The ACLU Is Hitting The Road Ahead Of Its 100th Anniversary

The group, which has exploded in size during the Trump administration, wants to shape the 2020 conversation.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group has thrived during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group has thrived during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Paul Morigi via Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union is getting ready for a big 2020.

The august civil liberties group, whose budget and membership have exploded during Donald Trump’s presidency, will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year as it tries to shape the debate between the candidates hoping to challenge the president.

To prepare for its centennial, the group is hitting the road: Starting March 8 at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, the ACLU plans to embark on a 15-city tour that will run through June, aiming to showcase its history and work against the Trump administration. The tour will highlight the group’s work on immigrants’ rights, mass incarceration and voting rights.

“The Trump era is the type of period that the ACLU was made for,” executive director Anthony Romero said in an interview. “Never before have our issues been on the front burner, on a high boil, on this scale, and across the board.”

Indeed, the Trump era has been a boon for the group, which has sued the federal government 107 times since Trump took office in 2017. The ACLU’s revenue has doubled and its members have quadrupled since his election. That’s allowed the group to hire more lawyers ― a “full employment program for litigators,” Romero joked ― and become more involved in politics, spending over $10 million on ballot referendums and beginning to get more involved with state and local elections.

And it will soon get more involved in the presidential contest. The ACLU wants to host debates and forums featuring the candidates in order to probe their stances on issues critical to the group, including criminal justice reform, voting rights and freedom of speech. (Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, the first Democrat to announce a 2020 bid for president, held a civil liberties discussion with ACLU members at the University of New Hampshire’s law school last week.)

Romero said that while the group won’t officially endorse any candidate, he does expect some of the many Democratic hopefuls, if not most, to fall short of its standards.

“If I know the ACLU, we’re probably going to have concerns about all of them. They’re all going to come up short on one of the issues that we care about,” he said. “Many of them will try to mumble through all of our issues. It’s our job to hold their feet to the fire and demand more than a couple of sound bites.”

The group has also matched its membership records to the national voter file for the first time ― and surprisingly found that about 138,000 of its members didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election, and 460,000 didn’t vote during the 2014 midterms. The group plans to aggressively target those voters ahead of 2020 with postcards and phone calls to encourage them to vote.

The group’s tour, which will include town hall meetings and guest speakers in many stops, will hit Austin, Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, Montgomery, Miami, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. The tour will also serve as preparation for a massive centennial celebration, likely to be held in Washington, in July 2020.

“We turn 100 in 2020, there’s a presidential election in 2020,” Romero said. “We’re building toward a crescendo.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had incorrect figures for the number of times the ACLU has sued the federal government since Trump took office (107, not 104), the number of its members who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election (138,000, not 250,000), and the number of its members who did not vote during a recent midterm election (460,000 in the 2014 midterms, not 800,000 in the 2018 midterms).

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