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.
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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.”
It is this ability to tap into youth energy, and provide an outlet for civic engagement, that distinguishes the Bus Federation. From its voter registration, and candidate and issue support, to PolitiCorps, a fellowship program providing training for college students and recent graduates, the Bus Federation has made it a priority to get youth to take a leading role in the political process and to keep them there. That was certainly the case for Aronson, who went from volunteering to leading a national get-out-the-vote program, and he hasn’t looked back. “I registered voters for a couple months, and then they were like, ‘Well, OK, time for you to run a program.’ I was fresh out of college, and it ended up being a great opportunity for me,” he says. “I realized that this was something that I wanted to spend my life doing.”
As a college student in Philadelphia, Aronson participated in 2004 election protection efforts. When he saw how difficult it was to vote in the lower-income areas to which he was dispatched, in contrast to his much more privileged voting experience, he was deeply troubled. “I realize[d] that democracy was an unrealized idea and that we needed to do a lot of work,” he says. When he made the move to Oregon, the Bus Project’s work caught his eye. Here was an organization directly addressing critical issues of voter and electoral access.
When Aronson was first seeking out ways to be engaged, he recalls feeling alienated by the process. Outside of elections, he wasn’t quite sure how to get his feet wet. “The big realization came,” he says, “when politics became about more than presidential elections and I started paying attention to city, state and regional politics and thinking about how local laws can really impact our communities.” Now Aronson helps organize regular trips to the Oregon Capitol so volunteers can meet their Representatives and press them on local issues.
Voter access remains at the forefront of the Bus Project’s agenda. In the coming months, the group is looking to pass smart and sensible measures, like a universal voter registration bill whereby getting your driver’s license would automatically register you to vote unless you choose to opt out. Also on the agenda are nationwide efforts to establish and maintain election-day registration, a move that has been shown to dramatically increase voting rates. It all amounts to an effort on the Bus Project’s part to, as Aronson says, “put ourselves out of business” by working to get common-sense voter legislation passed.
Before it’s forced out of work, the Bus Federation is seeking new volunteers, and Aronson is quick to point to groups around the country focusing on similar voter protection and access issues. From the League of Young Voters, the New Voters Project and the United States Student Association, to Demos’s Healthy Democracy program and the Progressive States Network, there are any number of ways to get involved in the kind of activism that can change communities and instill valuable skills.
While the Bus Federation has become a sizable organization, with new projects and programs coast to coast, at its heart it is a simple idea that inspires Aronson and countless volunteers to struggle to change the shape of American democracy. As Aronson puts it, “It’s just a matter of getting friends together and starting a process of engagement, creating conversations and going out and talking to people.”