Grants/Enhancing Civic Engagement in Rural Minnesota

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Enhancing Civic Engagement in Rural Minnesota

Applicants: League of Rural Voters, Main Street Project, New America Foundation Media Policy Initiative
Affiliation: League of Rural Voters, Main Street Project, New America Foundation Media Policy Initiative
CC affiliated? No
Contact: Niel Ritchie, Steven Renderos, Tom Glaisyer
Coordinator: Niel Ritchie, Steven Renderos
Project Start: 2010/08/01
Project End: 2011/01/01,,
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Describe the project you are proposing as clearly as possible in just five sentences.

While raw voter information is available online, it is unprocessed and is often overlooked by civic engagement groups as viable data to share with constituents. Additionally, while a handful of Minnesota C3 and C4 groups have converted the data to be more human readable, the information is then considered proprietary by each individual organization; segmenting the information and narrowing points of access for smaller non-partisan, non-profit organizations. We propose exploring the possibility of creating and applying CC-licenses to a comprehensive C3 database maintained by a partnership between the League of Rural Voters and the Main Street Project organizations. The goal will be achieved in two phases. The first phase, which will rely on potential awards received from the CC grant, will focus on research, coordination and planning of the project. The end product will include a formal recommendation on best practices for executing the development of this CC-licensed database. This also includes detailed findings on the rules of governing access to voter information, barriers to use and an assessment of capacity and interest in using voter files among groups. Phase two will focus on the implementation and maintenance of the recommendations.

Detail the tangible project output (e.g., paper, blog post, written materials, video/film, etc.; this would be in addition to the final written report that successful grant recipients will be expected to deliver to CC at the conclusion of the project).

The final product of phase one will include a detailed report on the rules governing access to voter information specific to Minnesota, a look at barriers to access and use, an assessment of capacity and interest in using voter files among groups working with under-served communities. In addition, the research will include a review for the appropriate CC-license to be used. By conducting this research and providing a recommendation, we hope to encourage C3 & C4 organizations to rethink the rules of engagement with smaller non-partisan, non-profit organizations in their policy work, campaigns, as as organizing voter education and outreach.

Describe the community you are targeting. How would the project benefit the community?

Some would argue that charitable 501(c)(3) organizations are the “sleeping giants” of the democratic process. These community organizations have credibility, trust, and access to potential voters who are often disengaged from the electoral process. As such, they can be the catalyst for a dramatic increase in voter participation through legal, permissible, nonpartisan voter engagement activities-- voter registration, voter education, and voter mobilization. In elections since 2000, Minnesota has led the country with the highest turnout of the voting eligible population. In 2004, Minnesota led the country in turnout, with 77% of eligible voters turning out compared to 60% in the nation as a whole. Yet, even as MN leads the nation in overall turnout, those most marginalized--communities of color, immigrants, the elderly and those that are low-income--continue to have a voter turnout that is lower than for the general population. The majority of voters tend to be higher income, older and more partisan.

In order to increase voter participation among marginalized constituents – whose needs are often the most urgent – Main Street Project would like to partner with NAF, LRV and CC to develop a database program to increase voter participation. As stated above, access to a more user friendly version of the data can become expensive and/or difficult to access due to copyright restrictions. Therefore, calling upon the resources of the League of Rural Voters, we propose to open up the information by creating a central repository for synthesized voter />

What is your relationship with the community you are targeting? Why are you the best individual/organization to lead this project? Do you have prior experience in related projects?

At Main Street Project, we've learned that when community members focus on their strengths, they increase their capacity for problem solving. It's a long-term, movement building approach that supports change from the inside out. In the communities we work with, we build relationships and networks, work hand-in-hand with local organizations, support and train current and future leaders, and use culturally competent and linguistically accessible tools. Our goal is to create a culture of civic participation -- giving residents of all ages, cultures, economic and immigration status the opportunity to more fully participate in all aspects of community life. Over the past six years, we have developed significant, ongoing relationships with leaders in low income communities and communities of color in both rural and urban settings. Our recent Census outreach and education campaign trained dozens of outreach organizers and resulted in the distribution of some 35,000 copies of a multilingual "Guide to the 2010 Census" helping reassure immigrant communities that participation was important for the well-being of their communities and generating the second highest mail-in response in the country.

The League of Rural Voters has a 24 year history of working with rural communities to make the link between public policy and civic particiption. Our work with the national civic engagement coalitions has given us an understanding of the potential for increasing civic participation by allowing grassroots organizations to have access to voter file information and incorporating that into a targeted outreach plan. Our members are accustomed to receiving information and requests for taking action on issues and are often involved in non-partisan election activities.

NAF's Media Policy Initiative is a Knight Foundation-funded project examining the information needs in communities, which this project complements through the expansion of open government policies. Its staff and fellows possess significant knowledge of technology and intellectual property issues relevant to this project. Coordination of this project with similar projects in other states will enhance their scalability and broader impact.

How will you measure and evaluate your project’s impact - on your main participants? Other contributors? On the larger community?

One measure of impact will be the extent to which under served communities are engaged in dialogue about overcoming barriers to civic participation. Contributors will gain a wider perspective on the challenges and opportunities in expanding the use of CC licenses in civic life and the opportunity for collaboration in participatory research.

For the larger community this project will have achieved impact if there is an increased volume of citizen engagement with state-level government initiatives. In addition, with the implementation of CC licenses, we can monitor usage rates and determine the type of information most used by the community. Lastly, this project - if successful - can be be used as a model for other state-level initiatives to engage with under-served communities.

How many participants do you expect to be involved in your project? How will you seek and sustain their involvement?

The League of Rural Voter (LRV) participates in state and national coalitions with other C4 and C3 organizations as part of its effort to generate rural citizen interest in civic life. The League has community based leaders in dozens of rural Minnesota counties that regularly work with elections officials and carry out programs to increase turnout in elections. They also have experience working with voter files and third party vendors of information in organizing campaigns and understand the third party systems currently in place that both facilitate and limit access. Most importantly, the LRV has the capacity to facilitate the creation and implementation of the database in phase two.

MSP's media justice program director Steven Renderos has extensive experience with grassroots organizing and training in traditionally under-served communities. Our relationship-based approach links us to a significant statewide network that can help with project research and implementation. MSP will reach out to its 4-6 partner organizations that currently do not have access to and do not incorporate voter file information in their planning and work.

NAF's Media Policy Initiative will advise on questions related to open government policies and community engagement, as needed.

Describe how your project will benefit Creative Commons' mission to increase the amount of creativity (cultural, educational, and scientific content) in "the commons".

This project would explore the expansion of CC licensing of intellectual property produced by state government. Given that federal law entitles states to copyright protection, there is a need for clarity to affirm the right of the public to access, share and build upon public information produced by the states. By exploring the potential of CC licensing as applied to voter information, this project will advance the movement toward state-level open government through progressive intellectual property policy.

Describe what technologies and tools your project will use. What kinds of technical skills and expertise do you bring to the project? What are your technical needs?

Technologies and tools needed to accomplish this project include (but are not limited to the following):

  • Database management knowledge
  • CC-license consultation
  • Initial promotional initiatives to flag the availability of the information
  • Research and monitoring of the project's progress
  • The New America Foundation has extensive policy and technology expertise and will provide support as needed

What challenges do you expect to face, and how do you plan to overcome them?

Access to voter information has been historically restricted in ways that vary from state to state. Recently, privacy concerns with some identifying drivers license information has caused the state to be even more restrictive on access to the data. This is a fundamental policy question that needs to be lifted up and examined in Minnesota and elsewhere. For underserved populations and their advocates, paying for access is a fundamental barrier: a democracy divide of sorts.

Convincing underserved communities and organizations with few assets that investing in the use of a voter file is one challenge. Working around third party vendors who add value and resell the data after adding on layers of complexity with census and economic data. We need to provide voter file training and support to participants.

Incumbent elected officials have the potential to help or hinder. Our experience has been that those already in office are less enthusiastic about expanding the electorate than challengers. We need to explain the program to our partners and work to share information/data with other civic engagement coalitions.

How do you plan to sustain your project after the Creative Commons funding has ended? Detail specific plans. How do you plan to raise revenue to continue your efforts in the future?

Additional funding will for phase one will not be necessary beyond the initial reward as it is purely a discovery period of research. The development, implementation and maintenance outlined in phase II will require additional funding which will be determined at a later date.

How can this project be scalable, or have a scalable impact?

This project can be replicated by local advocacy groups in promoting civic engagement and open government initiatives on the local and state levels.

What resources and support do you expect Creative Commons to provide to your project to ensure its success (if any)?

This project would require little support from Creative Commons, aside from some limited consultation.

Describe how your organization currently communicates with its community members and network partners. (100 words)

The League of Rural Voters communicates 3400 Minnesota households (18,000 nationwide) via electronic newsletter. Likewise we use newsletters to communicate with the dozens of groups we partner with on an issue by issue basis. We also communicate with the public at large using earned media strategies; op-eds, letters to the editor and feature stories in non-metropolitan newspapers and on rural radio. We are new to Twitter but are slowly developing a presence there.

Main Street Project communicates monthly with over 3000 Minnesota supporters via newsletter, Facebook and Twitter.

The Media Policy Initiative (MPI) group of the New America Foundation consistently promotes community engagement by hosting & attending numerous events, webcasts and maintaining a strong social media presence. The New America Foundation and MPI are dedicated to exploring the most current and effective ideas to promote a healthy democratic environment.