January 9, 2020 / The New York Times
Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the left has obsessed over which voters to mobilize and how to do so. One camp wants to concentrate on moderate white voters. Another says white suburban women are the key to victory in 2020. Yet what may be the most effective use of resources is to reach out to a group of voters few strategists are talking about: infrequent voters, who are disproportionately women, people of color and young people.
In 2018, I was part of an experiment to turn out these voters in the midterm elections by listening to the issues they care about. Seventy percent had never cast a ballot in a midterm election. One in five were new voters. The result? They greatly over-performed and voted at far higher rates than they had in the past. And in so doing, they offered valuable lessons for how Democrats can win in November.
My organization, Community Change Action, along with three others reached out to infrequent and never-voters in Michigan, Nevada and Florida. A typical get-out-the-vote campaign would ignore these voters, who are often deemed as too hard to reach and not worth the effort. Any such campaign that did do outreach would emphasize TV ads and mailers. If by some miracle the campaign included a face-to-face canvass, outside firms would be hired and college students imported from other parts of the country.
Instead, we tried something different. We trained people in these swing states to knock on the doors of the people they know, or call or text them with selfie videos where they’d say: “I’m a voter. Come join me at the polls.” Then these people would contact their own neighbors and friends, and so on. This is grass-roots organizing, which has won big progressive victories in the past.
More than 62,900 of the Nevada voters in the experiment cast ballots before Election Day. This is a 937 percent increase in early voting for this cohort compared to 2014. Young voters in the state (35 and under) actually turned out at a rate similar to all voters. To engage young Latino voters, we held parties outside polling places with mariachi bands, taco trucks and bounce houses for children. One young woman showed up at a local partner’s office because she had been called so often. She hadn’t voted in 2016 but said she now wanted to encourage other people like her to go to the polls.
In Florida, Latinos in the experiment voted at a rate 11 percentage points higher than Latinos statewide. Local partners there trained immigrant mothers, Dreamers and college students to knock on their neighbors’ doors. We saw similar increases in all three states for African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and young people.
In Michigan, we did a randomized test comparing the impact of our friends-leveraging-friends-to-vote program to a typical turnout campaign. Voters in our test had higher turnouts than voters reached by a traditional campaign and those in a control group. The friends and family approach was especially potent with voters who were considered less likely to vote.
In Detroit, on Election Day in 2018, a dozen black women of all ages sat around plastic folding tables calling friends and family to make sure everyone in their congregation and on their voter lists voted. On every call, they asked: “How many people went with you to vote? And who else can you give a ride so they can vote?”
Our approach was fueled by a simple belief that when you add new voices and change the electorate, you can shift what is politically possible. We found that our model was equally effective at turning out both voters of color and white voters. We didn’t have to choose between them or sacrifice older voters for younger ones. Engaging these voters is not a mutually exclusive proposition. Our community leaders intentionally talked to anyone who was not politically active.
This method of deep organizing blows up business-as-usual electoral politics. It threatens the huge paychecks of political consultants and strategists on both sides of the aisle who parachute into communities for elections. The progressive political industry spent $5.7 billion on congressional races alone in 2018. Much of that went to the usual Beltway power brokers who focus on tired attack ads or the vote for so-and-so emails. Our model, however, keeps money and power in the communities whose votes will change the electorate.
Voters want authenticity, not scare tactics or laughable digital and TV ads that even my 10-year-old daughter calls “phony.” Infrequent voters have sophisticated reasons for staying home and they see right through these tactics. Progressives need to invest in models of engagement that cut through the noise of electioneering and bring new people into political life.
If Democrats had used this model in 2016, they would have needed fewer than 10,000 people in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to commit to moving friends and family members who are not politically engaged to the polls in order to deliver the 79,000 votes needed to have changed the result of that election.
Expanding the electorate matters more than ever before. Some congressional races in 2018 were decided by razor-thin margins. If Democrats are to stand a chance in 2020, they need to invest in strategies that will shore up their base while also bringing in people who rarely or never vote. This has to start before the primaries and not be left as a last-ditch effort during closing arguments in October.
Our approach, though, isn’t about talking reluctant voters into casting a vote once, but about building a democracy in which each person matters and stays engaged in authentic participation long past Election Day.
As a community organizer who has worked for decades to build power from the ground up, I know that simply electing candidates who say they support the issues my community cares about isn’t enough. It is foolish to believe they will follow through without being pushed. We have to build a movement with the scale and depth to compel our leaders to pass the bold changes we need.
At churches and block parties and in classrooms, our experiment offered this call to action: You are the most qualified person to engage the people you love. Together we can imagine a new kind of government. Strengthening our democracy isn’t just about Election Day. It is also about building community ties that pull people sitting on the sidelines into public life.
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