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Who Cares About Empowering Voters? Portland's Bus Project

Posted: 06/06/2012 4:52 pm

Reprehensible right-wing attacks on democracy -- including false claims of voter fraud, voter-list purges, and punitive ID requirements like the one recently declared unconstitutional in Wisconsin -- are finally getting the scrutiny they deserve. The Bus Project in Portland, Oregon, is fighting back with a political model that has legs (or wheels) to travel far beyond the Pacific Northwest. Lou Dubose, The Washington Spectator's editor, reports from Oregon.

Historically, the arc of voting rights has been bent in the direction of universal suffrage: from African-American citizens enfranchised by the post-Civil War amendments, to women in 1920, to 18-year-olds who were barred from choosing the elected officials who sent them to war in the sixties, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which created the mechanisms to deliver on the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Until recently. Last year, 38 states introduced laws that would impose restrictions of one form or another on the right to vote.

The restrictions will take their toll. In Florida, for example, the League of Women Voters has suspended its registration drives because it fears it cannot comply with extreme measures written into the new law. As a result, voter registration, compared to a similar period in the 2008 election, has decreased by more than 80,000. If Florida is any indicator of the effect these laws have when they take effect, then look for voter registration to decline nationwide.

Lost in the coverage of the national campaign to exclude citizens from the polls is the work of organizations expanding the franchise. Oregon's Bus Project has been at it for 10 years, registering voters, knocking on doors to get them to the polls, successfully lobbying the Oregon Legislature to broaden the franchise -- and more.

A life-size cardboard cutout of John Kitzhaber stands at the entrance to the warren of offices, meeting spaces, and cubicles the Bus Project occupies in a warehouse district just east of the Willamette River in downtown Portland. If the Democratic governor who won his third term in 2010 belongs anywhere, it is here.

Out of office for eight years, Kitzhaber was running against the economy, rising unemployment, and Chris Dudley, a Yale-educated, NBA center who left the Portland Trailblazers in 2003, then raised $10 million from Oregon business interests and the Republican Governors Association. (Kitzhaber raised $6 million.)

Kitzhaber won by 20,000 votes out of 1.4 million cast, carrying 70 percent of the votes in Multnomah County, where the Bus Project had been engaged in voter registration, education, and turnout for 10 years.

Portland native Jefferson Smith started the Bus Project shortly after returning home from Harvard Law School (by way of Manhattan), in response to the 2000 Bush-Gore election. He borrowed money from his father to buy a Greyhound-style bus, worked with a group of young progressives to raise money, and began to study specific electoral races to determine where a busload of 45 youthful volunteers could make a difference.

"We put our hearts into it," Smith said. He resigned his seat in the Oregon House two months ago to run for mayor of Portland, and his voice was raspy from a long day of campaign rallies. "We knocked on sixty or seventy thousand doors in the 2002 elections."

As for the name, "We called it the Bus Project because we thought it would be a project, something we did before we went back to the farm or moved on to something else," Smith said. "Then we realized that if we let it evaporate, we were doing a disservice to the political conversation."

By the time Kitzhaber was running for a third term in 2010, the Bus Project had acquired a second bus and registered 70,000 voters, most in the Portland Metro area. And it was strategically deploying busloads of volunteers to knock on doors and turn out voters.

It's hard to quantify the effect of voter-registration and voter-turnout campaigns on a statewide election, but it's a safe bet that Kitzhaber would not have prevailed in a competitive race in a dismal year for Democrats had there been no Bus Project.

"You own John Kitzhaber," I said to the organization's Executive Director Caitlin Baggott.

"I wouldn't say that," she said. Baggott said that the governor recognizes the work "the Bus" has done. "But what I admire about Kitzhaber, and why I support Kitzhaber," she said, "is that he doesn't see that as a reason that he owes us anything." When I suggest that former Bus Project employees have moved into the governor's office, Baggott smiles.

"That," she said, "is our change model."

Baggott runs through a list of Bus Project alumni: "Jennifer Yocom is chief of staff for the mayor; Ian Greenfield is deputy communications director for the governor; Joe Baessler is the political director of AFSCME," she says. "We have staff at the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Basic Rights Oregon, the Urban League of Portland, the secretary of state, the governor's office, three or four legislators' offices, several county commissioners' offices."

Baggott fails to mention Ben Cannon, a former Rhodes Scholar who volunteered for the Bus while he was a public school teacher, joined the Bus Project board, served two terms in the Oregon House, and is now Kitzhaber's education policy advisor.

The Bus Project's website lists 28 elected officials who currently employ Bus alumni, including both of Oregon's U.S. senators and three of the state's five U.S. representatives.

The project is now a much bigger deal than the coordinated voter registration and turnout operation that Smith started 10 years ago. While it continues its signature volunteer-at-the-door canvasses (volunteers had just knocked on 4,500 doors to support a $49.5 million bond initiative in a Portland school district the Saturday before I arrived in Portland), that's only one facet of its many operations.

Baggott, for example, remains invested in PolitiCorps, the project's summer leadership academy, which she directed before she replaced Smith as executive director last year. (Smith trumpeted her promotion in a press release titled "A Big Frickin Announcement.") PolitiCorps brings 25 fellows, mostly college students, from across the country to Portland for paid 10-week stints.

"This is not mock Constitution, this is a real job," Baggott said. "They get classroom training, workshops, and public-policy conversations with local leaders until noon or one o'clock. They will knock on 25,000 doors and register 4,500 voters."

There are other moving parts. In the 2007 legislative session, the Bus Project staff (there are 12 full-time employees) and volunteers worked with other advocacy groups, including the Oregon Student Association, lobbying the Legislature to pass a law that allows 17-year-olds to "pre-register" to vote.

The law made Oregon high schools a prime recruiting ground for new voters, which the Bus Project exploits with a Democracy Cup program that awards an annual trophy to students competing in on-campus registration.

"They also register family members, friends, and neighbors," said Amanda Tripp, an engaging woman in her thirties who runs the program. The winning school takes home the Democracy Cup and attends the Bus's annual Trick or Vote Halloween party (and turnout drive) in Portland.

Tripp explained how the Democracy Cup leverages its investment in staff and volunteers, beginning the campus competition with school assemblies and following up with visits from "democracy mentors" in their twenties or thirties, who run workshops and later return to campus to follow up with students. (A right-wing blogger who was working with the late Andrew Breitbart describes a "citizen-journalist" career that began with shadowing Bus Project events at Portland public schools: "I found myself at Grant High School snapping pictures of Jefferson Smith's Bus Project, which was making its weekly indoctrination run," wrote Dan Sandini.)

The Bus also hosts an annual Rebooting Democracy conference that reflects the organization's personality and brand. This past April, Rebooting opened with a weeklong, Portlandish event that booked bars, theaters, and music venues and included films, bands, serious policy and politics talks, and elected officials doing standup. It concluded with three days of "big conversation" workshops in a University of Oregon conference center.

"One of our ideas is that we make things fun, sometimes outright silly," said Matt Singer. Singer directs the multi-state Bus Federation, which includes affiliates in Washington, Montana, and Colorado. "Our competition is not political parties or civic organizations. Our competition is the [Nintendo] Wii, it's bars, it's people going out hiking. So we try to make this a little more fun."

Singer doesn't say it, but he might have added "a little more hip in a nerdy sort of way." The Bus exists at the intersection of Gen-X and Gen-Y popular culture and progressive politics. So this is not your mother's civic-engagement organization.

Singer coordinates the work of the four Federation affiliates and is talking to parties who are considering importing the model in Illinois, Idaho, and Texas. The federation will provide each organization with "a rough sketch to be redrawn by the architects," as he puts it; those partners will adapt the Oregon Bus model to the political ecosystems in their states.

"You could register a million voters in Texas just to get started," Singer said.

Like the Oregon Bus, the affiliated organizations fund their own operations through individual donors, grants, and local supporters who provide a monthly or yearly contribution. (The Oregon Bus's annual budget is $750,000; the Bus Federation, more than $700,000.)

Affiliates are independent, regional variations on the Oregon Bus's civic-engagement model. All are built around small, professional staffs and large cadres of young volunteers.

"Our biggest states will do well over 10,000 volunteer shifts this year," Singer said. "That matches our belief that in the era of Citizens United, there are very few things in politics that can't be paid for. But if we want to be able to outmatch the big money, we will never be able to outspend them. We might be able to out-organize them."

Out-organizing often involves what Singer describes as "advocating for good policy stuff outside the voting realm, finding things where we can make a difference."

Bus Federation affiliates have been involved in the marriage-equality campaign in Washington and health care advocacy in Montana.

In Boulder, Colorado, Bus Federation affiliate New Era Colorado ran the ground campaign to pass two ballot initiatives that allow the city to take over a private electric utility and convert it from coal to natural gas.

In Portland, bus riders knocked on 4,500 doors on one weekend in April, asking voters to support a $49.5 million bond measure to provide repairs and infrastructure for the underfunded and overcrowded David Douglas School District. On the weekend before the election, the buses were out again. The bond measure passed.

These tactical policy victories provide volunteers and staff with immediate results that are rarely seen in voter registration and turnout drives, Singer said.

The Portland Bus remains the flagship organization. In an interview in an office overlooking two (really active) train tracks and Interstate 5, Baggott is reflective, and remarkably calm considering all that is scheduled at the organization she has directed since February 2011.

As we talk, the Bus Project is working on the bond election in East Portland, preparing for the PolitiCorps program that begins in two months, and the "big conversation" set piece of the Rebooting Democracy conference that begins in two days.

Baggott places the Bus Project's accomplishments on a continuum that ends with the goal of ensuring that every eligible voter in Oregon is registered.

"We started registering voters in 2005 with some help from PEW [Charitable Trusts], and have been doing the work since then," she says. "We have succeeded with 70,000, which is cool, in Oregon. And as proud as I am of our goal of registering 18,000 this year, there are 800,000 voters in Oregon who are not registered. So another 18,000 or 20,000 as a portion of that 800,000 leaves you feeling a little discouraged."

Baggott attaches metrics to laws the project has helped pass: "This year, we are going to talk to 10,000 17-year-olds and invite them to register," she said. "We helped to create online voter registration, and it registered 84,000 voters last year."

Still, as she sees it, these are incremental changes that will require years to register every voter in the state. "We can register that 800,000, but we will have to do it through policy," Baggott says.

She describes an ambitious agenda that involves new laws that will make it almost impossible for qualified voters in Oregon to evade registration.

In the most recent session of the Oregon Legislature, for example, the Bus Project worked in concert with several other organizations to pass a law that complements the federal National Voter Registration Act. The new law expands the list of state agencies required to provide voter registration applications.

"Previously, it was only enforced at the DMV," Baggott said. "This new law requires all public assistance offices, food stamps, health care, all of them, to provide voter registration forms. It has the potential to dramatically increase the number of poor people who register to vote in Oregon."

Baggott might be described as a universal suffrage absolutist. "The purpose of voter registration laws is to exclude people from democracy," she said.

Dismantle the exclusive measures and you get to the goal of "universal automatic registration," by which voter registration is passive: Any time a government form is filled out by a U.S. citizen 18 years or older and living in Oregon, a voter is registered.

"We're not there yet," Baggott says. "The political will is not there yet. But the current secretary of state thinks we can do it by 2015." One year ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

2012 Scorecard: The Bus Project went two for two in issues it supported in 2012.

1. The Bus supported one legislator in the May primary: Bob Jenson, a moderate Republican state representative who faced a conservative challenger. Canvassers traveled to Pendleton, far more conservative than Portland, to knock on one-third of the doors of likely Republican voters in support of Jenson, whom Bus Project Political Director Henry Kraemer describes as one of "Oregon's great moderate Republicans" -- a champion of voter access, tuition equity, and economic fairness. Jenson won 52.4 percent of the vote.

2. An influx of underserved families strains the aging facilities and overburdened personnel in the David Douglas School District in East Portland. The Bus Project fielded two canvasses in East Portland to support a $49.5 million bond initiative to support the schools: a "lit drop" and a turn-out-the-vote drive the weekend before voting closed on May 15. (Most ballots in Oregon are mailed in.) Volunteers knocked on 6,185 doors in East Portland, exceeding the number of voters who participated in the previous primary held there (4,899). The measure passed.

3. While the mayoral run of Bus Project founder Jefferson Smith was not an official project, he came in second and advances to a November runoff.


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