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'Good Government' Groups

Local nonprofit organizations take different approaches to election endorsements

By Margo Pierce · October 15th, 2008 · News

Election Day approaches, and Tristate residents once again have multi-page ballots to consider. Who has time to fully research every issue and candidate, especially when ballots are getting longer, not shorter?

A lot of nonprofit organizations do. Utilizing the passion and commitment of volunteer members and limited staff, they often choose up sides and shout at the top of their voices, releasing formal endorsements on candidates and ballot issues in an effort to educate and sway voters.

Other organizations decide to hold off on the “swaying” part, knowing that 501c(3) organizations are prohibited from making endorsements under the penalty of losing their tax status. They’re still interested in the education role.

“We really want people to take the watch-dog stuff we do seriously and not see it as I’m trying to advance a … candidate,” says Catherine Turcer, director of the Ohio Citizen Action’s (OCA) “$ in Politics” program. “If I’m spending all my time talking about the rules of democracy and examining campaign contributions and pushing for open government … then everything we do would be seen through that: ‘They’re just doing this to advance either the Democratic or Republican Party.’ We are nonpartisan. This is not a left or right issue. It’s just good government.”

Ten years ago OCA (www.ohiocitizen.org/money) did endorse candidates, volunteered for them and were “very successful” at getting their person elected, Turcer says. The problem was holding that elected official accountable.

Good Neighbor Campaigns, which make up the bulk of OCA’s work, attempt to build partnerships between polluting companies and community residents to bring about meaningful and long-lasting environmental improvements (see “Strange Bedfellows,” issue of Sept. 10). Those issues, Turcer says, cross party lines.

“When we did endorse, people were annoyed,” she says. “It has to do with people who work on pushing a local polluter. You’re asking a company to be a good neighbor and this is not a left or right issue, this is about people breathing and their kids growing up healthy and strong. They’re both Democrats and Republicans.”

The “$ in Politics” program is all about holding elected officials and government accountable, but not exclusively regarding environmental issues.

“Let’s work for things that really work to change the system,” Turcer says. “In the past 10 years we decided we need to think about open records and open government and ethics in government, how lobbyist behavior affects things. How about basic election administration? It’s a project that is about the entire system working the best it can.”

Working for an effective, functional system of government is precisely why the Women’s City Club (WCC, www.womanscityclub.org) endorses issues. Originally founded as the Women’s Civic Housekeeping Club in 1915, the group formed because “a lot of the responsibilities from the home were being transferred to government,” according to Linda Wihl, the group’s office manager. Women wanted to keep an eye on and a voice in how government was performing.

“We have almost 100 years of passionately caring about how things are done in the city,” Wihl says. “We have a very active membership of a couple hundred women, and they’re talking about things that are going on in the city and state.

“There’s suite knowledge and there’s street knowledge …(and) a lot of people making the decision are from the suites and are not necessarily aware of what’s happening on the streets.

Women’s City Club has both of these. We’re very aware of what’s going on in the streets, but we’re also aware of what’s going on in the suites, so we can move from the micro to the macro very easily and really help both groups have an awareness of one another and how to get things done in the city.”

As issues arise in a specific election, the WCC board will compare those against their “Core Values” and decide to support, oppose or take no action. Unlike other membership organizations that have everyone vote on every position taken, Wihl says that only highly controversial issues will inspire an effort to get feedback before the board votes and announces a decision.

The WCC takes pride in its leadership role, noting on its Web site many of the well-known community organizations it helped establish: Cincinnati City Planning Commission, Hillside Trust, Better Housing League, Citizens for Civic Renewal, Citizens Active to Support Education. WCC also assisted with the establishment of the first Race Relations Committee in Cincinnati.

Visible activism is a core value that’s executed, in part, through election endorsements.

“An effective form of marketing is to have influential people behind you,” Wihl says. “That’s true whether you’re talking about a commercial project or a policy or a position. There are a lot of people who make decisions based on who is behind something or not and may not feel well enough informed themselves or have the clarity about an issue that they should, but when they know someone they respect holds that opinion that matters to them.”

Knowing the group providing the endorsement is essential. What a group receives as a benefit for an endorsement is essential to knowing the credibility of the information provided.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) doesn’t endorse candidates, for instance, because they value their reputation as a reliable source of information that isn’t tainted by candidate promises or advertising dollars from groups supporting candidates. The group does make endorsements on ballot issues.

“The League of Women Voters has been providing trusted, nonpartisan information to the Greater Cincinnati area since 1920, and it’s our mission to give people information they need to make informed choices and help make democracy work,” says Marjorie Davies, LWV president. “We are staunchly nonpartisan. We do not endorse candidates or parties. It goes back to our very beginning, when we decided we wanted to provide information to people make informed choices.”

LWV (www.lwvcincinnati.org) publishes the “Who and What” election guide annually to present both sides of each issue and summary information about candidates (it’s inserted in this week's print edition of CityBeat). The league’s education Web site (www.smartvoter.org) is different because LWV has two separate legal entities under one umbrella.

“There’s our education fund that never takes positions on issues, and that’s the organization that provides our voter guide,” Davies says. “Just as … newspapers try to keep their news departments separate from their editorial departments, so we keep our nonpartisan voter guide separate from the part of the league that may or may not endorse issues.”

While the education arm is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization and not allowed to make endorsements, the membership side of LWV doesn’t have that same restriction. Still, they choose to address issues only when it comes to handing out endorsements.

“We’d only develop a position over a period of a year or 18 months, after careful study and consensus building by our members,” Davies explains. “If we have a position on a particular subject and then there comes proposed legislation locally, we’ll look at that and see how it fits with our position. If it’s in agreement with our position and our study committees think the legislation is good, we may endorse that issue to our members.

“It’s a very deliberative process, it’s a very grassroots process and it doesn’t change quickly. We’re very sure that we have consensus among our members. We don’t flip-flop. It’s through long, careful study.”

That same kind of study happens nationally with the entire membership of the League of Women Voters, so taking the time to make sure members agree with an official position of the organization is serious business. Even so, those positions don’t in any way influence the efforts of the voter guide to provide fair and balanced information before an election.

“We distribute 100,000 copies of this in Greater Cincinnati, and we deliver directly to 125 locations, including the public library … because there’s such a demand for it,” Davies says. “The league has a trusted name, and that’s why we guard it so very, very carefully.”

Voters must be aware of a group’s ideals, mission and bias in offering endorsements when evaluating the value of that group’s endorsement. In the case of Cincinnati’s NAACP chapter, the meaning of “endorsement” is a little different from many groups, as the organization actively works to place issues on the ballot.

“We are a grassroots organization, and our endorsements come through our membership,” says Christopher Smitherman, NAACP president. “(They go) through our board, but most importantly it goes to our membership and they debate this issue and decide how they want to go. If we actually place an issue on the ballot, like we did on the upcoming election, our board and membership have already voted and obviously support the issues … and encourage our members to vote in the affirmative.”

Taking an issue to the voters led the NAACP to spearhead the 2007 “vote no” effort against the Hamilton County sales tax to build a new jail. The group engaged in a petition drive to give voters a say in that issue.

“The national office is very excited about the direction of us petitioning our government on issues that we feel are relevant,” Smitherman says.

In the case of the jail tax, the national NAACP already had a position opposing the prison industrial complex, so there was no conflict. The effort also had support from local members because they were out gathering signatures.

Smitherman says this year’s efforts to put “red light” cameras and proportional representation on the city ballot in November were also approved by chapter members.

“Whatever we’re doing has to ultimately help our constituents raise or better their quality of life,” Smitherman says. “The national NAACP (was) founded on voter protection and voter rights. So any time we talk about voting and organizing and getting people out to vote, that is the No. 1 priority.”

The NAACP, also a 501c(3), doesn’t endorse candidates but does issue “report cards” summarizing the voting records of a politician on public policy of interest to its members.

Whether a group offers an endorsement that furthers an issue of interest to its members that might or might not be of interest to other groups isn’t the point, according to the OAC’s Turcer. Endorsements should first be about the electoral process.

“For us it’s more than about Election Day, it’s about the whole year,” she says. “It’s not like there’s this horrible vacuum and there are no endorsements and someone needs to step up to the plate. (We hope to inspire) a good conversation about the system and the problems with the system.”



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