By Daniel Solomon
Trustee, Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation
Member, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, Board of Directors
The Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation began funding civic engagement in 1991 with a grant to Project Vote, a non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote organization concentrating on underrepresented constituencies. In 1998, we were among the founding funders of DC Vote, which seeks full representation in Congress for DC residents. Our support of both groups reflects our view that a meaningful right to vote is central to American democracy.
Starting in 2008, we greatly expanded our financial commitment to civic participation. We have since supported almost a dozen different organizations seeking to register, involve and encourage voting by unmarried women, African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, young people and other infrequent voters. We did so out of recognition that our direct service and advocacy efforts on issues of teen pregnancy, homelessness, reproductive health, the environment and other funding priorities could be undercut in the legislative process if those we wished to help did not vote. Since then, we have invested $1.2 million in voter engagement efforts.
We have great data from these groups as to the millions of Americans they have added to the voting rolls. This year, I went to Ohio to see whether voter suppression efforts were undermining that work.
I was fortunate to participate in a voter protection effort organized by attorneys from across the country who came to Cleveland to help oversee the electoral process. Ohio was expected to be both the epicenter of the election and a hotbed of challenges to voting. Doubts still lingered about whether Ohio’s votes were counted properly in 2004. Most worrisome was the potential impact of one group that was organizing hundreds of volunteers to disrupt voting in precincts with large numbers of minority voters.
I arrived in Cleveland three days before the election armed with a hundred pages of Ohio voting rules and voter assistance checklists. I and fifty other lawyers spent eight hours on Sunday being trained by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in the rules governing voting and what to do if those rules were not being followed. Meanwhile, outside the building thousands of Cleveland residents were waiting to vote early in a line that stretched many football fields long.
Along with half of our lawyer cohort, I spent Election Day in that same building, which was Cleveland’s official election center. The rest of the lawyers fanned out to precincts where it was believed there might be problems. I handled more than 75 phone calls from the field, either from our lawyer-observers, the Voter Protection Hotline, or directly from poll workers trying to help voters determine whether they were eligible to vote.
First and foremost, I saw that the officials in Ohio tried to run a good election and mostly succeeded. For example, some groups did behave in ways that were disrupting voting. At several sites they held up cell phones in a way that made voters believe they were being photographed. They questioned voters about their ID status and residence even though they were only permitted to observe, not talk, while inside the polls. My most significant intervention of the day was helping the person in charge of one polling location restore order where official “observers” from the Democratic and Republican parties were practically at each other’s throats. Ultimately, the use of the cell phones was banned, and the observers were warned to stick to observing or face ejection.
I learned that oversight by outside organizations and transparency of the process are critical. Everybody has to know the rules and know what recourse is available if the rules are not being followed.
I also saw first-hand the importance of early voting. Forty percent of Cuyahoga County voted early. Ohio was able to announce its election results shortly after the polls closed. Florida’s curtailment of early voting certainly contributed to their results not being finalized until Saturday.
While our grantmaking is helping to increase the involvement of underrepresented voters in the electoral process, the process of voting still needs improvement. Each state has its own unique set of voting laws and procedures. States vary greatly on whether they place more emphasis on keeping ineligible people from voting than on increasing voter registration and participation. Some states use electronic voting equipment that does not leave a paper trail, which makes it impossible to verify after the fact whether votes were properly counted. Sadly, voter intimidation is still too frequent a fact in many areas. Legitimate voters are being purged from voting rolls by some states that use overly strict requirements, while others that restrict ex-felon voting often use overly-loose database matching to purge tens of thousands of eligible voters.
Non-partisan voter registration and get out the vote activity do increase the franchise, but we still have a long way to go before all those who should be voting actually get the chance to vote.
Pictures (top to bottom):
– Thousands of people lined up to vote early on the Sunday before Election Day
– Daniel Solomon; Craig Kaplan, an organizing lawyer; Sandy McNair, member of Cuyahoga County Board of Elections
– “Souls to the Polls” cooked up added benefits for getting out to vote