Note from Beth: Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. As I’m sprinting to towards the deadline of my next book on Measurement and Networked Nonprofits, co-authoring with the goddess of measurement, KD Paine, I’m grateful to have some terrific guest posts like this one.
The Networked Nonprofit Response to the Concerted Attack on Voting Rights, Guest Post by Vince Stehle
The election of 2012 will prove to be a momentous event in our nation’s history. Among other things, next year marks the 225th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention where our democratic governing system was created. At the close of the convention, Benjamin Franklin was reportedly asked what kind of government had been created. His reply: “A republic – if you can keep it.”
Next year may mark one of the greatest challenges our democratic republic has ever faced. Depending upon how citizens and the nonprofits that serve them respond, we will see if we can keep our republic.
In the end, it may be the 21st century digital tools of the networked nonprofit that will preserve the governing instruments designed for us in the 18th century.
Wealthy special interests have always held a disproportionate share of power. But in recent years America’s political system has swung wildly out of balance.
Over the past two years, corporations and wealthy individuals have dramatically increased their already considerable political power and influence, as a result of the anti-democratic Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. At the same time, there has been a sudden and coordinated attack on the voting rights of some of the country’s most under-represented and vulnerable populations – minorities, the elderly and young voters.
There is a growing consensus – from angry Tea Partiers on the right to liberal Wall Street Occupiers on the left – that America’s democracy is up for sale to the highest bidder. Fully 80 per cent of Americans opposed the court’s Citizens United ruling and broad majorities want Congress to pass legislation to reinstate campaign finance limits on corporations.
Perhaps less well understood, but just as important, there has been a coordinated attack on voting rights that will make it much harder to vote for millions of people. In dozens of states across the country, legislation has been introduced and/or enacted that would greatly restrict the voting rights of average citizens to cast their votes.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, new restrictions have been enacted that will make it harder for more than five million eligible voters in states that will provide 171 electoral votes – nearly two-thirds of the votes needed to win the Presidency. A new report from the Brennan Center, Voting Law Changes in 2012, paints a rather ugly portrait of the rapid decline of American democracy.
One of the most far-reaching changes highlighted in the report is the new requirement for voters to present a piece of government-issued photo identification in order to vote. The new photo ID rules, which will take place in five states with nearly 29 million eligible voters, may not seem like a great hardship on first glance. But the Brennan Center estimates that roughly 3.2 million potential voters do not currently have state-issued photo IDs and the people most likely to be affected are in vulnerable populations, such as elderly and handicapped citizens who are unable to drive and people who are too poor to own a car.
Nonprofit organizations generally have a right to engage in voter registration drives and other nonpartisan electoral activities. And given the sustained assault on the franchise of otherwise disenfranchised populations, nonprofits should think of it more as an obligation.
Since 2005, Nonprofit VOTE has provided training and guidance to thousands of nonprofit organizations across the nation, helping groups to encourage their many constituents – clients, members, supporters, employees and volunteers – to register and cast their votes. And while there is a tremendous power imbalance in politics today, new technology does provide nonprofits the ability to reach more constituents than ever before.
The crisis in our democracy should trigger a vigorous reaction from nonprofit organizations and foundations to restore some sense of equilibrium in our political system and some semblance of equity for our citizens.
Vince Stehle is executive director of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media. This post is adapted from an article, Legal Efforts to Suppress Voting Should Draw More Concern From Charities, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he has a regular column.