Occupying the voting booth: OWS protestors should fight efforts to hinder voting

How to engage OWS Protesters in practical politics: They should help people register to vote.

I just passed by some OWs protesters–hence the thumbnail photo. Many progressives—me, for instance—worry that OWS will promote destructive alienation from the hard and sustained work of conventional politics. If a sizeable chunk of progressive youth are passive in 2012, that is the functional equivalent of a Nader candidacy.

The best way to prevent this is to find an aspect of conventional politics that can genuinely excite and move these protesters into positive action that serves their own values and long-term goals. OFA emails won’t accomplish that. Perhaps earnest substantive emails about health reform should do that—given the Affordable Care Act’s impact on millions of low-income people. I don’t think this is so promising, either.

I was just talking with Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris about this challenge. He ordered me to blog about an alternative.

Ari Berman’s fantastic reporting describes Republican efforts across the country to establish subtle (or not-so-subtle) roadblocks to hinder voting among minorities, poor people, ex-felons, and the young. The GOP’s flimsy justifications are based on mythical accounts of voter fraud. Fortunately for the purposes of analytic clarity, no one outside the Wall Street Journal editorial page really takes that argument seriously. This is an obvious effort to turn the 2012 electorate into an older and whiter group that resembles the 2010 electorate rather than the 2008 electorate that brought Barack Obama to the White House.

Democrats need to hammer a simple message: It’s un-American for partisans to hinder political opponents’ efforts to vote. Yet as Paul points out, this issue might not resonate with many independent voters. The typical suburban independent voter might think: Who doesn’t have a photo-id, anyway? Democrats and those affected will be angered, but Republicans will still benefit in close battleground states.

Occupy Wall Street organizers: I believe you should resonate with this issue. GOP officials are trying to disenfranchise people like you: college students with university IDs not gun permits, young people and minority urban residents who don’t drive, and so on.

Wherever you live, learn the voter registration and ID rules, and get to work registering people and ensuring that they have the proper ID cards and whatever to actually vote. Bring the drum sets. You may need a hard surface to fill out the proper forms.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

34 thoughts on “Occupying the voting booth: OWS protestors should fight efforts to hinder voting”

  1. I think that’s true. I would add that a “right to vote” amendment to the constitution would be good politics and good policy if it were ever to get enacted.

  2. Because 2006 and 2008 worked out so well. The problem with an Obama candidacy in 2012 will be Obama, and his policy of no bank left behind.

  3. Well, 2006 and 2008 worked out far better than they would had x-number of vulnerable voters been stripped of their right to vote. “Occupy” can’t afford Bruce Wilder’s cynicism, and neither can the rest of us, on strike or not. I think it’s a hot-button that Occupy (and their supporters) could effectively get behind: Occupy The Vote wouldn’t need to entail living rough in front of the Boston Fed (‘tho all props to those who do!), could offer a stark example of how the 1% get the 10% to go after the democratic rights of the bottom 10-20%, and could shift the conversation from “voter fraud” (unfounded in fact) to “something something something” (haven’t got a useful quick description here — “universal suffrage” worked for my great-grandmother, god bless her, but may have lost something over time). Such a focus could entail small, easily organized actions (wheel a number of wheelchair-bound elders into a state ID office, video the thing, intertoobz, ???, change. Or something like that.

  4. Is alienation from the hard and sustained world of Democratic politics such a bad thing?

    Bill Clinton wedded the Democrats to oligarchic money. There were good arguments for this in 1992, but I don’t think that they work any more. Voters have a hard time distinguishing Democrats from the other oligarchic party, and they have a point. If OWS can instill enough fear in Democratic politicians, they might cut the tether with oligarchic money and policies. And, y’know, it might actually get a few votes.

    The other good thing about OWS is that it is weakening the identity politics of the left. OWS does not think that a lesbian oligarch of color is anything but an oligarch. And that’s another good thing, electorally.

    I know I’m sounding a bit Naderesque. But I’m finding it progressively more difficult to give my shekels to the Democratic Party of Chuck Schumer and Andrew Cuomo and Erskine Bowles.

  5. Occupy demonstrations, coordinated marches and a coalesced narrative exposing the need for economic justice – concurrently unfolding with a massive voter registration drive and DOJ/judicial challenges to the Republican efforts to curtail enfranchisement – may be the needed critical mass to put Democratic incumbents on notice they should embrace such justice if they wish to be reelected, primary the Democrats who confusedly cling to the apologist-state, and ultimately punish the Republican brand at the polls in 2012!

    The general malaise felt by us 99%ers since 2000 is astonishing, and no matter what detractors pipe up, angry American citizens will continue to vent their angst in the streets. I only hope my fellow 99%ers can translate our collective woe into viable political action in this upcoming election cycle!

  6. May I suggest coming to a general assembly and making that as a proposal, it’s the only way the idea will come to a vote.

  7. Harold: “Many progressives—me, for instance—worry that OWS will promote destructive alienation from the hard and sustained work of conventional politics. If a sizeable chunk of progressive youth are passive in 2012, that is the functional equivalent of a Nader candidacy.”

    Let’s get this straight – you and yours are the reason for Occupy Wall St. If the ‘centrist liberals’ hadn’t supported a policy of bailing out the bankers with no consequences, then OWS wouldn’t have needed to exist.

    In 2009, we should have started a policy of vicious, savage prosecution of bankers. The DoJ has power, and would have done quite a bit of good using it to the full extent of legality and ethics.

    I’m tired of people who’ve done nothing and accomplished nothing railing at people who’ve accomplished a hundred times as much, with less resources.

    If you’re the Harold Pollack at Chicago – a den of iniquity full deserving of fire and sword – what have you done to occupy Chicago? Have you even gotten a showing of ‘Inside Job’?

    1. Barry–whoa. I wasn’t railing against OWS, or anyone really. I was trying to propose a way that its positive energy could be best be channeled in a strategically helpful direction. The Tea Party is not effective because its members make noise. It’s effective because they are mobilized to influence electoral politics. OWS needs to do the same.

      We’re all trying to improve the world in our own way. I’ve worked pretty hard during the ’08 campaign and on the stimulus and on health reform. I think you’re being awfully self-righteous, and not too gracious, either.

      1. Harold Pollack: “I think you’re being awfully self-righteous, and not too gracious, either.”

        Pot, kettle, black.

        What I was pointing out was that these people have caused a radical change in the national conversation, which isn’t nothing, and more than people like you have succeeded at. That’s a major task, and you don’t give them credit.

        “I wasn’t railing against OWS, or anyone really. ”

        ‘Railing’ is your word; I was pointing out that your criticisms were unjustified, misplaced and in fact contrary to reality. Given the fact that we’ve seen anti-passivity, you are implying the opposite of what’s actually happening. What is your justification for you thesis?

        1. How has OWS “caused a radical change in the national conversation”? Harold’s right. As long as they’re just a bunch of urban campers, it’ll be little more than a sideshow. It isn’t even an “occupation” in a meaningful sense. Camping in public parks poses no real or direct challenge to the objects of their protest, and the pretense that some transendent form of social organization is being developed is so absurd I feel silly even bringing it up. Dwelling on activism vs. passivity misses the point. Maybe these people should spend less time “actively” chanting slogans and get out and confront their enemies directly, beginning with political engagement. Oh, but maybe that’s not possible; I’d wager that a scratch and sniff below the surface might release noxious effluvia of that anti-political posturing of the so-called anarchists who’s nowhere ideological grab bag decorated the sideshow protests of the 90s.

          By any practical measure, a change to “the conversation” of far greater consequence occurred upon the election of Obama and the pursuit of a political program designed to address the major concerns of those supposedly forgotten Americans that OWS claims to (for the first time?) give voice to now. For all its supposed flaws, I’ll take PPACA over 10,000 millenials sleeping in a park. That, and all the other big political achievements (the kinds of things that, over time, turn into structural social changes) were achieved not by your motley steet army, but by your detested “centrist liberals”. And when it comes to your detested “bailout”, propose an alternative different than Ron Paul’s “damn the concsequences” policy, one that makes a serious attempt to deal with the realities of cause and effect in economic relationships, specifically the effect that complete collapse of the financial system and a deflationary spiral would have had on the prospects of millions upon millions of debt-laden Americans, just to start there.

          Or, maybe the occipiers’ “consensus building” civics exercises will come up with something.

          1. “all the other big political achievements.”

            I agree on ACA, but what on *earth* do you imagine to be the “other” ones???

            This is my second use of the Reply button. Still not sure I like it.

    2. I’d like to submit for your consideration that prosecutions should never be vicious and savage, nor any adjectives closely related to either.

      I agree that we should have had thorough investigations. Any such investigation would almost surely lead to prosecution of Goldman, Sachs and probably others. In fact, it looks to me like Goldman, Sachs is eligible under the RICO statutes.

  8. It strikes me that this isn’t so much what OWS should be doing as what all the people who support OWS’s goals but have been sitting on the sidelines should be doing.

  9. Paul, much better put than my post, which was harsh on Harold (not overly harsh, since he’s probably been one of those people on the sidelines).

    What really burns me is that OWS has done more with less at higher personal risk in a few months than 99% of its critics.
    I’m sick and tired of seeing people criticize it for not doing what they want, when they haven’t accomplished much.

    And that goes twice for academia:

    1) Tenured professors are uniquely protected from many risks.
    2) Much of academia has either failed to act, or has acted maliciously, in the past decade.

  10. Voter registration is a wonderful and very needed goal, and once upon a time, there was an organization that did just that: ACORN. I don’t know if they also helped people get the ID required to vote, but I’m going to guess that they probably did, and that they also probably helped people who needed transportation get to the polls.

    We all know what happened to ACORN. Shut down for completely spurious reasons, turned on even by those who should have supported them. If the ACORN wheel were to be reinvented, under the present circumstances what’s to prevent it from being dismantled a second time? What’s left, except some sort of protest?

    What makes the most sense to me is to think of OWS as a giant conciousness-raising experiment. Just as the 1960s feminists gathered in small groups to figure out what exactly was not quite right about the lives they were living, and the attempts to change the law (e.g., the ERA) or successes in changing the law (Lilly Ledbetter), came later and much later, I see OWS as a first step.

    The personal remains political but first you have to have to determine the exact countours of each. The inchoateness is all you can expect at this point (you don’t think individual conciousness raising groups didn’t go off on some silly tangents on occasion? — read some Nora Ephron on that era) Hopefully, things will evolve and when the time is right, real organizing and advocacy efforts will emerge.

    In the meantime, what Kt said.

  11. Not sure that a movement without a clear agenda needs to add another proposal that’s only tangentially related to its already ambiguous reason for being.

    1. Especially as the whole frikkin’ deal with proposals is that the Powers that Be and their media lackeys can endlessly debate them, and discuss details, and denounce them as too sweeping/too inconsequential/blah blah blah.

      For those who can’t get the idea, have a child explain the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

  12. Clayton, if you look at adbusters original call to occupy wall street, it’s got a pretty clear agenda: clear the undue influence money has over politics. Personally, I think TV ads should be banned, as they cost the most. Imagine what campaign budgets would be without the need to fund them… Far more reasonable. I am disgusted that presidential campaigns spend in toto almost 1Billion on nothing that ends up tangible, like a bridge, or Internet infrastructure.

    1. “Clear the undue influence money has over politics” in no way resembles a pretty clear agenda. How do you plan to stop someone from buying a TV ad on their own? Do you plan to pass a law against any advertising that talks about politics? If so, how do you plan to stop someone, perhaps someone named Rupert, from buying a TV network and turning it into political broadcasting? Do you plan to pass a law forbidding any mention of politics on TV at all?

      This idea that there is any way to eliminate money in politics and keep anything that resembles a representative (or direct, for that matter) democracy is delusional. There isn’t any way to plug all of the holes in the dike.We need to come up with an alternative, because the money is there and it *will* find its way into politics. If you pretend otherwise, you’re helping to do its job. Now, I don’t have any great alternatives. The best I can think of is to figure out the point at which the returns of additional money start to decline steeply and publicly fund campaigns up to that point. There are a lot of things I don’t like about that proposal, but it’s the best I’ve got.

      Do you have something better?

      1. I am a Canadian and am politically active in my home province. We have a very frustrating set of rules that limits advertising and how we can raise money and from whom, but it does limit the amount of advertising and also the financial influence of large unions and businesses (and wealthy individuals). In a local electoral district of about 12,000 voters, the maximum allowed spending on a csmpaign is about $35,000, and within that, the spending on advertising is limited to about $6,000. There are other rules for spending outside of the election period.

        Our political culture is very different here, and I am not sure that you could do anything like that in the US, and these rules are tailored to our parliamentary party system of politics. For more info, look at the Elections Manitoba website, and there is a (pretty complex) set of rules in the official agents’ guide (which is a summary of the Elections Finances Act, under the political participants section).

        But there will always be influence when there is political power to be had…our rules don’t prevent the incumbent government from ramping up ads pre-election, or for unions or business groups from taking out political ads (you are right, you cannot easily limit the freedom of others to do that sort of thing).

  13. “(The Tea Party) is effective because they are mobilized to influence electoral politics.”

    The TP is an astro-turf organization heavily funded by further than right GOP political insiders as part of their assault on Obama. They have scared the bejeebus out of some less than fruitcake conservative republicans in a few states. OWS is not heavily funded. it does not serve any particular well organized part of the Democratic Party. It will not wield any effective influence in the manner presented or dreamed of here.

    Promoting the fantasy that it will do so or “be like Nader” is simply outrageous BS.

    Besides, we have already been subjected to our own “tea party”. They were called Reagan Democrats. The surrender of the party in the face of that onslaught was pretty much complete.

  14. “Many progressives—me, for instance—worry that OWS will promote destructive alienation from the hard and sustained work of conventional politics”

    Could we have some evidence for this claim? I assume you aren’t claiming to contain multitudes. Also, in my experience, what bothers progressives about OWS is that OWS doesn’t seem ready to become a liberal wave movement and is justifiably skeptical of Democrats bearing gifts. Given that a rather large chunk of House Democrats have just indicated enthusiastic support for imbecilic austerity moves and cuts to social security/medicare, I can’t say I blame them.

    1. Seconding this (or actually thirding or fourthing this).

      Harold, to be repetitious, your post made a claim, or rather a ‘concern’, that is contrary to reality. Why?

    1. There’s a whole group of people who really resent the fact that anybody actually goes and does something disreputable, no matter what. Failing respectably is more important.

    1. Not to be harsh, but that seems to make four – rather than many – of you with the same concerns, and I am not sure that I see Judis or Cohn as precisely “progressive”. It’s extremely difficult to imagine any genuine progressive working for TNR, which is an almost self-parodying rag apparently dedicated to Dick Morris Democrats and AIPAC fluffing. Nor does the TNR piece seem to share this anxiety about alienation which you attributed to “many” progressives. My own experience, both from conversations online and real life discussions with various progressives is that progressives don’t see OWS as producing alienation from conventional politics (surely the GOP and Democrats have already accomplished that task rather effectively between them!). Instead, they worry that OWS will turn into an unfocussed, undisciplined punching bag for various of the right-wing ignorati and whatever reactionary thuggery the police can manage. There are some alarming signs that the intellectual element of OWS is spending far too much time on politically correct and loosely anarchistic bloviation more suited to a Comparative Literature department and has no clue how to make their movement effective rhetorically or politically. If OWS does not define itself reasonably clearly, it will be defined negatively by the usual right-wing smearmasters, before losing such cohesion as it currently possesses and splintering into smaller units that can be mopped up at leisure.

      1. “If OWS does not define itself reasonably clearly, it will be defined negatively by the usual right-wing smearmasters, before losing such cohesion as it currently possesses and splintering into smaller units that can be mopped up at leisure.”

        In which case they’d be following in the footsteps of their ‘respectable’ betters in the Democratic Party.

        And I haven’t seen any such signs; I have seen the press do the standard hatchet job, with extra gusto because this is an actual anti(corruption in the) establishment movement.

        1. I support a political party in Canada which is considered right-wing here, but is definitely left of the Democrats in the US. The left in Canada, for years (as in the US), has successfully branded the right as heartless and the party of the rich. The right has (with less success) branded the left as tax-and-spend politicians. Smaearmasters indeed.

          Both US parties, nationally and at the state level, have spent more money than they ever had, claiming to be improving the lives of citizens. When the cuts come as they always do, the people who suffer the most will be those who can least afford it – so I am not sure that, progressive or otherwise, any of these ‘respectable betters’ have done anyone any favours.

          Probably some ideas from people not considered “progressive” are worth looking at. If we dismiss them out of hand because of the source, I think we perpetuate the gridlock that is seen in American politics, where no one is willing to listen to each other.

  15. J. Michael Neal: “The best I can think of is to figure out the point at which the returns of additional money start to decline steeply and publicly fund campaigns up to that point. There are a lot of things I don’t like about that proposal, but it’s the best I’ve got.”

    Californian voters had the chance for just such a public campaign finance system, and totally spaced on it, just last year. This was Prop. 15. (IDIOTS! And no, people, I will not shut up about it. So, so stupid.)

    It failed because the Cali DP, GOP and the MSM didn’t want it. So, these OWS folks, whatever their flaws, do have a point when they say our system is really in trouble.

    I agree with you, but how can we ever get a system like this when there are no honest and powerful forces that can reach voters? This is the mother of all political market failures.

    The problem begins and ends with voters. OWS are helping symbolically but I think we can rely on the MSM to totally distort and render feckless whatever message they even have.

  16. Harold, adding on to Morzer’s comment:

    1) TNR is still ‘even the liberal’ New Republic (if you know what that joke means).

    2) The Democratic leadership *botched* the mid-terms. And almost all campaigning from the day after the election in 2008 to now. They should have been running a massive GOtV effort. They didn’t, and 2010 happened. And yes, 2010 was bound to be bad, but the Dem leadership allowed the GOP to take the economy that the GOP had destroyed and use it to the GOP’s advantage.

    Finallay, consider this by your fellow blogger:

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