In October, as trumped-up accusations of voter fraud swirled around ACORN, another national grassroots voter registration drive aimed at low-income and ethnic communities steamed along, under the radar of the mainstream press and the Republican operatives hoping to challenge such efforts. Called 1-866-MYVOTE1, it is headed by African-American disc jockey Tom Joyner. His Tom Joyner Morning Show, fourteen years old this year, broadcasts nationwide on 115 radio stations, reaching more than 8 million weekday listeners. His website, blackamericaweb.com, receives 3.5 million page views per month. The tagline of his site and his show is Party With a Purpose, which usually refers to Joyner’s on-air campaigns to improve African-American educational and employment opportunities, and to raise awareness about health issues. But for most of this year, his four-hour morning broadcasts have stirred a big dose of political consciousness into the show’s lively hodgepodge of classic R&B and light hip-hop, played between bits of comic shtick involving misbehaving celebrities and athletes. In each morning show, listeners get brief humor-laced segments centered on voter registration and on election-day poll monitoring.
Like the efforts of right-wing radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Joyner’s initiative derives its strength from the relationship between the DJ and his listeners. But unlike his conservative counterparts, Joyner downplays rhetoric endorsing individual candidates–he supports Obama but has made no official endorsement–in favor of touting the 1-866-MYVOTE1 campaign as a nonpartisan effort to provide voter registration and polling place information and to give his listeners a way of reporting, in real time, problems they encounter at their local balloting place. Listen to his program daily and you will hear relentless references to 1-866-MYVOTE1, all delivered in cheery language free of rancor.
“Politics is never a sexy subject,” Joyner said in a phone interview from his Dallas studio in early October. “We’re in the business of reaching as many people as we can. That’s how we stay in business. But in taking up topics like politics and health, or unemployment or the economy, we’ve found that our formula for success is to put humor with it.” In his twice-weekly “Trickery Updates,” he turns to Ken Smukler, a political and technology consultant in Philadelphia, for jocular updates on signs of polling irregularities around the nation. Smukler built Joyner’s call-in voter information and poll-monitoring system after determining that two principal factors had contributed to problems at polls in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004: voters’ lack of information about the process and particulars of registering and voting, and the fact that many polling places lack the resources and well-trained staff to handle large numbers of voters.
“I think that prior to our work in 2004, most people underestimated the importance of voters having basic information of the process,” Smukler said. He introduced a similar call-in, get-out-the-vote initiative on Joyner’s program leading up to the 2004 election; that version, though, didn’t have a robust poll-monitoring component. Voters standing in long lines outside polls in Cleveland or El Paso grew more frustrated by the hour, especially if their cellphone calls to local election officials resulted in busy signals or voicemail rabbit holes, Smukler said.
Investigations of possible improprieties in 2000 and 2004 have incorrectly focused on failing machines or hanging chads, says Smukler. “Far more voters are disenfranchised by lack of information than by machine failure or misfeasance or malfeasance by some elections board. But there was no way of knowing this without building a system to monitor and aggregate information.” Voters standing in line this year, though, can call 1-866-MYVOTE1 to report problems. During the primaries six calls per minute came into the poll-monitoring wing of the hot line, Joyner said. Information from callers at polling places was farmed out to a rapid-response team of NAACP lawyers–the NAACP’s National Voter Fund is partnered with Joyner’s initiative–who were dispatched to polling places to challenge local election officials on attempts to bar voters from participating. The jump squad will be in place on November 4, too.
How many new voters can be attributed to Joyner’s effort? It’s impossible to know, but as of mid-October, 1-866-MYVOTE1 was in position to “put a dent” in the bloc of 8 million estimated unregistered African-American voters, Joyner said. His operation has received more than 600,000 calls this year requesting voter registration forms and information on local precincts. In the weeks before November 4, those people are getting follow-up callbacks–nonpartisan robocalls–reminding them to check their voter status and to vote.
When I asked Smukler about some black Americans’ sense that election officials or some other unseen force might be trying to sabotage their votes, he paused. “I’d say there is a conspiracy in the sense that, yes, poor communities in America always are struggling with inadequate resources,” he said, “in schools, in jobs and, when it comes to voting, in not having enough equipment or enough updated equipment.”
Gregory Moore, executive director of the NAACP’s National Voter Fund, says Joyner’s campaign is aiding the nation’s oldest civil rights organization in updating its ground-based, door-knocking registration drives; and it’s contributing to the image makeover the NAACP embarked on early this year when it named Benjamin Jealous, who is in his 30s, as its chief. “This opens up a new avenue of work that we’ve been doing for years,” Moore said. “Beyond the marches, lawsuits and our work pushing for legislative change, we now also have our Upload and Uplift campaign, where we encourage and show people how to register online.” The partnership with Joyner, Moore added, is also a handy way of data-mining for voter information that will be of use to NAACP efforts down the line.
Joyner’s long-term goal is to keep up the drumbeat encouraging his mostly African-American listeners to engage in voting and electoral politics. “This is what black disc jockeys have always done, been a lifeline of sorts to our listeners,” said Joyner, a native of Tuskegee, Alabama. “When people would have some problems, traditionally, black radio was there to broadcast it, to get the word out in the community, to help get people driven to where they need to be, or help a family, or what have you. We’re doing what black radio has always done but now with a different platform.”