Some organizations are turning to sophisticated data mining, direct mail, the Internet and other strategies to register voters typically underrepresented on the rolls, including young people and ethnic minorities. Others are simply targeting those who favor their political goals, such as conservative Christians.
The shift away from more traditional voter registration drives — like volunteers with clipboards in front of a supermarket — is driven as much by restrictive state laws as it is better technology. Several states including Florida have recently passed legislation setting tight deadlines for groups to turn in voter applications, so groups like the NAACP were looking for ways to get the applications directly into the hands of voters. And they also have to rely on voters to turn in the applications themselves.
“This is a new effort since the 2000 election,” said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. “Technology has made it more cost-effective. … When you have upwards of 40 percent of eligible populations not registered, there is a market for this kind of work.”
Florida is a particularly important area for the groups, as it is the largest swing state in the presidential election. Other battleground states on the center’s list include Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
The increased focus on direct mail and data mining comes as the campaigns themselves increasingly use online data to raise money and persuade voters. The campaigns of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have spent hundreds of thousands on digital strategies. And Romney’s campaign began a secretive data-mining project this summer to sift through Americans’ personal information — including their purchasing history and church attendance — to identify new and likely wealthy donors.
The new Florida law set a 48-hour deadline for turning in applications once they are completed and various registration and reporting requirements. Organizations or individuals could be fined $50 for every late form up to a maximum of $1,000 in a given year. A judge has since blocked that part of the law from taking effect, though Smith said that until then it did have a chilling effect on new voter registrations.
Florida is just one of 23 states that have laws restricting traditional registration drives, according to Project Vote, a Washington-based nonpartisan group that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities.
Requirements in various states run the gamut from tight deadlines like Florida’s to limits on how many registration forms a group can obtain. Some require groups and volunteers to register with the state and undergo state-approved training. Several states prohibit paying individuals based on the number of applications they turn in, and Maryland requires participants to be at least 18 years old.
“We have seen a systematic coordinated attack on voting rights across the nation,” said Marvin Randolph of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “We’ve had to work harder to make sure that people have access to the ability to register and vote and we’ve had to be more aggressive and innovative.”
As a result, the NAACP is partnering with the nonpartisan Voter Participation Center, which helped pioneer direct mail voter registration in 2004, said Randolph, vice president for campaigns at the organization’s national headquarters in Baltimore.
The Washington, D.C.-based Voter Participation Center is mailing nearly 4 million registration applications targeted to minorities, unmarried women and young people in 28 states, including nearly 353,000 being sent to Florida. That’s in addition to 6.6 million applications sent out in three prior mailings since September 2011.
Other organizations partnering with the center for the first time this election cycle are the National Council of La Raza and the League of Conservation Voters Education fund. A group called United in Purpose also is using data mining as it strives to register up to 5 million conservative Christians across the nation this year. Companies that do data mining for businesses to influence consumers and political campaigns and interest groups to sway voters now are tailoring their services for voter registration drives as well.
The Florida Family Policy Council intentionally avoided traditional registration drives because of the state’s restrictions, said John Stemberger, the group’s president. The group’s website includes a registration form that people can fill out, and allows volunteers to find unregistered citizens who have been identified as likely to favor the council’s views. Those volunteers can then call, email or personally visit those people. Among other things, the council opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
“We are going both old school and new school,” Stemberger said. “The kind of not-your-father’s-Oldsmobile version of voter registration, things that we’re doing, are direct mail and we also have an automated program.”
That doesn’t mean traditional drives have been abandoned. Data-driven techniques are viewed as a supplement for some groups, while others, such as the League of Women Voters, still are conducting only traditional face-to-face registration drives.
And avoiding new restrictions isn’t the only reason for alternatives to traditional registration drives.
Page Gardner, president of the Voter Participation Center, said she chose the list-based approach when the group, then known as Women’s Voices, began its efforts in 2004 because that provides near-universal reach and targets people by demographics instead of geography.
“The advantage of this program with mail is that we can reach out to broad universe of people very quickly and to those people that we may not be able to meet in front of a grocery store or canvassing and talking to people at a door or at an event,” said NAACP’s Randolph.
Commercially available data such as magazine subscription and mail order purchasing lists are used to identify people in various targeted groups and match them against voter registration rolls to identify which ones are not registered. The lists also are cross-checked with Social Security data to exclude people who have died.
So far, nearly 8 percent, or about 470,000, of the applications the Voter Participation Center sent out before the current mailing have been turned in. It may seem like a small number, but “that’s huge in terms of direct mail,” Gardner said.
One or 2 percent is the norm, although a key difference is the only expense for turning in a registration form is the price of a postage stamp.
Regardless of what approach is taken, there are still millions of eligible people not registered to vote. The Pew Center on the States issued a report in February saying 25 percent of those eligible to vote are not registered. The study found one of every eight registrations is out of date, mostly because of people moving.
Pew Director of Election Initiatives David Becker said the organization has been working with eight states to modernize their registration activities and plans to expand that effort after this year’s election.
“We are still using paper, pen and postal mail to drive our voter registrations in the 21st Century,” Becker said. “You don’t do it with taxes. You don’t do it with parking tickets. You don’t do it to renew your driver’s license.”
The Mississippi NAACP on Tuesday called on state and federal authorities to investigate whether the hit-and-run killing of a black man was racially motivated.
A white 17-year-old male has been charged with murder in the July 22 death of Johnny Lee Butts, authorities said. The 61-year-old was struck by a vehicle and killed while he was taking an early-morning walk on a rural road near his home in north Mississippi’s Panola County.
District Attorney John Champion told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the case is being presented to a grand jury Wednesday in one of Panola County’s two judicial districts. He said his office is investigating whether there was a racial motivation in the incident that left Butts dead at the scene.
Conviction on a murder charge can carry a sentence of life in prison. A person convicted under Mississippi’s hate-crimes law could receive enhanced penalties.
Champion also said FBI agents met with state investigators Monday. The district attorney said he could not comment on the evidence of the case.
The teenager was arrested July 22 and remains in the Panola County Jail under a $300,000 bond. At least one passenger was in the teen’s car, investigators said.
Champion said the 17-year-old and a younger teenager who was in the car also are charged with burglary of a church. A break-in occurred at a church several miles from where Butts was killed.
Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson said Tuesday that the killing of Butts is reminiscent of the June 2011 killing of a black man, James Craig Anderson, who was run down in Jackson by a pickup truck driven by a white teenager from nearby Brandon.
“At this point, we are just trying to make sure there is a full investigation of the incident,” Johnson said of the Panola County killing.
The killing of Anderson was captured on a hotel’s surveillance cameras. Wilbur Colom of Columbus, Miss., an attorney representing Butts’ family, said he doesn’t know of any video of the hit-and-run of Butts, which occurred in an isolated area on Mississippi Highway 310, between Batesville and Senatobia.
Despite the circumstances of their family member’s death, Butts’ relatives are praying for the people who are charged or are under investigation, Colom said.
“They are so confident in their religion that they believe Mr. Butts is in a better place, that God has him,” Colom told the AP. “They expressed no anger and no hatred toward anyone. All they want is a complete investigation and the appropriate punishment for what was done.”
Colom said “we cannot read the minds of those kids” to know whether the hit-and-run was racially motivated, but the family wants investigators to question the people who were in the car to find out if race was discussed.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says its newest battle is really an old one.
This year’s NAACP national convention, which kicks off this weekend in Houston, is focusing on voter participation and the civil rights organization’s efforts to fight what it sees as restrictive voting laws that have been passed by various states the last few years.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 members are expected to attend the group’s 103rd convention. Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are among the scheduled speakers.
The theme of the convention, which starts Saturday and runs through July 12, is “NAACP: Your Power, Your Decision – Vote.” NAACP officials said their main priority this year is making sure that everyone, regardless of race, creed or economic status, will have the right to vote during this fall’s elections.
Since 2010, at least 10 states, including Texas, have passed laws requiring people to show a government-issued photo identification card when they go to the polls.
Supporters of such laws have said showing an ID will prevent voter fraud. But opponents say requiring an ID could suppress voter turnout among poor, elderly and minority voters who are less likely to have a driver’s license or passport.
Leon Russell, vice chairman of the NAACP’s national board of directors, compared the recent voting laws to poll taxes or literacy tests from the 19th century that disenfranchised black voters.
“The effort to suppress the vote is not a new thing. It’s something that’s been around,” he said during a news conference Friday. “What we have seen in the last two years though is the most egregious effort to compound and collect every single method that anybody could think of that would discourage someone to vote and put it into a piece of legislation and inflict them on our communities.”
Russell said his organization’s efforts are not partisan. Voter ID laws are often passed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.
University of Houston history professor Tyrone Tillery said the issue of battling voter ID laws is one that fits with the NAACP’s history of helping disenfranchised voters.
“It plays to their strengths,” said Tillery, who specializes in 20th century African-American history and was a former NAACP director in Detroit in 1989.
Russell said the NAACP is focused on working with other civil rights groups in the Hispanic, Asian and gay and lesbian communities.
“We can’t just work on behalf of one segment of the population,” he said. “Our focus will be the black community. But we can’t create anything that impacts only the black community. Our 103-year history shows that when we get legislation adopted, it is policy that has impacted all Americans. That continues to be our purpose.”
Other issues NAACP officials plan to discuss at the convention include the federal health care law that was upheld last month by the U.S. Supreme Court and efforts to repeal stand-your-ground laws around the country in the wake of the February fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, is citing Florida’s stand-your-ground law in his defense in the teenager’s death.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said Monday he hopes the group’s resolution supporting same-sex marriage will encourage blacks to support marriage equality as a civil right if the question is put to voters on the ballot in Maryland or other states.
The civil rights group’s resolution was significant, as only 39 percent of blacks favor gay marriage, compared with 47 percent of white Americans, according to a Pew poll conducted in April. Much of the opposition stems from churches, which have long been important institutions in the black community.
“I hope this will be a game-changer,” Jealous told The Associated Press in an interview. “There is a game being played right now to enshrine discrimination into state constitutions across the country, and if we can change that game and help ensure that our country’s more recent tradition of using federal and state constitutions to expand rights continues, we will be very proud of our work.”
Jealous spoke about the resolution, which was approved by the organization’s board of directors on Saturday, at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People headquarters in Baltimore. The resolution was approved about two weeks after President Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage.
Jealous appeared with Roslyn Brock, who chairs the NAACP board of directors, and three other board members, Bishop William Graves of Memphis, Tenn., Richard Womack of Washington and Donald Cash of Columbia.
Jealous, who struggled to speak while recalling how his parents confronted marriage laws that forced them to marry in Washington, D.C., in 1966 because his father was white and his mother was black, noted that the civil rights organization has opposed laws barring gay marriage in the past.
“What has changed is that this is the first time that we have made a full statement on marriage equality that goes beyond the circumstances of any one proposed law or any one state,” Jealous said.
Brock emphasized that the resolution focused on marriage equality in the eyes of government, not religion.
“As the nation’s leading and oldest civil rights organization, it is not our role, nor our intent, to express how any place of worship should act in its own house,” Brock said.
Same-sex marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia, but 31 states have passed amendments to ban it in their constitutions. Maryland lawmakers passed a same-sex marriage measure this year. However, it does not take effect until January, and opponents are working to petition the law to the ballot for voters to decide in November.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous says he hopes the group’s support of same-sex marriage will urge blacks to support marriage equality as a civil right if the question is put to voters on the ballot in Maryland or other states.
Jealous spoke about the resolution Monday at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People headquarters in Baltimore.
The NAACP’s board voted on Saturday for a resolution in support of marriage equality.
Jealous noted that the civil rights organization has opposed laws barring gay marriage in the past. He says this resolution marks the first time the NAACP has made a full statement on marriage equality that goes beyond the circumstances of any single proposed law or state.
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The NAACP passed a resolution Saturday endorsing same-sex marriage as a civil right and opposing any efforts “to codify discrimination or hatred into the law.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s board voted at a leadership retreat in Miami to back a resolution supporting marriage equality, calling the position consistent with the equal protection provision of the U.S. Constitution.
“The mission of the NAACP has always been to ensure political, social and economic equality of all people,” Board Chairwoman Roslyn M. Brock said in a statement. “We have and will oppose efforts to codify discrimination into law.”
Same-sex marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia, but 31 states have passed amendments to ban it.
The NAACP vote came about two weeks after President Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage, setting off a flurry of political activity in a number of states. Obama’s announcement followed Vice President Joe Biden’s declaration in a television interview that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay couples marrying.
“Civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law. The NAACP’s support for marriage equality is deeply rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and equal protection of all people” said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, a strong backer of gay rights.
Gay marriage has divided the black community, with many religious leaders opposing it. In California, exit polls showed about 70 percent of blacks opposed same-sex marriage in 2008. In Maryland, black religious leaders helped derail a gay marriage bill last year. But state lawmakers passed a gay marriage bill this year.
Pew Research Center polls have found that African Americans have become more supportive of same-sex marriage in recent years, but remain less supportive than other groups. A poll conducted in April showed 39 percent of African-Americans favor gay marriage, compared with 47 percent of whites. The poll showed 49 percent of blacks and 43 percent of whites are opposed.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights advocacy group, applauded the step by the Baltimore-based civil rights organization.
“We could not be more pleased with the NAACP’s history-making vote today — which is yet another example of the traction marriage equality continues to gain in every community,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a statement.
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