Philadelphia Democrats are anxious that the Obama campaign won’t be handing out “street money” for the general election. “Honestly, they’d be crazy not to do it,” said one ward leader. What’s street money, and who gets it?
It’s cash that’s given to help get people to the polls. The money can go toward perks like coffee and doughnuts for door knockers, gas for volunteers to chauffeur elderly voters, or pocket money for kids who distribute fliers and sample ballots on Election Day. Also known as “walking-around money” or “get-out-the-vote money,” it’s most common in poor areas of Philadelphia; Chicago; Newark, N.J.; Baltimore; Los Angeles; and other big cities. Both parties use street money, but it’s more common among Democrats, who tend to be better represented in the areas that rely on it.
Some street money comes from party fundraisers, like the Philadelphia Democratic Party’s biannual Jefferson-Jackson dinner. But most of it comes directly from the candidates. Everyone from the presidential nominee to congressmen and state representatives are expected to chip in. (The top of the ticket usually contributes the most.) In Philadelphia, the candidate sends a check to the chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, who then divides the money up among the 69 ward leaders, who in turn divvy up their cash among the 50 or so committee people in each ward. In 2004, John Kerry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Philadelphia street money, and ward leaders received checks for as much as $8,000. Individual volunteers can generally expect anywhere from $10 to $200, depending on the location and the type of work they’re doing.
The practice is legal everywhere—it’s protected by the First Amendment—but some states have tougher restrictions than others. In Philadelphia, committee people can hand out cash for any reason, as long as they’re not paying someone for their vote. (The U.S. Code prohibits vote purchasing.) In New Jersey, campaign officials have to pay the workers in checks and their names, addresses, and amounts paid must be submitted to the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Presidential campaigns are always required to report the money to the Federal Elections Commission.
Street money has its detractors, but most politicians accept it as a reality. During the primaries, Hillary Clinton’s campaign gave $38,000 to an Ohio state legislator, who distributed the money to “get-out-the-vote” workers in Cleveland, plus tens of thousands of dollars to people in Houston and other Texas towns near the Mexican border. Obama did not provide street money then but might change his mind for the general election. In 2000, Jon Corzine paid volunteers $75 each to increase turnout for his Senate campaign. Walter Mondale described showing up to a Philadelphia Democratic committee meeting in 1980, only to have someone stand up and demand, “Where’s the money?”
Abuses do occur. In Kentucky, a practice called “vote hauling“—paying people to drive sympathetic voters to the polls—often translates into vote buying. Street money can also be used to suppress votes. In 1993, Republican operative Ed Rollins bragged to reporters that he had given half a million dollars in “walking-around money” to black ministers and Democratic activists in New Jersey, and in return they persuaded voters to stay home. (When the Justice Department launched an investigation, Rollins said he had been lying.)
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Explainer thanks Tracy Campbell of the University of Kentucky, Philadelphia ward leader Greg Paulmier, and Al Spivey, chief of staff to Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones.