The League in action: election 2008 and beyond.
The changes made in the ensuing eight years, albeit uneven and often underfunded, appear to have culminated in an improved, though still imperfect, election system. The League and its members have played no small part in this success.
Our hard work was noticed by the media, community and corporate leaders, and the public prior to and on November 4, 2008. This message, received at www.lwv.org, is heartwarming evidence that all League members and supporters deserve to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
It occurs to me to say "Thank you!" for the work of the League of Women Voters. Through the years you in [the] LWV, through your collective and well-managed efforts, have enabled countless Americans to be informed about issues and candidates in communities throughout the country and to better participate in our democracy. You were there long before the electronic networking capabilities of this past decade, and you have adapted with the development of these capabilities to provide this invaluable service. Where do citizens turn for dependable information they can use to participate in their government? You provide so many resources. On this day after the election I'd like to say I appreciate the work you do to help create a more active and well-informed citizenry. [The] LWV is an indicator of what is going right in America. Thank you!--Kim
Unsolicited messages like the one above don't come easily, but the League's efforts to prepare the nation--the election systems and the voters--for election 2008 were unprecedented. The League's ambitious goal to increase electoral participation among historically marginalized populations guided much of the League's work. What were the "many resources" provided by the League and lauded in the message cited above?
VOTER OUTREACH AND EDUCATION IN ELECTION 2008
We can start with a resource that Leagues have been producing for decades--our Voters' Guides, containing valuable candidate and ballot issue information that help voters make informed decisions. In 2008, millions of League Voters' Guides were distributed as paper copies and downloaded from Web sites, including www.VOTE411.org--the League's one-stop-shop for election information. These guides (approximately 500 across the country) armed citizens with candidates' responses to a wide range of questions, focusing on the key issues in individual communities, as well as with nonpartisan information concerning the many complex ballot issues on which voters would be voting. For the first time in more than a decade, the LWVUS created a print version of our Presidential Voters' Guide for both the primary and general elections. The Leagues' Voters' Guides covered offices from the U.S. President, to judicial races, to state legislatures, all the way down to local offices like Soil Erosion Commissioner.
Other Publications for Voters
The League also reached hundreds of thousands of voters with other printed resources such as: Choosing the President, a comprehensive guide to the Presidential election; the VOTE brochure, a step-by-step guide to voting and Election Day especially designed to reach out to new and young voters; Electing the President, a 16-page education supplement that was created and distributed through a collaboration with the Newspaper in Education Institute; the League's popular 5 Things You Need to Know on Election Day cards, a easy reference guide to help voters prepare to vote and handle any problems they may face; and the 18-30 VIP--Voter Issues Paper, a booklet that outlines and encourages candidates and others to address the issues that young voters have said are most important to them.
Many of these voter education and mobilization materials were available in English and Spanish languages and were distributed with the help of state and local Leagues across the country as well as the League's numerous partners.
Voter Education Outreach: E-Delivery
The League expanded on its already extensive voter education outreach with a first of its kind multi channel communications campaign using e-delivery systems such as Web sites, widgets, e-mails, social networking sites and YouTube, combined with traditional earned media coverage as well as through donated and paid advertising and public service announcements (see media coverage sidebar on p. 15).
The League's e-communications work included a variety of topics beyond VOTE411 and the information found there. It included the 2008 Voter Registration Challenge--a project designed to expand the number of registered voters through personal persuasion--and a series of e-mails regarding important dates and deadlines, other ways to engage in the elections around debates (including the League's popular Debate Hosting Party Kit) as well as get-out-the-vote messages.
A cornerstone of this campaign was the League's enormously successful Web site, www.VOTE411.org. VOTE411 was completely overhauled in 2008 to make it more user-friendly and even more comprehensive with the addition of items such as tools for overseas and military voters and an application to help voters request an absentee ballot. As in past years, most users visited VOTE411 to find their polling place. However, it was designed to answer voters' top three most common questions (Am I registered to vote? What will be on my ballot? Where is my polling place?). In fact, VOTE411 assists voters with registration and absentee ballot request processes, helps them learn how to use their voting equipment, and much more.
The tools and information available on VOTE411 were promoted to a diverse audience in 2008 by leveraging our relationships with the media, corporations, elections officials and other nonprofits with broad constituent bases.
How VOTE411 Was Promoted
* Print PSAs that appeared in 200 buses in 10 cities across the country;
* TV and radio PSAs featuring Oscar-nominated actress Virginia Madsen;
* Online ads that appeared on nearly 250 newspaper Web sites and targeted blogs;
* Nearly 10,000 non-media sites directing people to VOTE411;
* Short videos posted on YouTube and various cable companies' Video on Demand areas; and more.
Approximately 15 percent of U.S. voters found VOTE411 and the election information they needed in order to participate in this year's election in conjunction with Google and the Voting Information Project. This year, the League is proud to report that we directly enfranchised more than half a million voters by providing them the name and address of their polling location. Yahoo!, the League's technological partner on VOTE411, enabled us to service millions of voters leading up to and on Election Day.
The League on the Ground
As our other outreach and education activities were expanding, so too were our on-the-ground efforts to reach voters. From thousands of voter registration activities, to hundreds of candidate forums, to hundreds of issue discussions with students and other community groups, to distributing hundreds of thousands of pieces of voter information materials, League members were on the ground in more than 850 communities. They rolled up their sleeves and got "dirty" helping to make our democracy work.
Voter registration activities are a pillar of the League's work year in and year out. With the support of a new League publication, Engaging New Citizens as New Voters: A Guide to Naturalization Ceremonies, nearly 150 Leagues have become more active in attending naturalization ceremonies and promoting voter registration among new U.S. citizens. Through the League's Helping America Vote project (sponsored by American Express), Leagues in 16 cities worked in concert with American Express to actively engage their employees as well as the surrounding communities by registering hundreds of new voters. And through the Freedom of Expression through Film campaign, nearly 2,000 individuals at just seven events had the opportunity to register to vote, have their election-related questions answered by the League and leave with all the information they needed in order to participate in the election.
Through Safeguarding U.S. Democracy: Promoting an Independent Judiciary by Defending the U.S. Constitution, a multi-year nation-wide education campaign examining the critical issues facing the judiciary, more than 120 community forums and judicial candidate debates were held in 34 states. These events allowed voters to listen to various debate topics related to the judiciary; they enabled the community to get to know candidates running for judicial positions in their state. An estimated 32,000 people attended these forums in which 105 state Supreme Court and lower court judges participated.
New and ongoing partnerships with more traditional media partners such as the National Association of Broadcasters, XM (now Sirius/XM) radio, Women's Entertainment (WE) Television, National Cable Communications and the sponsors of the Every Women Counts Coalition--Lifetime Television, Redbook, CosmoGirl and Marie Claire--brought the League's message directly into the homes, cars and lives of voters across the country. And targeted outreach to 2,226 student and 243 minority media outlets (print, TV and radio) resulted in many positive responses from the outlets saying they would utilize the League's tools. The League's message consistently asked outlets to help educate their readers/listeners on their voting rights, the importance of voter registration and Election Day tips and to emphasize VOTE411 as a go-to resource. We provided outlets with ready-to-use scripts and images.
In addition, the League worked with other diverse groups in order to meet our goals of expanding electoral participation and creating an informed electorate. During Election 2008, we collaborated with affiliate based nonprofits like the National Head Start Association (NHSA), the Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI), the YWCA USA, the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC); membership-based nonprofits such as Moms Rising and the Overseas Vote Foundation; and corporate partners such as American Express, Allergan and World Wrestling Entertainment; and many more. The League exponentially increased its outreach capacity, and by leveraging our expertise and resources, we collectively expanded our voter outreach and education activities. Each of our partnerships had different goals--from reaching specific populations, to targeting voter registration, to motivating people to actively engage in political life, to challenging people to think about what they would do if they ran for president--but through them all the League held true to our original goals.
All of these activities are just a snapshot of the myriad ways state and local Leagues across the country served the public. They also answered untold numbers of phone calls and e-mails, distributed PSAs and videos, partnered with local media to educate voters, and so much more.
ELECTION 2008 ADVOCACY EFFORTS
Voters can do everything "right," but sometimes the election system itself comes between a voter and their ballot. This is why the League works equally as hard to protect voting rights as we do to create an informed and active electorate. Voters face challenges at every step of the process and barriers are sometimes specifically erected in a concerted effort to disenfranchise eligible voters. The League's voter protection work utilizes the following strategies: 1) advocacy and education of elections officials; 2) advocacy and education of elected officials; 3) targeted media outreach; 4) targeted state-based voter education campaign; 5) litigating issues when necessary; and 6) working in coalition with other like-minded organizations. To protect voters' rights, the League must be vigilant at the national, state and local levels all at once.
This year at the national level the League took on: the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to strike down Indiana's voter identification law, the most restrictive in the country; the Bush Administration over access to voter registration for veterans; and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission over their proposal that would undermine rather than advance effective election administration across the nation. The League prevailed in two of these efforts, including our efforts to make voter registration more accessible to veterans.
Through the League's Public Advocacy for Voter Protection (PAVP) project, the LWVUS directly supports state and local Leagues' work that is focused on preventing the disenfranchisement of eligible citizens, especially underrepresented populations such as youth, minorities and people with limited resources.
PAVP highlights include:
* LWVUS President Mary Wilson's travel to nine states and 17 cities over a two-month period leading into the general election. During her travels. President Wilson, along with state and local League representatives, met with 15 state and local elections officials and addressed numerous issues pertaining to the upcoming elections including, but not limited to: the voter registration process, provisional balloting, statewide voter registration database purging and list maintenance, polling place management, poll workers (training and recruitment), and the distribution of resources. Thanks to these meetings numerous potentially disenfranchising problems were avoided on Election Day.
* In Ohio, the League wrote an Amicus Curiae brief supporting the "five-day overlap" which allowed citizens to register and vote on the same day during the five-day period when voter registration had yet to close and early voting had begun. The practice was allowed to stand.
* In North Carolina, the League worked to educate the public on their new statewide one-stop-voting: Within a given county eligible citizens could register and vote on the same day at any of the early voting locations in their county.
* In Virginia, the League worked to educate students on their right to vote where they attend college because there was an ongoing campaign of misinformation in the state.
* In Wisconsin, the League worked with the Government Accountability board to successfully fight back attempts to create "exact match" requirements which could have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters.
* In Missouri, the League was instrumental in developing and implementing a successful plan that defeated legislation that would have required voter photo identification and proof of citizenship as a prerequisite to voting.
* In New Mexico, the League sued the State to ensure that ballots that clearly reflected voter intent were counted. The Secretary of State attempted at the last minute to establish new rules for local elections officials that would have required them to disregard ballots that were not marked with certain pre established criteria but that clearly showed voter intent. The State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the League of Women Voters, ensuring thousands of votes were fairly counted.
* In Florida, League leaders worked closely with local elections officials to develop an action plan for Election Day facilitating less restrictive criteria relating to "no match no vote" decreasing the likelihood that eligible voters would have been required to vote a provision ballots and return to their local elections' official office within two days to provide the necessary information as long as the voter had it with them at the polls on Election Day.
* In Michigan, the League worked with the Governor and the Department of Human Services (DHS) to increase the number of voters registering at DHS facilities around the state, thereby improving the state's compliance with the National Voter Registration Act and increasing the registration rates of DHS clients.
In each case, when state and local League leaders met with elections officials and other decision makers, they worked through the many issues that might negatively impact voters' rights. And, they discussed ways the League could be of assistance to elections officials in order to ensure that Election Day would be a success for everyone.
SO WHAT HAPPENED AND WHAT'S AHEAD?
Having accomplished an incredible amount of work in 2008, we cannot rest long on our laurels. Election 2008 demonstrated that there is much work ahead for all of us. While the system passed the test, it was far from perfect.
Yes, we saw the highest turnout (see p. 8) since the 1960s, largely because of an increase in voting among moderates and independents. And, yes, we saw an increase in voter participation among traditionally underrepresented communities. However, there were times when voters still waited in unacceptably long lines, when they experienced too many problems with the voter registration process and inadequate polling place preparation and cast too many provisional ballots. Additionally, an increase in voter participation does not mean that underrepresented communities are now voting at rates commensurate to their percentage of the population. In fact, this is far from true.
States will probably consider a number of electoral reform ideas in the coming months, including those that will create additional barriers to voting, guised in the language of voting integrity, and those that are believed to reduce barriers and increase voter participation. At this time, there is some data suggesting that "vote centers"--anyone within a specific jurisdiction can go to any number of voting locations--has a positive impact on voter turnout. However, the success of this reform in increasing turnout is dependent upon how it is implemented. Poor implementation can just as easily disenfranchise voters. On the other hand, almost no research exists to demonstrate that reforms liberalizing "by-mail" or "in-person" absentee voting will increase voter participation. While states are increasingly implementing absentee voting reforms and voters are taking advantage of them, we are not seeing significant increases in participation rates. Additionally, there is significant data that demonstrates that the highest ballot rejection rates (ballots that go uncounted for various reasons) are attributed to "by-mail" voting processes. Continued research needs to be undertaken so that decision makers can more fully understand the impacts of these changes.
It is clear that there is room for improvement in the registration process, including improving compliance with current laws and database management issues; in polling place management, including poll worker training and recruitment; and with the equitable distribution of election resources. The vast majority of problems voters reported at their polling place would be addressed if we took action to improve these areas of election administration. We need to look no further than the data that clearly shows the disparity of registration rates among various populations to see that the system's current design does not serve low income and minority voters, who are disproportionately unregistered. Or the data that showed tens of, if not hundreds of, thousands of voters were kept off (and sometime illegally removed) from the voter rolls due to administrative processes.
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at public assistance agencies (see The National Voter, February 2008). Over the last decade registration rates have plummeted at these agencies. If states would comply with the NVRA, millions more eligible citizens would be registered to vote.
Research also gives us significant insight into the nature of lines at the polling place. Polling places with voters that are predominately African-American or Hispanic have longer wait times. Lines were longer is most jurisdictions during early voting than on Election Day. Also, the line is "created" at the point of checking-in. These types of examples bring to mind the issues that likely "cause" the lines--voters with registration issues, poll workers having difficulties managing the list of registered voters, either finding people on the list or how the alphabet has been divided, and resource allocation, etc.
Before America runs headlong into the next round of reforms intended to improve the system, we must take a moment to evaluate what really happened. We need to understand the goal we're trying to achieve; where the actual problems and weaknesses are within the elections system; and the definition of success. And, maybe most importantly, we need to thoughtfully chart our course to success.
In many communities the next election is just a few weeks or months away. Our work begins today.
Jeanette Senecal is LWVEF senior director, Elections and E-Democracy Division. Shirley Tabata Ponomareff contributed to this article.
RELATED ARTICLE: Election 2008: The Media
The LWVUS/EF interdepartmental coordination and execution of our election 2008 activities, including President Mary Wilson's election year travel to 17 cities in nine states within two months, were essential to our successes. The LWVUS election outreach started with the creation of a targeted plan to share our voter education and preparedness messages with major national media, key regional, minority and student media outlets, and state and local Leagues for dissemination to their local media. Outreach topics included voter registration, debates, poll worker recruitment, Election Day preparedness, fair and equal voting practices, VOTE411.Org and final get-out-the-vote messages. To supplement this, a series of online engagement e-mails and surveys covering election topics, as well as the first-ever major advertising campaign promoting the League and VOTE411 to underserved populations was also undertaken.
All of our efforts paid off! LWVUS had more than 200 major media and blog mentions in just the eight weeks leading up to Election Day. This included repeated mentions of VOTE411.org on CNN, a Washington Post editorial, as well as coverage by The New York Times, O! Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, C-SPAN, USA Today, MSNBC, XM Radio, Rolling Stone, Glamour and NPR.
Additional media coverage highlights during 2008 included an NPR story about the League's support of disenfranchised voters, featuring the League's amicus brief in a case argued before the Supreme Court; and Associated Press article citing the need for improved poll worker training which garnered extensive coverage nationwide; a Washington Post article highlighting the League's public campaign financing concerns as well as its Nov. 3 editorial highlighting VOTE411; C-SPAN coverage of the three-part "The Changing Faces of Power: Women in Politics" forum series: President Mary Wilson's election-related interview on PurseStrings, a radio show dedicated to professional women; the League's work to promote voter registration highlighted on the Reuters screen in New York's Times Square; President Mary Wilson's participation in NPRs "Voting 101" segment; LWVUS Executive Director Nancy Tate introducing VOTE411. org on DC Fox News morning program as well as her interview for a Pentagon TV voter education segment directed at U.S. military personnel; and Deputy Executive Director Zaida Arguedas's Spanish-language interview by Univision.
In addition, during the week prior to Election Day, NPR.org, Entertainment Weekly, and many other key news sites and blogs listed VOTE411; as a top election resource in a story discussing what voters could expect on Nov. 4; La Presna, the self-proclaimed oldest and largest Latino paper in Ohio and Michigan, highlighted V0TE411; and, on Nov. 3 and 4, CNN gave VOTE 411 added visibility during its hourly segments on voting.
To top off our visibility activities, with outside funding the LWVUS launched a print and online advertising campaign to drive key groups of minority, youth, women and other voters to www.VOTE411.org leading up to Election Day. Starting in September, print ads appeared on 200 buses in ten cities around the country. Additionally, in the final days before the election, online ads were featured on USA Today.com; key search engine sites, blogs and over 90 regional newspaper sites reached millions of voters and drove tens of thousands to VOTE411 to find their polling place.