How can progressives substantially increase the number of low-income voters in 2004–and why does it matter? Increasing voting by the traditionally disenfranchised, especially people of color, will revitalize our democracy. Millions of new voters can exert a powerful demand for economic fairness, healthcare, good public schools, civil rights and global cooperation.
This year progressives are getting smarter and committing to working together at unprecedented levels to register and mobilize members of disenfranchised communities. Here are three lessons we’re applying:
: Go where the voters are, and then organize, organize, organize. USAction Education Fund, Project Vote, ACORN and the NAACP National Voter Fund, among many other groups, are working together to register 2 million voters in 2004–and get them out to vote. “We’re stretching ourselves to reach higher voter registration and turnout goals than ever before,” notes Zach Polett of Project Vote. “Either we swim together, or we sink separately.”
For example, Lauren Townsend, a Philadelphia USAction leader, created Transit Vote, a program designed to get transit riders to vote, and to vote for transit. “Many transit riders don’t have a car,” she says. “We need them to vote so that they can promote transit; and every day, they gather at transit stops.” In just over nine weeks this winter, Trina Olson, 23, an activist for Washington Citizen Action, and her crew of eight full-time people registered more than 4,500 new Seattle-area voters at transit stops and community colleges.
: Issues matter. Voter registration is not enough. Last summer, the Midwest Academy, a training center affiliated with USAction, placed twelve students in Chicago-area immigrant organizations in Latino and Muslim communities. The interns organized hearings where members of Congress heard personal testimony about immigrant-rights issues. Of the 650 people who attended the hearings, some went on to participate in the national Freedom Ride for immigrant rights last year; others will be at the heart of this fall’s get-out-the-vote efforts.
: Build the diversity of our movement’s leaders and activists. This election year presents progressives with a tremendous opportunity to build a new, broader core of leaders, representing the full diversity of our country–all races, all ages, all regions. Latino leaders of USAction affiliate United Vision for Idaho will fan out across eastern Oregon and Washington, registering Latinos there. Across the country, Citizen Action of New York took a busload of young Albany NAACP members to Florida for spring vacation, to register thousands there. The pollster Cornell Belcher notes that all sides of the political spectrum will be focusing intense efforts on older, black and Latino churchgoers and cynical younger voters. Progressives have a chance to reach all of those voters this year. “Too many have been disenfranchised for too long,” says Olson. “I know that our work at the grassroots level will be the defining factor in changing America.”