The 1994 elections are history. Newt is on a tight leash, the Contract on America is losing in the polls, and Clinton and Dole are all but nominated. Soon, the 1996 election will be coming to a community near you. Why wait? Now is the time for housing advocates to start planning electoral work with tenants living in public and assisted housing, CDCs, CBOs, homeless individuals, and other low-income advocates.
Recent elections demonstrate that a strong organizing presence can swing an election. In the campaign to replace Oregon Senator Bob Packwood, the work of labor, enviros, and other progressive organizers made the difference in Senator Ron Wyden’s narrow 53-47 percent victory. This was the prelude to the AFL-CIO’s 1996 Organizing Summer – an ambitious effort to change the face of America’s elected decisionmakers. Labor is budgeting $35 million to place 100-150 organizers in 75 Congressional Districts and mount full scale campaigns. Organized labor leaders plan to create new activist groups to educate and organize on issues significant to union families. They consider this a full-time, long-term campaign. Housers should follow their example.
What can tenants, tenant advocates, and state and local housing groups do to make a difference? The extent to which an organization can legally participate in an election depends on its IRS status. Section 501(c)(3) nonprofits should be strictly non-partisan in their activities. Such organizations are limited in the amount of lobbying they can do, and they cannot endorse candidates of certain parties or who favor or oppose specific public policies. Section 501(c)(4) organizations have more leeway; they can endorse candidates and have no limits on lobbying, but can’t receive tax-deductible contributions. Before engaging in electoral work, each organization should learn the laws governing the involvement of nonprofits in politics.
Nevertheless, there are many opportunities for action, even for 501(c)(3)’s. Registering, educating, and getting voters to the polls are all perfectly legal. You can register voters both at work and off site, and train others to do the same; develop voter education materials, like scorecards and slatecards; convene candidate forums; monitor local government compliance with the new Motor Voter law [see Shelterforce #75]; and identify progressive multi-issue coalitions, work to add housing content and a housing angle to their priorities, and coordinate with these groups on local and state voter drives. Review each activity and select those best-suited to your organization. And continue to work after the election to disprove Speaker Gingrich’s assertion that low-income housing has no constituency and encourage elected officials to take more vocal positions on housing issues.
One crucial step in making affordable housing an issue in elections is combating the low voter registration rates among low-income people. The U.S. Census reports that in the 1992 presidential election, only 68.2 percent of the voting age population were registered and only 61.3 percent actually voted. However, of those that registered, 90 percent followed through and voted. Who registers? Among adults who earn more than $50,000, 76 percent are registered. By contrast, among adults who earn less than $15,000 each year, more folks are unregistered (53 percent) than registered (47 percent).
Since not all citizens interact with the agencies affected by Motor Voter, and some folks need extra encouragement to register and vote, Human SERVE suggests that direct service organizations adopt an “agency-based model” to register voters. This model is easily adaptable and should be used by every group, direct service or not, that has contact with clients, i.e., potential voters. The model has four easy steps; 1) Appoint one permanent person on staff to oversee and coordinate voter registration activities and ensure a regular supply of your state’s mail-in voter registration forms. This internalizes voter outreach as an organizational goals. Then, think creatively to integrate voter registration as effectively as possible; 2) Amend your intake forms and procedures to always ask, “If you are not registered to vote where you now live, would you like to register here today?”; 3) Staff should always offer to help your clients complete their voter registration forms; 4) Record the number of people your agency registers to vote and where possible, record their contact information to call them for Get Out the Vote. It’s that simple.
If you cannot obtain state mail-in forms from local election boards, call your state office. Both Human SERVE and Project Vote have a list of the phone numbers of every state election office. If state or local offices are not willing to distribute mail-in forms, contact the national voting organizations and they will investigate.
Even if you don’t contact clients every day, we all go to meetings: staff meetings, board meetings, tenant meetings, planning meetings, de-briefings, and sometimes even pre-meeting meetings – more meetings than we like to admit. Dedicate five minutes of every meeting agenda to register new voters at the meetings and have attendees report on their progress on voter registration activities. This will often be the most tangible result of a meeting. Every meeting is an opportunity to organize and, as with letter writing, you should take the time to register voters and recruit others to voter outreach by demonstrating that it’s simple. This year, the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network plans to adopt this approach.
To register voters offsite – whether on a busy street corner or door-to-door at the homes of subsidized housing tenants – ACORN has developed a simple 5-step approach. Once you have all of your materials, your first step is to approach each person and get their attention. Second, give them a reason to register; describe a local housing issue that affects them. Third, ask their name, write it on their registration form, and ask them to complete the form. Fourth, check their form for common mistakes. Fifth, ask everyone to volunteer.
ACORN is also planning a major 1996 voter registration drive among residents of public housing, to begin in early May. This complements the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials’ (NAHRO) National Resident Voter Registration Campaign Recognition Program. This program aims to “register all public and assisted housing residents as well as residents served by community development, redevelopment, and nonprofit agencies….To gain information on existing voter registration programs that can be presented to other agencies to assist in their efforts.” To encourage agencies, NAHRO is offering public recognition to those that register 50 percent or more of eligible residents in the housing developments that they serve, and additional recognition to those that hit 75 percent more. Agencies all around the country – from Walla Walla, Washington, to Corpus Christi, Texas, and from Broken Bow, Nebraska, to Rahway, New Jersey – are engaged in these activities. Their methods include making door-to-door visits, funding lottery prizes as incentives to register, holding voter registration rallies, and airing public service announcements over local radio stations.
On March 7, 1996, HUD demonstrated its interest in expanding voter registration by issuing a notice to Public Housing Authorities (PHAs), Indian Housing authorities, and Resident Management Corporations stating HUD’s policy of working to give all participants in public housing programs, including Section 8 programs, the opportunity to vote. Although PHAs are not required to register voters under the new Motor Voter law, HUD encourages its contacts to include voter registration forms in their program applications and recertification materials, and to offer to register tenants when they enter management offices, e.g. to pay rent or request maintenance service. Agencies may use Section 8 administrative fees and public housing operating subsidies for permissible voter registration activities.
Housing advocates should complement NAHRO and HUD’s top-down approaches with a parallel bottom-up approach. Ideally, tenants would work with staff to reinforce, strengthen, and, in the worst cases, demand these staff-led activities. Tenants should meet with agency staff and encourage them to use their resources to implement the agency-based model described above and to finance door-to-door drives. To this end, the National Low Income Housing Coalition will soon meet with NAHRO and other interested national organizations to map out a coordinated top-down/bottom-up plans. If you are interested, you should contact NLIHC.
The National Coalition for the Homeless, in conjunction with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, are spearheading the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” voting rights/non-partisan registration campaign. September 15-21 will be National Homeless Voter Registration Week. In 1992, as part of this campaign, the Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness surveyed 43 Georgia counties and found that county registrars lacked statewide instructions for registering homeless persons. In response, the Secretary of State’s Director of the Elections Division sent a memo to all Chief Registrars improving the registration process for homeless voters. This election cycle, the Georgia Coalition will try to generate similar results and publicity, while battling illegal sweeps of Atlanta’s homeless population before the Olympics.
Housing California (HC) is implementing a holistic campaign focused on voter registration, education, and “get out the vote” activities. Eligible non-citizens will also get information on the naturalization process to become U.S. citizens. HC will target four distinct pools of potential voters and assign responsibility for each pool to the appropriate housing groups or agencies. For example, the residents of non-profit housing developments will be assisted by CDCs and/or regional housing groups. HUD assisted housing residents will be assisted by active tenant groups; public housing residents will be organized by PHAs; and the clients of homeless, housing, and service providers will be organized by the California Fair Share Network. Later this summer, HC will expand its contacts by identifying specific individuals responsible at each site and then helping them develop a site-specific strategy. HC will also conduct regional training sessions and provide the necessary materials. The campaign will focus on registration from September 7-October 7.
On Election Day, HC will focus on get out the vote activities. In a survey during the last presidential election test, ACORN has demonstrated, a series of follow-up calls to newly-registered voters leading up to elections increases their voting rates significantly. A sample of registrants showed that without follow-up, 65 percent voted, and with follow up, as many as 87 percent voted – a 33 percent increase.
Candidate forums, another way to increase voter participation, typically involve a lot of work but generate a lot of publicity. As in the past, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Low Income Housing Coalition will coordinate and distribute guides to help plan candidate forums on homelessness, housing, hunger, and poverty issues. This year’s forums are planned for the week of September 29-October 5.
Other groups educate voters by distributing literature outlining various candidates positions on issues. For Virginia’s 1995 off-year local elections, for example, the Virginia Housing Coalition published a Report on 24 key General Assembly races, along with the results of a seven-question survey of candidates and their positions on housing issues. Such reports should prove very useful, both in upcoming elections and during elected officials’ terms in office.
Just as housing groups should select the electoral activities most appropriate to their individual organizations, groups should also select the most appropriate areas/districts to target, and work to reinforce and coordinate with other voter registration/education campaigns. Currently, Human SERVE is targeting 10 states: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Project Vote is targeting registration drives in North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and will soon kick-off drives in New York, New Jersey, and Arkansas. In addition, 96 Project, a coalition of the AFL-CIO, enviros, and other progressive groups, is focusing on many races around the country. Housing advocates in these targeted states have an extra reason to get involved and should make sure to plug into and reinforce this work. Call these organizations for names and numbers of their state and local personnel. The Republican and Democratic National Committees are running advertisements and targeting swing districts. The Democrats’ list focuses on newly elected freshman Republicans and those who won narrow victories. But remember, 501(c)(3)’s must be careful about targeting based on party and impacting close races.
The voter registration deadline for most states is early October. So get to work, and forward the results to key local decision-makers and the national organizations you work with. And continue working with the networks formed during your election outreach to build and strengthen a year-round, grassroots-driven, district-based advocacy team. Our work does not end on election day.