Poster Paper: Advocacy for the Powerless: Nonprofits and the Policy Representation of Non-Voters

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Exhibit Hall C - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kirsten Widner, Emory University

Advocacy organizations provide important policy representation for the nearly one-third of the population of the U.S. that lacks the legal ability to vote. However, existing scholarship on the mobilization and political participation of groups fails to consider organizations advocating on behalf of disenfranchised groups as “representative;" rather, it considers such organizations to be engaged in issue advocacy (Grossmann 2012) or working for a collective good, such as a more just society (Schattschneider 1975, Berry 1977). Although these characterizations are not wholly incorrect, they obscure the fact that there are social groups who are directly affected by the policies these organizations seek, and for whom there are few other avenues of political action. Moreover, it obscures the fact that these organizations and the policy makers who look to them for expertise view their work as representing the interests of those disenfranchised groups. This project highlights the limitations of the existing literature that emerge when these organizations are reframed as representatives of groups that lack the political power, resources, or ability to mobilize to promote their own interests.

The characteristics of the groups that are currently legally unable to vote in the United States -- children, non-citizens, and those disenfranchised due to felony convictions or mentally disability -- create unique challenges for the advocacy organizations that represent these groups in the policy making process. This project uses the results of a new, original survey of over 2,000 nonprofit advocacy organizations that represent a wide range of social groups to test the hypothesis that differences in their constituent populations lead organizations that advocate on behalf of groups on non-voters to rely more heavily on certain advocacy tactics, particularly litigation and administrative advocacy, than organizations who advocate on behalf of other populations. Further, building on Schneider and Ingram’s (1993) theory of the social construction of target populations, the project uses the survey data to explore differences in policy advocacy tactics between organizations representing different groups of non-voters, some of which (for instance children) have more positive social constructions than others (for instance people with felony convictions).