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electionlineWeekly — May 25, 2017

Table of Contents

 II. Our Say

The impact of Project Vote
Douglas R. Hess, assistant professor of Political Science
Grinnell College

The impact of Project Vote’s work can be found in three areas, in each of which Project Vote’s staff, which at one time included a young Barack Obama, played highly influential roles. 

First, Project Vote directly and indirectly registered to vote millions of citizens. These were mostly low-income, women, minority, and new citizens. Indeed, the only direct voter registration efforts that came close to Project Vote’s record achievement in this area, were those of the Obama campaign. As voter registration drives grew, they came under increasing attack. Ironically, many election officials who were doing little to conduct or enforce mandated voter registration outreach under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), engaged in some of these attacks.

Second, it generated and advocated for research and technical assistance on policy and procedural matters that would close the voter registration and participation gaps in American elections. Finally, Project Vote played a role in numerous influential lawsuits related to voter registration rights, registration drives, access to voter registration records, and the purging of lists.

Of course, policy advocacy and litigation is an activity that a great many civil rights organizations engage in. However, not having grown out of the “LDEFs” (legal defense and education funds) movement, I think Project Vote often had a different take on policy and litigation.

Unlike its peer organizations, Project Vote had direct experience in the physical process of voter registration—as one past executive director said, it had the bruises to prove this. Also unlike its peers, Project Vote put a significant amount of time and expertise into analytic studies.

To provide one example, the one I am most personally familiar with, Project Vote’s experience beyond the courtroom and lobbies, influenced how it designed remedies for violations of the NVRA. When some groups stressed remedies such as 800 numbers and radio broadcasts, Project Vote insisted on very detailed monitoring data. As a direct result of this administrative detail, some states have maintained significant NVRA-related registration efforts for years. In other states, the data allows advocates (and officials if they were so interested) to identify non-compliance with the NVRA.

A related example was the promotion of voter registration technology in public offices that were poorly thought through but which allowed advocates, officials, and funders to claim success. The lack of attention to the mundane technical details, however, meant that some of these reforms fell apart shortly after they were implemented. A lack of analytic approach to how complex government organizations evolve and how policy is administered guaranteed that these some of these victories were short lived. Sadly, Project Vote, and occasionally a few allies who also had an analytic bent, often seemed to be playing the role of Cassandra in some of these battles, condemned to know what would (or wouldn't) happen while lacking an audience that would listen.

Thus, I fear the disappearance, even if temporary, of Project Vote from the scene means that too much of the voting rights work will include courtroom battles and flashy policy changes that do not keep the eye on the prize: the registration gap and its connection to policy detail.