Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education Fund (Human SERVE)

Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education Fund (Human SERVE)


* Founded by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven
* Was active from 1983 to 2000
* Sought to register voters at social-service agencies and Departments of Motor Vehicles
* Played a key role in the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more commonly known as the “Motor Voter Bill”

The Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education Fund (Human SERVE) was formed as a nonprofit organization in 1983 by Columbia University sociologists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, who were best known for outlining the so-called Cloward-Piven Strategy that promotes political and social upheaval by means of orchestrated crisis. In its earliest days, SERVE did not rely on conventional door-to-door canvassing, or even on the more effective method of registering people in food-stamp and unemployment lines (a practice which Project Vote had pioneered). Rather, SERVE directly lobbied government officials to enact laws and regulations requiring public employees, in the course of their work, to offer to register people who were applying for services at various government agencies. This effort realized its grandest ambition on May 20, 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) — commonly called the “Motor Voter Act” — which ordered every U.S. state to provide resources enabling citizens to become registered voters at state agencies while they applied for drivers’ licenses, welfare assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, and disability benefits. SERVE’s co-founders, Cloward and Piven, proudly stood behind President Clinton at the bill-signing ceremony.

When the Motor Voter Act officially took effect in January 1995, SERVE played a leading role in efforts to facilitate the law’s implementation by state officials, particularly in social-service agencie. The focus on registering people who depended on safety-net programs was crucial to SERVE’s strategy, given that such individuals were highly likely to vote Democrat. Though Motor Voter explicitly required each state to keep its voter-registration rolls accurate and current, in practice the rolls became contaminated with many names of people who were either fictitious or legally ineligible to vote (because they had been convicted of a disqualifying crime, had been adjudged mentally incapacitated, had moved to another state, or had died). Such errors were common because, under Motor Voter’s provisions:

  • when voters registered in person at a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or a Social Services office, the government workers handling their cases were not permitted to challenge their applications;
  • when people registered by mail, they were not required to provide any form of identification; and
  • it was logistically difficult to purge “dead wood” (ineligible) voters in a timely fashion.

All of these factors greatly increased the potential for, and the incidence of, election-related fraud.

Over time, SERVE volunteers began to complement the efforts of Motor Voter by personally canvassing the waiting rooms of DMVs and social-welfare agencies, seeking to personally register as many new voters as possible. To help motivate potential registrants, the SERVE representatives emphasized how vital it was for Americans to cast their ballots against politicians who might have been inclined to cut food-stamp or welfare benefits for the poor. In its March 1996 “National Plan of Action,” for instance, SERVE warned that America was waging “a war on children” and “a war on women,” and exhorted welfare advocates to “inform clients [i.e, potential registered voters] that government is slashing the services and benefits they and their children receive.” SERVE itself estimated that such agency-based initiatives ultimately led to the registration of approximately a million new voters.

Working on a state-by-state basis, SERVE was also instrumental in promoting the passage of six gubernatorial orders encouraging voter registration in state social-welfare agencies.

Having achieved their goal of transforming the American voter-registration system, Cloward and Piven dissolved SERVE in June 2000, leaving to ACORN and Project Vote the task of continuing to promote the provisions of Motor Voter.

For additional information on Human SERVE, click here.

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