Monday, November 10, 2008

Grassroots: The 2009 Project Launches

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Today is the Monday after Election Day, and it’s time to launch for 2009. Right now, across the country, there are quiet people in the shadows having discussions with local people about running for 2009 row offices. There are others who lost this cycle, and are gearing up to lay the groundwork to run in the future. In addition, there are the single-issue groups, like Planned Parenthood, for whom the work goes on, uninterrupted. But not everyone wants to run for office, and not everyone has an issue.

Like many people, I live in a place that is far more blue than it was a year ago. And this creates an interesting situation. You have hundreds of people, possibly a few thousand, within 5 miles who are finally interested in politics: they became engaged and involved, they liked keeping up with all the goings-on, they belonged, and now, what?

Community organizing, grassroots organizing are not just about helping people in bad situations, they are about making communities better, starting from the bottom up. For a lot of us, this starts as a community service requirement in school: in all honesty, I don’t know if schools STILL do that, but they did when I went to school. For me, it started in sixth grade, when you had a choice between reading to people at the local old age home (and that’s what they were called back then), planting trees, or cleaning up trash along the highway.

Later, there was working on petition drives to lower the voting age to 18 and to legalize abortion (and pot, but that never really got anywhere), and no, these were not school projects. In college there were town and gown programs. These programs helped people fill out welfare and related forms, placed volunteers in hotline centers to receive calls from people contemplating suicide, or who were raped or battered. It was a different world. Now, there are social workers, and organized outreach programs. And thanks to Joe Biden, when women are raped and battered, there are institutional avenues for prosecution and victims’ services. Back then, there were people who just wanted to contribute.

The biggest error that the Democratic Party makes after every election is to take a break from the day after Election Day until late winter when potential candidates are contacted. We’ll see what the local party leadership does after this election. I have no doubt that the Obama administration will continue to contact the people who worked the campaign, and contributed to the campaign, but that’s the administration, not the party.

So what do we do now to keep the enthusiasm, and keep people engaged? We go back to the grassroots. Because it works. And it will work all over the country.

My official 2009 project is Early Voting in Pennsylvania by 2012. I’m certainly not the only person with this idea, but I have a number of people willing to work with me on it, and then we’ll hook up with other groups, and then the project will become reality.

To get this accomplished in PA requires either a legislative change, or a ballot initiative. To get something on the ballot requires that it first goes through 2 rounds of voting/passage on the part of the state legislature, before it can get on the ballot. So the plan is simple: write up a plan, take it to a number of legislators to see if they will introduce it, and get it passed.

Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that. First, what kind of early voting? Vote by mail? Early voting stations? State-run, in lieu of county-run, voting systems? Standardization of ballots to optical scan or touch screen? How does the legislation balance the needs of the voters with the abilities of the counties to count votes? And most importantly, how do you develop a system that is politically acceptable?

It’s very hard to get a bunch of legislators to agree to something: they have constituencies, and they serve 2 year terms, and therefore need to make sure they do things that get their constituencies to re-elect them.

And that’s where petition drives come in. If you can get enough legitimate signatures from potential voters, legislators take you far more seriously. My initial number is 160,000 signatures.

So how do you start something like this? I sent an email yesterday to the people who worked the GOTV phone bank. Over the previous month, I had taken names from potential volunteers, and had kept the list of people who worked the voter registration drives, plus I have a list of people I met while knocking doors and working shopping centers who are interested in the project. The second set of emails goes out tonight, and will continue daily. Responses are already coming in.

The next step will be to hold a planning meeting. I'll keep you posted.

As an aside, in the email, I asked if people would be interested in working voter registration in the spring (you don't need an election year, just a clipboard), getting together for coffee to discuss politics and/or working on other community service projects. The response was high.

All you really need to get a project going is an idea, a plan, and a couple people willing to help. Then you grow your network. It really is that simple. Welcome to the grassroots, there's a lot of work to be done, and if you want to be a part of it, you too can organize your neighborhood. There's always something worth doing.