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The New 'Raise Your Vote': OFA's Design to Turn Out Mid-Term Voters

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, June 17 2010

Raise Your Vote is the new voter registration and voting information project just launched by the Democratic National Committee's Organizing for America team.

Raise Your Vote, a new website launched by Organizing for America this morning, does not look like much. Therein lies the accomplishment.

Organizing for America has taken as its mission of doing away with as many design barriers as humanly possible between new voters and their casting ballots, within the context, of course, of the 15 million new voters who turned out in 2008 and helped make Barack Obama president. The brand-new voter registration and election information site part of what will be, according to the Democratic National Committee, a $50 million drive to turn out inexperienced voters for the 2010 mid-term elections. DNC Technical Director Josh Hendler describes RaiseYourVote.com as "drop dead simple." But it's deceptively so. Elections in the United States are a hodgepodge, with dates, requirements, and restrictions varying from state to state. The design challenge is to not let that mess scare away potential supporters -- particularly in mid-terms that Organizing for America Executive Director Mitch Stewart describes, on a call, as "a challenging year."

Organizing for America takes the Ikea route in giving new voters as simple directions as possible on how to complete the voter registration process.

Spot-on election information served up in a usable form is, says DNC New Media Director Natalie Foster, a "non-trivial thing to put together." Raise Your Vote is designed to automatically recognize which state you're coming to it from (based on your IP address) and then tee up only the information and services relevant to you: a streamlined voter registration form and minimalist instructions on how to mail it it, information on when your voter registration form must be postmarked and what you need to bring to the polls, so on and so forth.

The full extent of the voter registration form on Organizing for America's new Raise Your Vote site.

Hidden from the new and newish voter on Raise Your Vote is the complexity of election laws in the United States. Those laws make it, for example, so that car registration is valid proof of identity in New Jersey by not New York, excuses required to early vote in Arkansas by not over the border in Oklahoma, and voting rights are restored after a felony sentence automatically in Missouri but only upon petition in Alabama. There's also state-by-state details on how students can go about voting. (Worth keeping in mind is that two full classes worth of college-age kids have become voter eligible since the 2008 election.)

It would be nice to see better integration of information for military and overseas voters on the site. For now, those folks are funneled onto VotefromAbroad.org. And there's no local polling place information on the site yet; beyond being an even bigger mess than election laws, some states, say the DNC, haven't finalized polling place data for 2010.

But the prize available to Organizing for America here is doing something to stem the traditional drop off of voters from presidential elections. The numbers that the DNC is working with here note that turnout among white registered voters fell from 66% during the 2004 presidential race to 44% for the mid-terms two years later. For African American voters, the drop off is from 65% to 37%, and for Latino voters, from 61% to 35%. The DNC wants to bring inexperienced people to the polls while shoring up the turnout of the Democratic base. "The premise of all this," says DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan, "is that when we expand the pool of voters, we do better."

The Raise Your Vote site and organizing push is part of the DNC's previously announced Vote 2010 campaign. Foster describes the online component as an effort to "lift all boats" -- or, at least, all Democratic ones -- by using DNC resources to build things in-house that can be used by state Democratic parties, Democratic campaigns, and other allies.

Here, the Organizing for America is, by intention, taken on as its own responsibility what in past elections might have fallen onto others, including labor and outside 537 groups, like John Kerry's heavy lean the Get Out the Vote group America Coming Together in 2004. Coming soon, says OFA, is a widget version of the site that will allow local parties, candidates, or anyone, really, to embed components of Raise Your Vote on their own website. A Spanish-language version is coming in four to six weeks, says Foster. And an API that will let developers brand the Raise Your Vote registration tools is coming soon, says Hendler, the first API to roll out through the Democratic Party's new Open.Dems.

That the Democratic National Committee is capable of doing the registration and organization work of 2010 internally is, in part, a result of the somewhat controversial decision to evolve the Obama for America campaign into Organizing for America under the auspices of the DNC itself.

Foster heads up a new media team of a few dozen designers, programmers, email writers, analysts, and online strategists that occupy a sizable bullpen on a floor of Democratic National Committee headquarters. The online voter information and registration push builds on what was done during the Obama campaign; familiar to close watchers of Obama '08 will be targeted outreach through social networks like BlackPlanet.com and the Latino social network MiGente.com, as well as Twitter and Facebook. Outreach will also take place through Yelp and DailyCandy -- the latter, says OFA National Press Secretary Lynda Tran, appealing to "young, urban, unmarried" types.

Simple on its face, yest, but Raise Your Vote is part of a one-two punch on the part of Organizing for America and the Democratic National Committee. The first, of course, is using technology to get useful voters registered and to the polls. Other groups, notably Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, have done similar work in the past, though OFA has demonstrated a quiet competence in pulling together those efforts in this graceful a package.

Local Organizing for America organizers, in a Democratic National Committee photo.

The second punch, though, is applying some of that Obama '08 organizing magic to the new and newish voters who flow through the site. "After we have that information," says Stewart when asked, "we're going to treat them like any first time voter." A 'chase program' includes following up with people who filled out a registration form on the site to make sure that they actually folded, stamped, and mailed their papers. (The Republican National Committee hasn't rolled out any comparable voter registration or information project.) And registering to vote includes the option of signing up to stay in contact with the DNC and OFA.

As DNC takes pains to point out, Raise Your Vote is offline as much as online. That broader campaign includes on-the-ground organizing -- including in states that didn't get some of the focused attention of places that were strategically important in 2008 -- building off of hundreds of paid organizers and the precinct captain model that got much attention during the presidential campaign. OFA is keen on doing "hot spot" voter registration efforts in beauty salons, college campuses, and elsewhere where an open laptop can make it trivial to get potential voters quickly registered and informed.

"No one at the DNC thinks that Vote 2010 is a panacea," says Sevugan. "But in races that are going to be close, GOTV and voter registration efforts can be the margins."

Politico's Mike Allen has more.

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