Now that the election is over, there is sure to be a push from the White House to abolish the scourge of the 2004 election season—political 527 groups. Doing this, however, would be a serious mistake.
Whether you like the results of Tuesday’s election o r not and whether you found the spate of negative television commercials aired by 527s despicable or informative, one thing is indisputable: 527s registered millions of new, previously disenfranchised voters and the casting of their ballots strengthened o ur democracy.
As many people already know, 527 groups started growing in size and influence after passage of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that curtailed the campaign activities of political parties. Getting their name from the pro vision in the IRS code that governs them, 527s spent tens of
millions of dollars registering new voters.
Should 527s be given the credit for the record turnout of 120 million people who voted on Tuesday?
There were many factors that helped create Tuesda y’s staggering turnout: deeply held beliefs about the war in Iraq, moral values, the economy and future threats of terrorism. But this does not tell the full story—there have always been great issues and stark choices before the American electorate. The V ietnam War, Watergate and sexual scandal were also motivating issues, but they never inspired the same level of voter participation.
The difference this election was the role of catalyst that 527s played with marginal citizens. 527s groups sought out peo ple in this ‘unregistered class’ and brought them into the electoral fold. Through strong organizations, aggressive outreach and solid follow up by 527s, the unregistered added their names to the voting rolls and cast ballots for the first time.
Many peo ple do not focus on the voter registration work of the 527s, but instead see only the unrelenting carpet-bombing of negative television ads that were unleashed by advocates of both presidential candidates. While these ads were often distasteful, to abolish 527s because of it would be shortsighted and unfair.
America has always had negative political advertising (attack pamphlets were used against Abraham Lincoln) and we have always risen above it. Instead, what our country has truly been hampered by is elections in which only small segments of our population vote.
For too long an ever-shrinking segment of America was voting and making choices for the rest of the country. Like a family meeting around the kitchen table that excludes half the clan, the p aucity of perspectives weakens the quality of the decisions made.
For most of our country’s history, laws and harassment prevented some Americans from voting. Property requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests and outright bans on voting based upon gender or race made America a poorer nation. These institutional barriers have largely been removed, but America created a new invisible obstruction for itself that kept voters at home; rampant apathy caused by political leaders who failed to inspire those on t he margins.
With President Bush reelected and a stronger Republican majority in Congress, there is certain to be an effort next January to choke off the funding sources for 527s. While the GOP was able to play a solid game of catch-up during this election cycle with their own 527s, it was Democrats who elevated this form of campaign strategy to an art form. Republicans may gain a slight partisan advantage if 527s are abolished or financially neutered, but it is our country that will be the real loser.
It is far from certain if the voters signed up by 527s will vote again anytime soon. They need constant cajoling and inspiring in a way that apparatchiks from the two major parties were never able to do. It seems that only 527s and their legions of young people who look like and understand the disaffected can truly reach these voters on the fringes of our democracy.
We know the American house of democracy stands far stronger with all of its citizens inside, even the disenfranchised. Until someone can fin d another way to bring these marginal voters into the process, the 527s offer our best hope at keeping them where they need to be: inside, with the rest of us.
Jason Alderman is director of the Bay Area Center for Voting Research (www.votingresearch.org), a non-partisan think tank based in Berkeley.b