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Instead of Chasing “Swing Voters,” Ohio Organizers Push to Expand Electorate

Investing in programs like the one underway in Ohio leads to more voters being added to the rolls.

Pat DeVito, 58, helps collect ballots outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on October 23, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio.

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The storied “swing voter” has long been portrayed as key to electoral victory in the battleground state of Ohio. Much as Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab obsessed over the white whale, traditional democratic operatives have obsessed over reclaiming the lost white (usually working-class and male) voter. However, grassroots organizations like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative reject a singular focus on chasing on-the-fence voters.

“All of our work is focused on electorate expansion,” said Molly Shack, co-executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative. The organization sees the real “swing voters” as the people who go back and forth between voting and not voting, and not the “Obama-Trump voters” who switched between the two major parties in 2012 and 2016. A central question for the organization is how to talk to people left out by traditional political engagement, focusing on advocacy around “issues that impact our lives day to day,” according to Shack.

Founded in 2007, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative is a statewide organization focused on community organizing, large-scale civic engagement and strategic communications work. Shack’s co-executive director, Prentiss Haney, stressed the importance of re-engaging people to participate in democracy beyond voting. “Being a part of democracy has changed a lot,” said Haney. “Looking at democratic practices and civic organizations in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, people were part of rotary clubs, the NAACP, and a part of social movements that showed them how to practice democracy all the time.”

The Ohio Organizing Collaborative prioritizes helping communities develop the practice of democracy, as it demystifies the political process. For Haney, the dominant political organizing strategy of the last few decades — building relationships with people solely to turn them into voting blocs — created a harmful, market-based approach to democracy. While people have a choice on whether to engage in electoral processes, Haney says choosing not to be a part of democracy, more broadly, is dangerous for people of color.

“We are here to help people practice democracy together,” Haney said. “Campaigning in elections is not about trying to net the most people, [but rather it’s about] how [to] get folks engaged [and] understanding that their engagement changes the world.”

Trusted Relationships Help Cultivate New and Engaged Voters

To accomplish this goal of re-engaging an overlooked electorate, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative made the strategic decision to invest heavily in a “relational organizing” program, which is simply people reaching out to those already in their existing networks. While terms like “relational organizing” may be new to mainstream politics and media, Haney says they’re not really new to the world. Simply put, relational organizing is about relationships and trust.

“We believe [in] the power of our relationships,” said Haney. “[There are] no shortcuts to building relationships with people and community.” Ohio Organizing Collaborative’s relational organizing program is part get-out-the-vote, and part long-term civic capacity building. This election cycle is an opportunity to engage Black voters, young voters and other voters of color around the issues that matter.

Shack says relationship-based conversations are more impactful than regular outreach campaigns. “People tune out,” said Shack. “They tune out from strangers, campaigns and random [broadcast messages].” During election season many people may receive text messages from campaign volunteers without any pre-existing relationship. Sometimes these messages come from automated broadcast messages that can feel impersonal. Shack notes that texting people information is important because it helps get the word out. But the personal touch of someone reaching out to a person they know, and explaining their reason for being involved, goes a long way to getting others engaged.

“I’m a fan of all types of contacts,” said Shack. “The more we engage people, the better generally. But 20,000 relational conversations, which is our goal, is the equivalent of sending out like 7 million cold text messages and reaching 250,000 to 400,000 people.”

Shack says the group’s approach reaches new voters and nonvoters, expanding the universe of potential contacts for political activation. Pointing to results from a 2018 study in partnership with the Analyst Institute, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative found that 70 percent of the voters contacted through the relational organizing program did not match an existing voter file before the program. Relational organizing resulted in a 3.8 percent increase in turnout among infrequent voters and nonvoters as compared to other progressive tactics that yielded only a 0.1 percent increase in turnout in 2016. Traditional campaigns and political parties rely heavily on the voter file for outreach and engagement ahead of an election, thus missing out on a potential group of voters.

Localizing Issues and Building Accountability Into the Process Help Long-Term Engagement

Investing in programs like the one underway in Ohio leads to more voters being added to the rolls. But Shack and Haney note that while relational organizing is critical to engaging voters, it can be challenging to scale up such a program. Therefore, it’s essential to build in other types of tactics. For example, Shack and Haney emphasize the importance of localizing elections and showing people how the process connects to their lives. For example, on the issue of the criminal legal system, there are several judicial, sheriff and district attorney races across Ohio that impact the lives of families and communities in immediate ways.

“We’re doing candidate forums, voter education forums [and] phone banks that are all about those local elections to help connect people … to these races, and then the day after the election, hold them accountable,” Shack said. “When people know that a judge that they’ve sat before is on the ballot, it does create a different kind of energy that, I can go out and make a difference.”

But the work doesn’t stop on November 3, Shack and Haney say. Post-election follow-through includes holding elected officials accountable. Haney recently watched the documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, and was reminded why accountability is such an important part of the process.

“One of the things that [Stacey Abrams] said that reminded me why we do this, was that when elected officials start to lose power, they do either one of two things: start to get in alignment with their constituents so that they can stay in power, or they find ways to eliminate accountability for those constituents so they can stay,” said Haney.

Part of accountability is also consistency and the ability to show up with a coalition of support to put pressure on elected officials when necessary. While some may see movement-based organizations and electoral grassroots efforts as being at odds, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative views them as complementary efforts.

“What is possible is shifted because of movements,” said Shack. “And then delivering those wins and communities requires a level of discipline and focus on the ground to turn it into something that can impact people’s lives, neighborhoods and communities.”

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