Monday, September 29, 2008

Protecting The Vote

By Laura Flanders

Voter registration deadlines are just over a week away in many states. Polls open in just over a month. In an election that could well be decided by new voters, voter registration efforts are in overdrive. But signing people up might be the easy part: after that, there's voting. As the last two elections have shown, just showing up at the polls isn't a guarantee of a smooth ride to the ballot box.

In 2000 and 2004, all across the country, thousands of voters were removed from the rolls, without their knowledge, in official purges of voter lists. On Election Day in 2004, boxes of registrations remained unprocessed in at least two cities we know about -- Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. On the radio that election night, I received calls from Columbus voters who had stood for hours in line because of a shortage of voting machines in the inner city, even as, in nearby wealthy suburbs, voters were able to cast their votes in a matter of minutes. As one caller put it, "Jim Crow isn't dead."

Election protection and voting rights should be central to any conversation about the '08 vote. But a lot of tough questions are getting lost in horse-race coverage. And many voters are wondering -- again -- if their vote will be counted. In contrast to most advanced democracies, the right to vote isn't conveyed automatically with citizenship or coming of age in the United States. Voters have to prove themselves and there are no end to the challenges, from felon disenfranchisement laws to monolingual ballots and a myriad of ever-changing rules which differ from election to election and district to district. Come voting day, voters rely on minimally-trained poll-workers overseeing a myriad of voting systems. Disturbing doubts remain about the security of electronic voting and the privately-owned technology many districts rely on to tally votes.

Fed up with waiting for officials or Parties to do the work, this year, as never before, citizens' groups, and voting rights organizations are taking early action to protect the vote. A few months back, national voting rights groups charged officials in Kansas, Michigan and Louisiana of illegally purging voter lists. Voters whose homes are in foreclosure are also concerned that their status might be used at the precinct to challenge their right to vote. The states with the highest foreclosure rates, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Colorado, are also swing states where the election could hinge on tiny margins. Meanwhile, in Michigan, the ACLU has just filed a federal lawsuit against state electoral officials over statewide voter purge programs they claim would "disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters" -- many of them college students. Thanks to independent reporting and activist organizing, the Department of Veterans Affairs was recently forced to reverse its policy that would have stopped voter registration drives at hundreds of VA hospitals serving injured and homeless vets.

While the media focus on the candidates, voting rights advocates are focusing on the future of our democracy. It’s falling to nonprofit outfits like the Advancement Project to distribute state-specific "know the facts" palm cards to poll workers in many states. And organizers are fanning out. Twenty-three states allow early voting. Ohio has a "golden week" -- September 30 to October 6 -- in which people can register and vote all in the same day. The organizers recommend voting early. Avoid the lines and the worst of the chaos.

Will citizen activism decide an election? It just might.
Flanders is the Host of GRITtv and “Live From Main Street.” "Live From Main Street Columbus: Will Your Vote Count?" is a virtual town hall exploring how the issues of voting rights and election security affect every day Americans. For more a full schedule of events, visit
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08

By Sam Oliker-Friedland

I need to confess a shameful secret; a sin of omission from last year that I’ve regretted ever since. I didn’t vote.

By most measures, I am a politically engaged college student. I read the news and political blogs every day. Since I was in high school, I’ve organized voter registration drives to help other students vote, and can sit for hours discussing policy and politics with friends and family. But on April 1, 2008, when Wisconsin chose its swing Supreme Court Justice, I was not a part of that decision.

It’s not that I didn’t care -- I probably had a stronger opinion about those two candidates than I’ve had in most elections. I wasn’t distracted by an important trip, nor was I refusing to participate in a broken election system. I was away at school. Between term papers and the less academic portion of the college experience, I forgot to send in an application to get my absentee ballot.

I wasn’t alone. I did an informal survey of acquaintances after the 2006 elections to find out who didn’t vote. If they didn’t vote, I wanted to know why. Not a single person told me “I didn’t care.” Not a single person said “I don’t see how the election affects me.” These are the great myths of young people who don’t vote, and its perpetrators will often point out with a concerned frown that voters aged 18 to 25 tend to have a lower turnout rates. However, one further statistic points us toward the real story: Among registered voters, 18 to 25 year olds turn out at basically the same rate as other age groups.

Unfortunately, the American election system contains hurdles which are particularly serious for young, mobile voters. Not only must we navigate complicated ID requirements to register to vote for the first time, but many of us must also apply for an absentee ballot. If you are from Michigan, Tennessee, or Louisiana, you may be out of luck. If you register to vote by mail in those states, you are required to vote in person for your first election. This is grossly unfair not only to new 18-year-old freshmen in college, but to displaced victims of the recent gulf coast hurricanes as well.

For those of us who can vote by absentee ballot, just figuring out how to get one can be a challenge. The request process varies state to state, and often even county to county. We need to figure out whether to contact our state elections board, our county clerk, or our municipal registrar. In some states, we can simply send our election official an email; however, in some, we must send an original form by mail. Oddly, North Carolina requires a signed, handwritten note requesting a ballot.

Particularly frustratingly are Kentucky, South Carolina and some counties in Illinois, which require that a voter call to have an absentee ballot request form sent, wait for the form to arrive, fill it out, send it back, wait for the ballot to arrive, and send the ballot in time to arrive on Election Day.

Elections in the United States are arcane and a clear nationwide snapshot of any aspect of election administration probably requires different information from each of our country’s thousands of voting jurisdictions. The challenge is assembling that information in a way that is easily accessible to voters, especially new voters who may be less familiar with the process.

Luckily, the internet gives us simple and powerful tools for managing and accessing large amounts of data. Those of us who have grown up with technology expect and demand information in a few clicks. We don’t like clicking through unwieldy websites, or needing to visit multiple sites.

Providing easy-to-follow guidance through a complicated process should be a first step. That is why some friends and I founded It is an online resource that takes those who must vote absentee step-by-step through the voting process for their county or municipality, providing forms, procedures, contact information, and easy to follow instructions.

We must work to change the process to make it easy and fair. The more transparent these mechanisms of democracy are the more voices will be heard on Election Day. As with any election, there will be a significant number of new voters. A lot of them will be 18. We need to ensure that they and all registered voters can vote easily – and if necessary -- vote absentee.
Oliker-Friedland is a senior at Brown University and the co-founder of
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08

By Friedrike Merck

Sarah Palin and I have a lot in common. We were athletes and both became hockey Moms, we have held public office in small towns, we like to fish, (I am proud of my marksmanship skills but just can't seem to rustle up what it takes to shoot for sport one of God's creatures), we both have a can-do attitude and serious spiritual lives but we disagree when it comes to matters of privacy and family planning.

Maybe it's my independent New England roots or the tolerant Quaker in me that planted the simple belief that personal choices across a range of important life decisions, like when to have children, are absolutely a private family matter. The choices other people make about the size and timing of their family is never anyone else's business to talk about. Where I come from that’s called gossip. Neither is it anyone else's business how a family chooses to cope with the issues of dignity in dying, that's morbid prying. It is no one's right, in this country at least, to insist that there is only one way to believe in or to name a Higher Power, that there is only one way to honor the sanctity of life, that's the kind of holier than thou attitude that drove our ancestors from distant lands to this place of hope for individual liberty.

Lately we've heard the phrase "it's a private family matter" being used to protect the innocent children of candidates, which I am all for, but it has sounded more like a shield to prevent the media from talking about politicians' parading families than it does a sincere belief that we should all be protected from the uninvited bright lights, the opinions and will of others, including the government. I must have missed something along the way but, since when did women's medical decisions, and we women know that pregnancy is both a spiritual and medical condition, stop being a "private family matter?"

Instead of honoring the private discussions between women and their families, between families and their doctors, between people and their God, self appointed groups want to dictate the final say in matters they have no business being in. This dangerous meddling is happening in many areas of people's lives, from government intrusion into the private discussion of when a member of one's family should die to leaders who profess to know the mysteries of life itself. From birth control and emergency contraception availability to deciding whether an unplanned pregnancy should be continued our privacy is being taken from us because someone else claims to know better about how we should conduct our lives. At every step there are individuals, strangers, trying to gain control over our "private family matters" and I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Republicans and Democrats polled by the Women Donors Network show overwhelming support for allowing people to control their own fates in hospitals and at the doctor's office. Just as no one tells us which church to attend, which car to buy or how many guns we can own, we don't want to be limited in our medical choices. Voters across the country strongly believe that they should be able to make their own important life decisions for themselves and their families. A majority of Americans believe that government's role is to provide information, access and services to ensure that we can make these choices responsibly. If politicians can rightly demand a safe space for their "private family matters" then they ought to afford us the same courtesy and keep their noses out of other people's business and bedrooms.

It's important to know where candidates stand, not just about "choice", the now polarizing code word for abortion, but more about candidates positions' on a range of common but important life decisions. We must hear the thinking of those hoping to lead this country on critical topics like affordable and readily available birth control, accurate sexuality education and how they define and defend the lines of decency and privacy not only for themselves but for all of us. Yes, the mother from Alaska and I share many similarities but regarding important life decisions, personal family matters, I only claim to know what's best for me and my family.
Merck is a portrait artist, a member of the Women Donors Network and a grateful mother
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08


By Jay Travis and Diane Doherty

Eulonda Cooper is in the eye of the storm. A spirited, hard-working mother of four who lives in an affordable rental unit in the Kenwood Oakland community, she is being denied the safety and security that any hard-working American deserves. She sits on the local school council of two elementary schools and is a member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

In a community that has rapidly gentrified since the mid-90s, she is concerned about the impact the Olympics would have on the price of housing in her neighborhood. Many of the people she knew in the neighborhood are gone; priced out due to escalating rents or moved out due to the CHA Plan for Transformation, which resulted in the loss of over 3,000 rental units. "The Olympics cannot be used as a tool to finally push all of us out. I want my children to live in stable, quality housing in this neighborhood." For her, the fear that the Olympics could mean very real.

The convenient opinion is that the people who have lived in this community for decades – hard-working, law-abiding citizens who work as bus drivers, single parents, teachers, nurses aides, security guards, police officers and other honorable professions…need to go. The Olympics are an opportunity to finally invest in the communities that have suffered through municipal, state, and federal disinvestment.

We have been concerned about this issue for a long time. Community groups have organized forums since January, and residents have clearly expressed their concerns around being left out of the Olympic process. Community members have met with local aldermen, the department of planning, and Chicago 2016 representatives to express these concerns, but to no avail.

This led to the formation of Communities for an Equitable Olympics 2016 (CEO 2016), a coalition of community and labor organizations, working together to win enforceable community benefits in conjunction with Chicago’s Olympics bid. Members include Action Now, American Friends Service Committee, Brighton Park Neighborhood Coalition, Centers for New Horizons, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Grassroots Collaborative, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, MAGIC, Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, Service Employees International Union Healthcare IL/IN. We have come together to form a broad and deep coalition of South Side and city-wide groups organizing for justice and equity.

One major area of concern is Chicago’s plan to build the Olympic Village at the site of Michael Reese Hospital. Mere minutes from downtown, the 37-acre plot represents a potential bonanza for the city and developers and the prospect of hosting the games provides the city with an excuse to secure the prime lakefront property. The plans for Michael Reese set the stage for a land grab that will push out low-income residents and seniors in the area. The city plans on building over 7,000 units of housing at the site -- regardless of whether we win the bid for the games -- sending local property taxes and rents skyrocketing. With all that’s at stake, we know that it will take a broad and deep coalition to move our efforts forward -- to ensure that South Side communities not only survive in the coming years, but thrive.

Members of CEO 2016 have been intensively organizing and strategizing around the core platform of our campaign, which stipulates that affordable housing, living wage jobs and workers’ rights, transportation, public subsidy accountability, public space, education and public safety are among the issues that the city and Chicago 2016 need to address. To effectively do this, the community must be at the table. In a true mixed-income community, the institutions that impact our quality of life must be a high level of efficiency for all residents, regardless of race or economic status. As a society, we have failed at this.

In the last few weeks, over 500 community residents organized by CEO 2016 have come out in support of a process that incorporates the voices of the communities that will be directly impacted by the games. And that number is growing, as grassroots leaders insist on a seat at the table. Chicago cannot develop billion-dollar plans for the South and West Sides without any real community input.

So, in the Mid-South community that has experienced 12 school closings since 1997 and is being rapidly gentrified, the Olympics should not be used as a tool to complete the process of removing working and low-income families from the neighborhood. In essence, the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid is about the future of African-American and Latino families on the South Side of Chicago who are in jeopardy of being swept out as Chicago expands the Loop south.
Every Chicagoan should benefit from the Olympics, not just a privileged few.
Travis is executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Doherty is chair of Grassroots Collaborative.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Illinois Editorial Forum.

By F. Scott McCown

When a child isn’t safe living with a parent because of abuse or neglect, Child Protective Services tries to find a loving relative to take the child. When there is no appropriate relative, CPS asks foster parents to care for the child, but foster care is always supposed to be temporary.

Even the best foster homes are seldom the ideal place to grow up. Even more seldom do they serve as a lifelong family. After all, over the course of their work, one set of foster parents may provide temporary refuge to hundreds of children, and they can’t all come back for Christmas!

For a growing number of children, however, foster care becomes permanent by default, with children drifting in foster care until they “age out.” Once they turn 18, the state sends them into life on their own, too often with no place to live and no one to care. As a judge hearing foster-care cases, I saw this all too often.

I was recently reminded of the importance of finding lifelong homes for children by an e-mail from a former foster child on my docket. She is now grown with a family of her own. She wrote me along with all of the other contacts in her e-mail address book to let us know that she had evacuated from Hurricane Ike to her mother’s house – a mom who adopted her out of foster care. She was doing fine.

Children who age out of foster care, however, have no such safe harbor from the storms of life. In 2006, more than 26,000 children aged out of foster care, a 53 percent increase since the federal government began collecting data in 1998.

We need to reduce this number by increasing the number of children who are adopted. The Adoption Incentive Program, created by Congress in 1997, is an important source of federal support for adoption. The program provides funding for social workers to recruit more adoptive homes for foster youth and to move children more quickly through the adoption process.

Between 1998 and 2006, this bipartisan program helped states move nearly 450,000 children from foster care to permanent families. But this highly successful program will expire on September 30, 2008, unless Congress acts.

Yes, there is a cost to the program, but there is a much higher cost to not renewing the program. Without the program, more children will grow up in long-term foster care, less prepared to make a positive contribution to society. With no family to support their transition to adulthood, many of these vulnerable youth will fall prey to homelessness, crime, and poverty, and we will pay the social costs.

With the program, more children will grow up in permanent adoptive homes, better prepared to make a positive contribution to society. With family to support their transition to adulthood, they will get jobs, buy homes, and pay taxes. Their long-term contribution will more than pay us back.

Congress has just passed the bipartisan Fostering Connections to Success Act which is awaiting the President’s approval. The Act renews the Adoption Incentive Program and provides more resources to move more children into permanent families.

Many children have been waiting in foster care for a permanent home right now for a long time. These children should not have to wait any longer.

McCown is a retired Texas district judge and director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, home to the Texas KIDS COUNT Project
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Art Drives the Vote in Missouri


By Sue McCollum

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a giant squid?

When you look up in the sky while driving Missouri’s highways during the next few weeks, don’t be surprised if you see something unusual. You won’t catch a glimpse of Superman, but you may encounter a giant squid brandishing gas pump nozzles like a six shooter, Captain America or a field of sunflowers--all super-sized images with one central message: to encourage Missourians to register and vote in this November’s election.

Featuring the work of eight contemporary artists, 70 billboards with the language, “Vote: Your Future Depends On It” and, began appearing across Missouri in the beginning of September. Look for the billboards on major highways across the state and in urban areas like Kansas City, Springfield, Cape Girardeau, Hannibal, St. Louis, Kirksville and Columbia. The billboards are sponsored by Art the Vote, an initiative of the Missouri Billboard Project, which is using art to inspire voter registration and voting in this November’s election.

The billboard images, sometimes subtle, sometimes provocative, reflect the artists’ thoughts on many of the key issues facing our state and nation, including fuel prices, the environment and the war. The billboards were created by seven nationally renowned artists and the winner of an Art the Vote online billboard competition. Four of the artists are Missourians--Tom Huck, Peregrine Honig, May Tveit and competition winner Karen Kay. The other artists, Annette Lemieux, Willie Cole, Mark Newport and Martha Rosler are known for their political artwork.

Like all art, the images on the billboards may receive mixed reviews. Some may like it. Some may not. But, whether you like the art or not, we all can agree on the importance of the billboard’s message and the artists’ desire to inspire young voters to register and vote this fall.

In many respects, young voters have the most at stake in an election because they will live the longest with the consequences of any particular administration’s decisions. Yet, as an age-based voting bloc, they don’t act like it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2006 election, only 22 percent of eligible voters, ages 18 to 24, voted. That means more than 75 percent of eligible young voters didn’t vote. Despite having the most to gain or lose, these young voters chose not to participate. By contrast, 63 percent of adults 55 and older voted in 2006.

In the 2004 presidential election, 72 percent of the eligible voters 55 or older voted. Though young voters visited the polls in this contest more than in 2006, their participation paled in comparison to other age-based voting blocs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 47 percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 years went to the polls in 2004.

One of the main reasons for the difference in voting rates stems from weak voter registration. Fewer young voters register. Only 58 percent of eligible young voters registered in 2004; whereas 79 percent of citizens aged 55 and older registered. The two greatest reasons eligible young voters cited for not registering: a lack of interest in the election or involvement in politics and missing the registration deadline.

The goal of Art the Vote is to make this fall’s election interesting to young people and to make voting fashionable, hip, the thing to do. If eight artists can engage young Missourians and inspire their interest in this election, Art the Vote will have successfully used art as a gateway to political involvement and voting. In addition to the billboards, Art the Vote is coordinating voter registration activities at arts and cultural events throughout the state this fall.

The next time a giant squid grabs your attention, remember that October 8 is the last day to register to vote in Missouri before the November 4 election. Register and vote: our future depends on it.
McCollum is a co-founder of Art the Vote, an initiative of the Missouri Billboard Project, a nonpartisan effort organized to encourage potential voters to vote by supporting the creation of art that draws attention to public policy issues. To see all billboard artwork and for more information on Art the Vote go to
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 9/08