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A self-identified member of “the progressive civic engagement community,” the Voter Participation Center (VPC) is “dedicated to increasing the participation and amplifying the voices of unmarried women ... and other historically underrepresented groups in our democracy.” Those other groups—18-to-29-year-olds and “people of color” (African Americans and Hispanics)—constitute, along with single women, what VPC terms the “Rising American Electorate” (RAE); i.e., “the fastest growing demographic group in America, accounting for 81 percent of population growth between 2000 and 2010.” Most significantly, constituents of these groups register and turn out to vote in political elections at disproportionately low rates. In 2010 they were 53% of the voting-eligible population but only 42% of those who actually cast their ballots. VPC is committed to registering and mobilizing these people to vote in the future.
Though VPC describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization,” its overriding objective is to increase electoral support for Democrats. Each of its target groups has traditionally been a reliable supporter of the Democratic Party. According to an October 2010 VPC study, for instance, unmarried women favor Democratic candidates by a 67%-to-28% margin—in contrast to married women, who lean 52%-to-40% in favor of Republicans. Similarly, 86% of African Americans and 64% of Hispanics identify themselves as Democrats. And in 2008, fully 66% of voters under age 30 supported Barack Obama.
VPC was originally known as “Women’s Voices, Women Vote” (WVWV), and started out as a project of the Tides Center in 2003; two years later, it incorporated as a stand-alone entity. The name was formally changed in 2011 to reflect the fact that the organization had expanded its focus beyond unmarried women, to include the entire RAE.
To improve its methods of increasing RAE voter participation, VPC uses controlled clinical trials to determine which tactics are most effective. Further, the Center conducts research on “the public policy needs” (regarding such issues as healthcare, childcare, and economic security) of the RAE population, with the intent of using this information to persuade RAE voters to support the candidates (i.e., Democrats) who can most effectively address those concerns. VPC carries out this research in partnership with think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and the National Women’s Law Center; other civic-engagement and voter-education organizations including the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund; public-opinion experts such as Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research (GQRR) and Lake Research Partners (LRP); and academics.
VPC opposes voter-identification requirements (e.g., photo ID at the polls) on grounds that they make voting “more complicated and difficult, especially for the RAE, who are not traditionally engaged in the public or political debate.” To buttress its claim that such requirements have a disproportionate effect on single women, nonwhite minorities, and young people, VPC cites research conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice.
VPC's Vote-By-Mail campaign promotes the increased use of absentee voting by means of mailed ballots. Critics such as the Heritage Foundation, however, point out that such arrangements are highly susceptible to fraud. During each election cycle, VPC mails millions of voter-registration applications and vote-by-mail applications to unregistered single women, blacks and Hispanics, and young adults in selected states. In preparation for the November 2012 elections, the Center specifically set a goal of making 30 million contacts (via mailings and other approaches) with RAE citizens and generating 1 million returned voter-registration applications (slightly more than VPC’s 2008 total) as well as 250,000 applications for vote-by-mail ballots.
One of VPC's partcularly effective get-out-the-vote initiatives is its Promise Program, which starts with a live phone call to a targeted RAE voter, asking if he (or she) intends to vote in the coming election. Once the person commits to voting, he is told to expect, as the election draws near, a letter in the mail not only reminding him of his commitment, but also informing him that VPC will later check to see whether or not he actually did cast his ballot (which is a matter of public record). Moreover, the voter receives an automated reminder phone call at some point shortly before election day. This program was first used in the Kentucky governor’s election of 2007, with impressive results.
In July 2012, it was reported that in Colorado, Florida, Virginia, and Wisconsin—all states that were expected to be hotly contested in the upcoming November presidential election—VPC had mailed many voter-registration forms addressed not only to individuals who were already registered, but also to deceased people, children, felons who were ineligible to vote, and even pets. When the forms arrived at their respective destinations, they (illegally) contained some personal information that had already been filled in, and they instructed the recipients to return the forms to the State Board of Elections via Business Reply Mail. VPC's actions led to many hundreds of complaints by voters in Virginia alone, and prompted the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Mitt Romney to call for a criminal investigation in that state.
A number of national partners collaborate with VPC in its effort to increase voter-participation among the RAE. These partners include the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, MoveOn.org, the NAACP, Project Vote, and the US Action Education Fund.
Both Catalist and the New Organizing Institute have praised VPC for its effectiveness in registering and mobilizing voters.
The president (and founder) of VPC is longtime Democratic Party operative Page Gardner, who from 1996-2012 gave a total of $47,348 to Democrat political candidates and pro-Democrat activist groups. Among the recipients of her donations were Barbara Boxer, Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Barbara Mikulski, Elizabeth Warren, EMILY's List, and Voices for Progress.
A key member of VPC's board is John Podesta, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton (and subsequently affiliated with the Center for American Progress).