LA’s Liberty Vote
October 18, 2004
by JON WIENER
“This time will be different–this time we are in it for the long haul.” That’s what voter registration and turn-out-the-vote projects say every four years, when they go to work trying to do something about the fact that 100 million Americans–most of them poor and working class–don’t vote. This year more work and more money are going into voter registration and turnout than ever before. More than a thousand projects are under way nationwide. Among the most promising: Liberty Vote in Los Angeles, which really is different and really might change things for the long haul.
The problem in low-income, low-turnout communities is that poor people understandably view politics with cynicism and distrust. Research shows that direct mail and phone calls don’t work. Voter registration tables outside the mall or volunteers standing on corners with clipboards don’t do very well either. The Liberty Vote strategy is different: not just voter registration and get out the vote on Election Day but “voter engagement,” which seeks a culture change. The best way to get nonvoters to vote, in this view, is for a member of their own community to knock on their door. Liberty Vote is working with community organizations in poor neighborhoods that until now have not been engaged in electoral work.
In Los Angeles, neighborhood organizations involved in Liberty Vote are now making voter work another tool in community organizing, another way to recruit and train volunteers. The Union de Vecinos is typical–a group with several neighborhood committees working on local environmental justice issues in East LA. Kafi Watlington-MacLeod, a Liberty Vote consultant, explains, “They will be going door to door, speaking Spanish, hoping to sign up 2,000 new voters in Boyle Heights. Their new plan is that, in nonelection years, their neighborhood committees will work on local toxic issues; in election years, those committees will turn into precinct teams.” Another Liberty Vote group, the LA Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, is working on registering very low income and homeless people. It conducted focus groups of homeless people last spring to help come up with a strategy. Nancy Berlin, coordinator of the Welfare Reform Advocacy Project, explained, “The focus group in South LA, which was mostly people 18 to 35, was angry–they said nothing ever changes, the problems are too big, ‘our votes don’t count.’ But they also had procedural problems–they had no idea about how to register or where to vote. We found that if we talked about issues, like the upcoming ballot initiative amending the three strikes law, people got interested and wanted to register and vote.”
Peer training is a key component of Liberty Vote. Four big community organizations with some political experience are taking the lead in training six smaller neighborhood groups. Each Liberty Vote group will focus on a different low-income, low-turnout area. Each group has set a numerical target for new voter turnout, and the project will report on which organizations and which approaches succeeded–and which didn’t.
Money, of course, is crucial to training and staffing Liberty Vote. It’s being funded in a new way: not by candidates, parties or unions, but by the tax-exempt, nonprofit Liberty Hill Foundation, which has funded grassroots neighborhood organizing groups in LA County for over twenty-five years. Liberty Hill is planning to spend $385,000 on Liberty Vote this year, and a total of $1.3 million over three years. It hopes to get substantial support from other foundations. Until now, nonprofits like Liberty Hill have avoided funding voter work from fear of running afoul of IRS rules. Because contributions are tax-deductible, the group’s political activity is strictly limited. Republicans are well aware of the potential of these new strategies and have begun attacking nonprofits’ engagement with politics as a violation of their 501(c)(3) status. In June 2001 a right-wing group backed by oil and tobacco firms, Frontiers of Freedom, asked the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Rainforest Action Network on the grounds that it was diverting funds intended for “public education” toward political advocacy. The Wall Street Journal predicted the effort would be expanded. One strategist told the Journal, “Reporting political enemies to the IRS is an attractive tactic because it forces the enemy to spend resources and sleepless nights,” adding that “adverse publicity is an added bonus, particularly if it scares away donors.”
But fear of violating IRS rules is based more on ignorance than on the law itself. George Pillsbury, policy director for MassVote, in Boston, a model for Liberty Vote, explained in a pamphlet that while nonprofits cannot endorse or campaign for or contribute money to a candidate or a party, they can do voter registration, voter education and get-out-the-vote work. “Voter education” can include information about candidates, ballot questions and issues. Get-out-the-vote work can include maintaining voter lists, knocking on doors and making Election Day reminder calls. And tax-exempt groups can also campaign for electoral reform–they can mobilize around demands for Election Day registration and fair elections, including improved voting machinery.
Liberty Vote is looking beyond November 2 toward a long-term shift away from the left’s historic antagonism to mainstream electoral politics. The movements of the 1960s and after rejected the Democratic Party, which had brought the Vietnam War. They built their movements without linking them to an electoral strategy. “We’ve come to realize that was a mistake,” says Torie Osborn, executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation and a longtime progressive organizer and activist. “We have seen the victory of the new right in taking over the Republican Party. They did not separate their own movement building from electoral mobilization. We think we can learn something from their example.”