Alex Aronson is hard to pin down for an interview. He’s on a bus when I finally reach him by phone, and he is returning from an excursion to Oregon’s state Capitol. “What are you up to?” I ask. “Well,” he says, “I’m covered in gold body paint and shiny gold clothing.” The only thing missing from his homage to the golden pioneer perched atop Oregon’s Capitol is an ax. Aronson explains that his was confiscated when he went into the house chamber to watch the swearing-in of the state legislators–among them, founder and president of the Oregon-based Bus Project, Jefferson Smith.
Welcome to politics Bus Project style, where costumes are encouraged and successful activism is measured in both efficacy and, well, fun. Launched in 2001, the Bus Project is a nonprofit organization focused on involving young people in politics. Thousands of volunteers have gotten on the bus, literally–a refurbished forty-seven-seater–and traveled around Oregon, knocking on doors and registering new voters. Their volunteer-driven, pound-the-pavement style has proven remarkably successful as well as popular among young organizers. In 2006 the Bus Project registered 20,000 voters, by some estimates increasing the young Oregon electorate by six percent. Twenty-six-year-old Aronson, now the Bus Project’s youth vote director, single-handedly registered 2,000 young citizens. “It was crazy,” he says. “I became a pretty good guru with the clipboard. I could do, like, seven at a time.” The group also sponsors a political boot camp for young activists itching to test their leadership skills, and stages zany forums to teach serious stuff about candidates and issues.
Initially, Aronson was less than enthusiastic about wielding a clipboard. “The idea of talking to strangers on the street seemed kind of daunting,” he says. But when he showed up to Bus Project headquarters, he encountered a room full of people who were “more enthusiastic and excited about registering voters than I’ve ever seen anybody excited about doing anything.” The positive energy was infectious. Contrary to what Aronson was expecting, people on the streets were appreciative of the work. He says that more than once people told him, “Thank God I found you. I didn’t know where to [register].”
While it’s hard to measure the influence of organizations like the Bus Project, it’s evident they’ve been a part of changing the face of Oregon politics and beyond. After canvassing voters across the state in 2004, the Oregon State Senate moved to Democratic control. In 2006 the Oregon House of Representatives followed suit. Bill Clinton’s speechwriter Andrei Cherny deemed the project “one of the most exciting, innovative, and energetic progressive organizations in the country.”
The Bus Project’s on-the-ground model proved contagious with groups popping up in five other states. The Bus Project responded by creating a “federation” of volunteers across the country. It’s not your typical top-down structure; the federation favors consensual collaboration, with each of the state-based organizations maintaining autonomy and control over their own issue agendas. The collective will is expressed every two years when the Bus Federation holds a “Rebooting Democracy” conference, where volunteers vote on the broad policies they want to see passed.
One of the most successful collaborations was the Trick or Vote spectacle organized by Aronson in 2008. Volunteers in fifty-five cities around the country spent October 31 knocking on 100,000 doors in a Halloween-themed vote drive. Aronson (dressed as the McDonald’s Hamburglar) recalls the energy from volunteers–many as young as 13 who were doing something political for the first time. “It was pretty clear that this event helped them see that there were ways to get involved that weren’t boring,” he says, calling the event “one of the highlights of my life.”