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As the election nears, nonprofits seek voter outreach, civic engagement

As we approach the Nov. 4 election and start peeking beyond, here are a few electoral innovations and reforms to ponder.

The nonprofit organization Twin Cities Community Voice Mail is working with area homeless shelters to help homeless people vote. For shelter residents using the free voice-mail service, the organization will provide utility bills to verify their address. That and a photo ID allows them to do same-day voter registration, said Ed Petsche, a community organizer and outreach specialist.

Next year, Take Action Minnesota will push legislation to expand ex-felons’ voting rights, said Executive Director Dan McGrath. In Minnesota, ex-felons can vote only after they finish their sentence and are off parole. Take Action wants their voting rights returned as soon as they are released from prison. One reason is the disparately high African-American incarceration rates; that changes the pool of eligible voters.

The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) already is looking ahead to the 2010 census and redistricting. Marcia Avner, MCN’s public policy director, said it would create “Full Count Committees,” groups that would promote census participation, particularly in communities with historically low census participation.

Petsche, McGrath and Avner were among three-dozen people who gathered at MCN’s St. Paul headquarters Tuesday under the loose umbrella of the Minnesota Democracy Network. Other organizations at the table included Citizens League, Catholic Charities Office of Social Justice, FairVote Minnesota, Child Care Works, The Arc of Minnesota, Growth & Justice, and the Otto Bremer Foundation.

“The intent is to engage more and more of the nonprofits that are doing some aspect of democracy work in a shared understanding of this as a movement,” said Avner, who facilitated the discussion. “At this point, it’s an informal network.”

The surge
MCN invited me to sit in on the group’s roundtable discussion. The afternoon’s main attraction was Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, a nonpartisan New York-based nonprofit that works to expand democratic participation.

Rapoport’s biggest concern about the upcoming election is whether the officials could handle the expected surge of voters. He said 125 million people voted in 2004 presidential election and he anticipated that number would increase by 10 to 15 million this year.

“Will there be enough voting machines? Will there be enough paper ballots? Will there be enough poll workers? Will there be lots of controversies over the lists?” he asked. “We better be ready for it.”

Rapoport elaborated on many national electoral trends, and his description of growing support for felon re-enfranchisement struck me. I wasn’t surprised when he said that 5 million people couldn’t vote because of criminal backgrounds. But I hadn’t heard that in Maine and Vermont, felons retain the right to vote even while in prison. In Connecticut, where Rapoport served as legislator and secretary of state, felons are able to vote as soon as they are released.

While “Voting rights for criminals!” might not be a winning campaign slogan, Rapoport said he was amazed at the support it has received. “It has tapped into the evangelical Christian notion of redemption,” he said. “I think this is a place you can make some headway.”

(After the meeting, an Internet search found that felon re-enfranchisement did cause a stir in Virginia, according to a June 17 Washington Post story. Democratic Gov. Timothy Kaine was working to restore voting rights to thousands of nonviolent ex-offenders. Virginia Republicans viewed it as an effort to help Sen. Barak Obama’s presidential bid, the story said.)

Universal registration
Rapoport said the next step in electoral reform is universal registration — making sure that municipal and state governments are moving toward getting people affirmatively on the voting roles as opposed to simply allowing them to register.

In Connecticut, they can pre-register 17-year-olds. “You can go into high schools and register all high-school seniors,” he said, and they automatically go on the rolls when they turn 18.

Locally, individual nonprofits would continue to lead on issues they care about, Avner said. Common Cause would lead on judicial elections. The League of Women Voters would do its State of Democracy Project. MCN would work on census and redistricting issues. But as the Minnesota Democracy Network develops, it could strengthen the overall reform movement.

“Our hope is that we build a much more integrated and robust sense of what is civic engagement,” Avner said.

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