Independence Day

An ambitious new campaign aims to make our next election a name brand

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet

Voting is supposed to be easy in America, the self-proclaimed beacon—and exporter—of democracy in the world. But tell that to the 1.9 million Americans who cast ballots in 2000 that no one counted. Or to the millions more who were turned away, were scared away or couldn’t register in time.

As Greg Palast, an author and investigative reporter for the BBC, notes about the 2000 elections: “The pile of ballots left to rot has a distinctly dark hue: About 1 million of them—half of the rejected ballots—were cast by African-Americans across the country although black voters make up only 12 percent of the electorate.”

It seems pretty clear there are many Americans who want to vote but face obstacles, and there are others in positions of power who don’t want people to vote. This is a disgrace. In countries around the world, many of the obstacles and chicanery that go hand in glove in the United States are absent, and voter participation is much higher.

In the 2002 national elections here, at least 100 million Americans over the age of 18 didn’t go to the polls. The people who simply attribute nonvoting to apathy might consider the fact that the obstacles to voting in America are many and often noxious. They include intimidation and discrimination at the polling places and disinformation spread around beforehand—for instance, fliers telling people they can’t vote unless their rent is paid or that they can’t vote if they’re in debt.

Nothing welds a person to the larger project of democracy more than trying to make a difference by exercising one’s franchise at the ballot box. Voting is powerful, it is affirming, and it is a subversive activity in that it can collectively shift power and bring about dramatic change.

To that end, a brand-new movement is afoot.

A profoundly straightforward and potentially effective pro-voting campaign called November 2 has just been launched by National Voice, a coalition of nonprofit and community groups working to maximize public participation in the democratic process. The campaign, developed by the crack advertising firm of Wieden and Kennedy (famed for its work for Nike), is clever in its simplicity. It’s all about branding November 2 on T-shirts, billboards, computer screens and bumper stickers and connecting it to the logos of numerous organizations people trust. November 2 on the front of the T-shirt and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Sierra Club, League of Women Voters or Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) on the back. As Billy Bragg sang satirically: “The revolution is just a T-shirt away.”

There has been substantial media coverage about large groups working on the partisan side in the election, receiving millions of dollars from big donors such as George Soros and Peter Lewis. America Coming Together (ACT), as a Section 527 organization in the IRS tax code, is allowed to do partisan voter registration as long as it isn’t coordinated or specifically supportive of a specific candidate. ACT, which has raised more than $50 million, is about identifying potential voters who have a good chance of getting to the polls. Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO, says ACT “will make in the range of 10 million voter contacts before the election, but they will only be registering perhaps 500,000 new voters,” because the less dependable “nonvoter” is not their priority.

The burden of reaching out to new voters, the vast sea of people who are alienated and often poor and nonwhite, has been left to an array of nonpartisan voter-registration groups, many of which are members of National Voice. These groups are funded mostly by charitable foundations and some wealthy individuals. The biggest of these are Project Vote and its close partner ACORN, the grassroots groups best known for organizing low-income people around the country. Also engaged are the NAACP Voter Fund, La Raza, the Center for Community Change, USAction and others. A big chunk of the funding for this is coming from American Families United, a new organization and a beneficiary of multimillion-dollar donations from wealthy individuals. National Voice aims to focus the efforts of all these groups to engage the disengaged.

The campaign may end up registering between 3 million and 5 million new voters. Of course, moving them from registration to participation is a much bigger challenge that will be addressed through a range of activities collectively called GOTV—or Get Out the Vote. Research on voter participation suggests that personal contact is the best way to get people to the polls. That means a lot of volunteers—some estimate as many as 175,000—will be needed to encourage people to go to the polls on Election Day. Thousands more will be needed as poll watchers to ensure that there is no discrimination or intimidation at the polls.

National Voice is the brainchild of longtime activists Harriet Barlow, Betsy Taylor and others who realized that in the hard-nosed world of politics, voter targeting and aggressive fund-raising, millions of potential voters are ignored. They also believe hundreds of nonprofit groups care about citizen participation but have been intimidated from registering voters, even though the law permits virtually unlimited nonpartisan voter registration.

The job of National Voice is to change the culture around voting and participation and to get nonprofit groups to understand the old message that “if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”

Only a year old, National Voice hired gifted organizer Mark Ritchie, a veteran of international organizing on issues of global trade and justice. “I see November 2 as an outreach tool to drive people to the Web site where we can get them involved as a volunteer. I see the effort as unifying a theme and message that can tie together disparate GOTV efforts. Thirty thousand T-shirts are out the door, and bumper stickers and iron-ons. In essence, we are working to make it cool to vote and cool to get involved beyond just voting.” There has been a bus tour with a film crew that is gathering footage for public service announcements on television. “If you saw the Nike commercial during the NBA finals—that fabulous one with Lance Armstrong riding his bike and the fantastic views and warmth,” said Ritchie, smiling, “well, the same guy who did that one is doing our commercials.”

Another veteran political thinker, David Morris, who is the Dr. Dave behind the popular new Web feature Ask Dr. Dave, said, “I’m a big fan of the campaign. It’s professional, accessible and energizing. The strategy of putting the date of the election on every T-shirt, every bumper, every window is inspired. It is nonpartisan but makes people aware that November 2 is a date on which we will make a decision that could forever change the odds that we will have a democratic, tolerant and equitable society. History shows that the higher the turnout, the greater the chances that people will vote in favor of improving those odds.” is hot for November 2 as well. “We at are thrilled about the ‘November 2’ message campaign,” said Executive Director Peter Schurman. “There’s an inspirational and optimistic quality to it, combined with a real service, reminding people when to vote. It’s civics with a sharp edge. We’ve been wearing our shirts everywhere—they’re pretty hip.”