign to help voters understand they could indicate more than one choice. Voters get the idea, ranked their choices and the election went smoothly. Oakland adopted the new voting method, used widely in countries like Australia and Great Britain and in several US cities. Portland, Maine and St. Paul, Minnesota and Memphis, Tennessee are the latest cities to adopt it.

Oakland’s goal was to ensure a majority winner without the need or expense a second run-off election. Candidates could run without fear of being a spoiler. No candidate could win just by splitting the vote in a crowded field.

This is exactly what happened in Oakland’s mayor’s race. Quan’s chief opponent, Don Perolta, led initially with 34% of the first place votes. But an underwhelming 34% didn’t make him the winner as it would if voters didn’t have the ranked choice option. Quan picked up the most second place votes. She emerged the overall preference of the most voters who had supporter lesser candidates who ran on many of the same issues as Quan. It was the second place votes of the other leading candidate, popular political newcomer Rebecca Kaplan, which ultimately transferred overwhelming to Quan and carried her to victory.

How does ranked choice voting work? Watch the video.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Know Your District

This year’s election was about more than who your community sends to the state capital and Washington in January. It's also about who will be redrawing your district lines early next year--which will influence who your community elects for the next 10 years.

Let’s start from the beginning: A Census is conducted every 10 years, and the results determine how many of the 435 Congressional seats each state receives. Once the number of representatives is allocated, each state redraws its districts to account for population changes. At least in theory. In practice, districts are generally redrawn for political purposes, a practice known as gerrymandering.

Although there are guidelines for the redistricting process--each district must be compact, contiguous, equal in population and there must be an equal opportunity for minorities to elect the candidate of their choice--the process is open to political influence. A few tactics include:
  • Partisan gerrymandering: when the party in control of the redistricting process draws the line to maximize the power of their own party.
  • Bi-partisan gerrymandering: when the parties redraw the lines to ensure reelection for incumbents of both parties.
  • Racial gerrymandering: when districts are created in such a way that minority voters have the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
Gerrymandering is also the name of a new documentary from director Jeff Reichert.

The film does an excellent job of covering compelling redistricting stories, such as an up and coming candidate in Brooklyn who was drawn out of his district by the incumbent--a technique known as hijacking. Filmmakers also traveled to Anamosa, Iowa, where a candidate was elected by only a handful of voters because most of the district’s population was locked up in the local prison. (Learn more about prison-based gerrymandering from the Prison Policy Initiative.)

Each state redistricts differently, and Reichert urged reforms that incorporate state’s own traditions, public review and comments, and more. And while the film reminded viewers that "gerrymandering" ought to be pronounced like "Gary," (after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry) and not "Jerry"—that’s one reform which is not likely to be adopted.

Now that you’re interested in the process, you can take a stab at this complicated task by playing The Redistricting Game online. Meanwhile, stay tuned for our next post on redistricting reforms from this year’s midterm election!

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day and the MOVE Act

What better way to honor the men and women who have served our country, then to ensure that their counterparts currently serving in the military are able to vote?

In an effort to make certain that servicemen and women can vote, President Obama signed the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act in 2009. The MOVE Act requires election officials to send ballots to military and overseas voters at least 45 days before a federal election, and this year's midterm was the first election to which the new law applied. The 45 day period was based on findings that overseas voters did not have sufficient time to return their ballots and were thus disenfranchised.

Most states complied with the law, and some states applied for waivers--about half of which were granted. However, a few states did not comply, forcing the Department of Justice to compel them to take steps to ensure that overseas ballots would be counted. The Department of Justice estimates that 65,000 votes were preserved as a result.

Military and overseas voter participation rates are not yet available--and some ballots are still coming in--but the government's willingness to take action to guarantee that overseas voters have an equal opportunity to cast their ballot is impressive, and a great tribute to the men and women in the armed forces.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Why Your Secretary of State Matters

Do you know who your Secretary of State is? If you live in Alaska, Hawaii, or Utah, don't worry, because you don’t have one. But in 37 of the 47 states that do, the Secretary of State also serves as the state's Chief Election Official. That means they control balloting, recounts, and the overall conduct of elections.

Why does that matter? Well, for example, the Kansas Secretary of State-elect already has plans to introduce a bill to legislators that will require voters to show photo ID at the polls and will also require proof of citizenship when registering to vote for the first time. In North Dakota, in the event of a tie in any election for the state legislature, the Secretary of State tosses a coin to determine the winner.

How does one become the Secretary of State? In 35 states, he or she is elected by popular vote. In 3 states (TN, ME, NH), the Secretary of State is elected by the state legislature, while in 9 states--including Texas, New York, Florida, and Oklahoma--the governor appoints someone to the post.

Learn more about this year's Secretary of State elections, and the 26 seats that were up for grabs.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is mandatory voting "un-American"?

It's November, a non-presidential election year, and turnout numbers are rolling in, meaning the inevitable question must be raised: should the United States have mandatory voting?

This CNN spot below discusses the issue and features William Galston of the Brookings Institution, one proponent of mandatory voting (watch for his nice comparison of the civic duty of voting and the civic duty of jury duty).

Others say that those who are too "lazy", either to get to the polls on Election Day or to "get informed" on the issues, should not be compelled to include themselves in America's electorate, lest that electorate become less informed, and thus less powerful and effective.

However, are either of these premises correct? Are people who don't get to the polls on Election Day really just "lazy", when so many disproportionate barriers are erected to registration and Election Day participation? Moreover, do we really think potential voters need to learn how to apply an accurate cost-benefit analysis to their vote, or learn how to predict the future decisions of their chosen leaders, to clearly and accurately express their current choices? Can anyone other than mind-readers and political theorists ever cast that elusive, so-called "informed vote"? Finally, as the video points it really "un-American" to require complete participation in one of the most fundamental founding notions of the United States - democracy?

The real question to be answered before we think about applying a mandatory voting scheme is whether it can implemented effectively. Until we have a system that allows all voters to easily register and cast a ballot on Election Day, mandatory voting will fail and be unfair...but that failure will not be a result of including more people in our democracy.

Check out the video and decide for yourself.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Nonprofit Awareness Month

If you haven’t heard, November is Nonprofit Awareness Month in North Carolina and Alabama!

What should we be aware of? Well for starters, there are more than 10,300 501(c)(3) nonprofits in North Carolina. Those nonprofits provide nearly 10% of all jobs in the state—two times the number of jobs that the finance, insurance, and real estate industries provide, combined! Nonprofits contribute $33 billion to the NC state economy, and over 1.7 million volunteers help them deliver services. For more on North Carolina nonprofits, check out this fact sheet. Likewise, Alabama is home to over 21,000 501(c)(3) nonprofits that employ 126,000 people and generated $12.4 billion in revenue last year.

Beyond the cold hard facts, nonprofits across the country work to educate our children, feed the hungry, maintain parks and public spaces, build homes, and serve our communities every day. Nonprofit Awareness Month seeks to create a better understanding about the value, importance, and impact of the nonprofit sector.

So even if you aren’t in Alabama or North Carolina, you can still celebrate Nonprofit Awareness Month at your organization and in your community. Learn more about how to spread the word using tips from the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Keepin' it Real in Human Services"

Earlier this week, one of our Massachusetts partners, the Providers’ Council, hosted its 35th annual "It’s About People" Convention. The day brought together more than 1,000 attendees from health and human service agencies across the state, as well as supporters.

Michael Weekes, President/CEO of the Providers’ Council, opened the convening by reminding everyone to vote the following day. That reminder resounded throughout the day as presenters and workshop leaders likewise urged participants to head to the polls. However, the Council led with more than words this election cycle—they actively engaged their members on ballot measures that would impact their work in communities across the state. But the day was about much more than midterm elections—it was an opportunity to spend time with peers, recognize outstanding leaders in the field, and have conversations about the future of Massachusetts and the nation.

The keynote speaker was Liz Walker, a television journalist, documentary film producer, and humanitarian. She thanked everyone in the room for the work they do to keep our society "from falling off the edge." And as she told her story, she urged attendees to open themselves up to all the connections and collaborations that they might not have considered. She also reminded the audience that real change takes time, but that nonprofits can and do make a difference in the world. Seems like sound advice for nonprofits across the country.

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