Thursday, July 8, 2004

Self-organized Voter Registration drives, homespun political activism

The date is July 8, 2004. We are in the middle of the 2004 national elections which, among other issues, will choose the next President of the United States. As stated elsewhere on this site, there should be no surprise as to who I'm planning to vote for. I'm going to hold my nose and vote for the most likely to win over Bush, even if that person may not be the best choice overall. (I would prefer to have Wesley Clarke, since his role as Chairman of a company that makes electric vehicles clearly was a "put his money where his mouth is" kind of decision, but Kerry will just have to "do")

In late June 2004 Michael Moore's movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, was released, and I was among those who saw this movie the first day. While at the theater my friends and I came across a flyer calling for action, organized by MoveOn.org. They were promoting an on-line nationwide "town hall" meeting with Michael Moore. At the town hall the participants were persuaded to join in two types of activites, voter registration drives in their local area, and voter registration drives targeting the "swing states".

As a result, my fiancee and I decided to self-organize a voter registration drive at a local movie theater for the following weekend. Obviously people coming out of Fahrenheit 9/11 would likely be hot-to-trot just as we were, and ready to do something, such as finally register to vote (grin).

Let me tell you, before last weekend I had believed that "voter registration" could only be conducted by experts, or would require some special licensing, or in some be done only by a select few people. Little did I think it would be so easy as this:

  • Drop by the DMV office.
  • Grab some forms.
  • Go somewhere public.
  • Hand out the forms.

That's it. That's all there is to conducting a voter registration drive.

How's that for some simply organized, and simply conducted, democratic activism? What could be simpler? Well, unfortunately there were one or two gotcha's, but it really is essentially that simple.

Gotcha #1: Read the instructions on the form carefully. You are undertaking some legal activities, and there are a few requirements. For example, if you are simply handing out forms then there's no requirement you are under beyond handing out the forms. However, if someone is filling out the forms and handing them to you, there is a receipt at the bottom of the form which they are supposed to keep. The California forms we handed out had every piece of information and requirement (and then some) you might want to know, so read carefully.

Gotcha #2: Are you on public property or private? Remember we decided to go to a movie theater? For this activity to be most useful, your best location to be at is near the doors to the theater, because that's where the people will be congregating. But the theater in question had a parking lot (their property) completely surrounding the sidewalk (their property) leading to the front doors (their property), so everything in sight was their property. While the U.S. constitution protects freedom of speech and the right to assemble, the rights of a property owner generally over-rule the right of someone to come onto that property to exercise their free speech rights.

While standing in front of the movie theater, getting a lot of positive feedback from the patrons, we were approached by the theater's manager. Seems they have a policy around the exercise of free speech, since it is private property. What they wanted was for us to register with their main office before we could do our little voter registration drive in front of the theater, and the registration process would take five days.

In other words, as I said in gotcha#2, private property is controlled by the property owner. While it's of value to recognize the rights of property owners as to the use of their land, it's worrisome for the practice of free speach. Consider that more and more of the "public" spaces are actually privately owned. Where in the past shopping was done "downtown" with the majority of the space there being publicly owned, today the bulk of shopping is done in various kinds of shopping centers, and everything in sight is privately owned. As more and more of the space is privately owned, what happens to our rights to free speech? If the property owner can control when we have free speech, where we have free speech, and the content of our free speech, then is it really free speech?

We learned the next day the picture isn't quite as bleak as all that. The next day we went to the local farmers market, stood on the public sidewalk as people went in and out, and handed out voter registration forms. While there we met some official operatives of the local Democratic Party who were operating the official Democratic Party booth a little ways down the sidewalk from us. What we learned is a magic word:

"The Pruneyard Decision" (google search), and @ findlaw

Basically what this decision means is that for private property that functions as a public gathering place, that free speech is allowed in such spaces. Which means that gotcha#2 is greatly eased, so long as you understand the rights the Pruneyard Decision gives you.