Associations and political advocacy: Every vote matters

By Ron Lovell

In 1782, founding father Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law.”

Those words still ring true almost 250 years later and uphold that democracy functions best when those who are affected by government policies have the ability to shape those policies at the ballot box. As an association of professionals with a focused business/legislative interest, it is important to understand the importance of member participation in the legislative process. While this is a complex issue and is unique to each association and jurisdiction, there are some emerging trends that are important to consider.

This excerpt from “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives,” by Clio Andris, David Lee, Marcus J. Hamilton, Mauro Martino, Christian E. Gunning and John Armistead Selden, outlines one:

“The United States is comprised of 435 unique Congressional districts, each with distinct physical geographies, economics, communities, cultures and political ideologies. At one time, these unique constituencies seemed to be represented by a distinct combination of ideologies from the Democratic and Republican Party. Formerly, legislators exhibited a mixture of ideals that resonated across party platforms, allowing each to forge a personal voting fingerprint that reflected the distinctive perspective of his or her unique district and constituency. Today, districts may remain as socio-economically and geographically unique as in the past, yet representatives have all but lost their personal voting records to complement their individualized constituencies.”

This is the essence of a study published in April 2015 and may be read in full here.

Additionally, a July 2014 study by researchers at Princeton and Georgetown universities – and shared here – measured this trend in “partisan divide” in all state legislatures. (You can find your state on a chart accompanying the study.) The full study outlines the effect of voter turnout on this political polarization.

It is important to realize that the political objectives of your association are probably not closely aligned with those of any political party, and the geographic boundaries of your association may span several local jurisdictions, states or even countries. Yet the success of your association’s objectives will often require entry into the political process, especially during elections.

This process, at least in the United States, is dominated by the “two-party system,” so it will take some effort to parse out the political objectives of your association distinct from those of the “parties.”

For example, in the Hampton Roads REALTORS® Association (HRRA) in Virginia, we look at how well we believe the candidate will support the business interests of REALTOR® members. Distilling those “association business interests” to a useful platform is a complex process and takes focused effort on the part of the leadership and association staff.

At HRRA, we begin from the broad statement in the REALTOR® Code of Ethics: “the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment.” Through the years, the board of directors has established “Standing Positions” summarized as:

  • Improving the affordability of housing and making it available to the widest range of potential homeowners;
  • Protection of our most valuable natural and economic resource, the Chesapeake Bay;
  • Support of fully-funded, regional-based transportation systems; and
  • Support of broad-based revenue sources for local governments to provide essential infrastructure/services, such as school construction.

The important principle here is that these statements give a focused summary of political concepts reflecting the business and professional interests of the association and that they are not aligned with a political party or political ideology. The obvious point then is to use these concepts to select the candidate most likely to support those ideas.

The second point from the research cited at the beginning of this post may not be so obvious: While the majority of Americans are politically moderate, the most polarized (by party/ideology) voters go to the polls in greater numbers, especially in primaries. The smaller the voter pool becomes, the more weight a single vote carries and the easier it becomes for an active, partisan minority to determine an election’s outcome.

Research and case studies show that when turnout is low, more-ideological extreme candidates are chosen, as explained by Paul Steenkisten in “The Effect of Voter Turnout on Political Polarization,” because the restricted voter pool allows disproportionate influence to more-ideological voters. The flip side is this: When more people vote, there will be more “middle ground” voters, so the “partisan ideology” will have less importance and the “business issues” will have more weight.

So, what does all this research mean? To best achieve the political objectives of your association, every eligible person needs to vote in every election.

Here are some simple steps for successful political action for your association:

  • Define your association’s political objectives to reflect the association’s primary business function.
  • Encourage members to register to vote, then vote at every opportunity.
  • Develop “voter registration” activities for your members. Think of it as a public service and as prospecting for business. Send everyone you worked with in the last year an email encouraging them to update their voter registration. Or, in your business location, post flyers and signs encouraging voter registration and actual voting. In Virginia, updating the voter registration record is easy. Go to and follow the instructions to check/update your voter registration. You can even register the first time to vote online at that page. Other states will have similar websites.
  • Develop a Political Action Committee, or PAC, for your association, and use those resources to support candidates that are most likely to support your business objectives.