Probably not. These groups are not household names. They don't have big galas or splashy websites. They don't send mass emails. But according to a national assessment pioneered by a new collaborative called Movement 2016, these groups and others are working quietly and effectively at the grass-roots level to register and get out voters and to protect their votes. They've got boots on the ground — defending our democratic process and combatting the obstacles that hinder citizens' participation in the elections. And their work is a big deal.
Every year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, millions of Americans are discouraged, harassed and even forbidden from exercising their most fundamental right in an electoral democracy: i.e., to choose their elected leaders. Politicians of more than a dozen states from Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio and across the South have enacted laws and practices that have eroded Americans' fundamental right to vote.
We've become inured to the basket of deplorables that have made voting even more onerous: photo-ID requirements; outdated registration records; curtailed poll hours; cutbacks in opportunities for early voting and absentee voting; understaffed voting stations; decrepit voting equipment, etc. Many of these laws are rooted in an ugly history of Jim Crow-ism and disgraceful efforts to prevent African-Americans from voting that date back more than a century following the Civil War.
What we're up against in this battle is that the groups who are most effectively functioning on the ground to turn the situation around often lack the resources to do what they do well and, for the most part, labor in obscurity. This problem — i.e., the gap between groups doing effective grass-roots organizing to protect voting rights and the resources needed to make real, sustainable voter engagement a reality — should concern anyone who believes in "one person, one vote."
It's a fight to which we are both deeply committed. That's why we have collaborated and each of us is putting our money where our mouth is.
The idea: What if we could move a small fraction, say 1 percent, of the roughly $61 billion expected to be spent on splashy TV ads in this year's election into these organizations? We believe this simple, ambitious but achievable goal of putting big money into small community-based organizations is one of the most effective ways to increase voter turnout while supporting community infrastructures needed to ensure the rights of all people.
While the air wars will be dominated by big-name campaigns and bigger and better-known organizations, the ground war that turns out people to the polls and makes sure every voter has a voice will be won by groups like these.
They are the democracy foot soldiers — knocking on neighbors' doors; standing outside Big Box shopping centers and social-service agencies; and talking to people at bus stops, concerts and community-college parking lots. They organize around issues that affect the lives of everyday Americans — a living wage, college affordability or whether an immigrant family will be separated by deportation.
They register voters. They remind Americans to exercise their right to vote — no small feat in a political environment of cynicism and mistrust, which resulted in a whopping 43 percent of the electorate sitting out the 2012 elections. (If you haven't, you should register to vote here…)
Despite the odds, they help people find their polling places and help busy parents make a plan to vote. They help elders and first-time voters, disabled voters and absentee voters. They translate ballots for non-English speakers, advocate to election officials on voter-access issues, and sometimes even babysit or bring food or coffee or umbrellas to voters standing in lines in the rain.
In some states, they assist voters to make sure they have the required IDs. And they talk to voters about why it matters to vote, since it remains a fundamental cornerstone of a U.S.-style representative democracy.
Getting the much-needed resources to the best grass-roots voting groups in the country will help increase voter turnout. Together, we can get behind the folks who work outside the spotlight to engage voters and create sustainable social change.
Are you in?
*This oped originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. Craig Newmark is the founder of craigslist and the Craig Newmark Foundation, which helps drive peer-to-peer, grass-roots civic engagement. Billy Wimsatt is the former director of the League of Young Voters, and founder of Movement 2016, which provides research on effective grass-roots voter-engagement projects.