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Lessons on Mobilizing the Rising American Electorate

Forward Together has been working to mobilize families within historically marginalized communities through civic engagement.

National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) GOTV canvassing team in Miami-Dade. (Photo: Dian Alarcon)

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The morning after the midterm elections, many on the left wondered, where was the Rising American Electorate (RAE) – youth, single women and people of color – who delivered victories for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012? Of the 33 percent of registered voters who turned out, the majority was white, older and married.

As someone who was part of a nationwide grassroots effort to mobilize the RAE to turn out in states such as Florida, Georgia, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas, I have five key lessons to share with those of us in it for the long haul. But before I do, let’s place what happened on November 4, 2014, in a larger context.

Two years ago on election night, millions watched the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly warn on Fox News: “It’s a changing country. It’s not a traditional America anymore . . . The white establishment is now the minority.” O’Reilly was sounding the alarm of the coming demographic shift, and the anticipated cultural sea change away from a white, heterosexual, Christian nuclear family and toward economic policies that a more diverse citizenry would likely demand.

Today, one-third of the US population are people of color, but by 2050, they are set to be the majority. With 80 million eligible voters aged 18 to 29, youth make up the largest and fastest growing constituency, and nearly 40 percent are people of color. In more ethnically diverse states like California, by 2030, 68 percent of 5 million new youth voters will be youth of color, according to Lisa García Bedolla of University of California, Berkeley.

Since 1984, “female voters have exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election,” and women are increasingly voting Democrat, Bedolla says. But it’s important to distinguish between married and single women, and white women and women of color. For example, in the Texas governor race, reproductive rights legend Wendy Davis won 94 percent of black women’s votes and 61 percent of Latinas’ votes, but only 32 percent of white women’s votes.

To stem the demographic tide, conservatives have been deploying strategies to suppress and subdue voting by the RAE, from gerrymandering districts to gutting the Voting Rights Act. In Texas, for example, in mid-October, the Supreme Court ruled that the state could enforce strict voter ID rules, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg estimated would disenfranchise up to 600,000 voters, mostly Latinos and blacks.

While progressives must fight back to re-enfranchise millions, we must also seize the huge window of opportunity before us: the demographic shift. But demography is not destiny, and it will take investing more systematically in civically engaging the RAE now in ways that resonate with them.

My organization, Forward Together, has been working with 150 organizations in a nationwide initiative called Strong Families to shift policy and culture so that all families – of every kind – can thrive. Many of our partners spent the past year educating and mobilizing the RAE, particularly in rural areas among low-income people and communities of color. Here are five lessons on how we can do better now to get more historically marginalized communities to turn out to vote in the future.

1. Lead with uniting values to get the RAE to vote together.

Last fall in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with less than 12 weeks to Election Day, a coalition led by grassroots women of color and reproductive advocacy organizations did the unthinkable: They helped defeat the first municipal ballot measure in the country attempting to ban abortion by a whopping 10 percentage points. Fueled by members of Operation Rescue, early polls showed that the abortion ban would pass by a wide margin. The Albuquerque Journal reported that 43,900 New Mexicans cast ballots, more than the 26,208 who voted in the previous month’s mayoral election. The defeat of the ballot measure was nothing short of amazing in a “purple” state where Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, the nation’s first Latina governor, was elected on an anti-choice and anti-immigrant platform. The Respect ABQ Women campaign defeated the ballot measure by uniting communities committed to LGBTQ equality, environmental justice, reproductive health and rights, economic justice, youth and land and water rights under the banner of Strong Families. What united these diverse constituencies was the commitment to self-determination and body sovereignty amidst complex, nuanced life circumstances.

This fall in Montana, we saw a broad cross section of Montanans mobilize around a similar value: ensuring that communities impacted by policy decisions can have power and influence over those outcomes. Montana voters faced an attempt to eliminate same-day voter registration. Access to same-day registration allows working parents, single mothers, the elderly, Native Americans and rural Montanans who travel long distances under the big blue sky – sometimes 100 miles round trip – to register and vote on Election Day. In eight years, more than 28,000 Montanans have used same-day registration, and half were under age 30. The measure was defeated by 57 percent.

Montana Women Vote (MWV), one of our partners mobilizing the RAE, led the fight against restricting voting rights. They distributed 15,000 copies of their voter guide through their base of 16,000 people living across 54 of 56 counties. According to Sarah Howell, MWV executive director, 70 percent of Montanans vote on average in presidential elections. However, 30 percent, or less than half, of low-income women vote, which made policy makers unaccountable to their issues including, most recently, Medicaid expansion. “When we bring together the idea of disenfranchisement and bad policy making, the value of community engagement in decision making motivates people,” Howell explains. “This is why MWV engages women to become informed voters, policy advocates and community leaders.”

Micah Nielsen and Lily Boshier of Montana Women Vote canvass in the rain to stop LR-126 to protect Election Day registration on Monday, Nov. 3rd. (Photo: Micah Nielsen)Micah Nielsen and Lily Boshier of Montana Women Vote canvass in the rain to stop LR-126 to protect Election Day registration on Monday, Nov. 3rd. (Photo: Micah Nielsen)Micah Nielsen and Lily Boshier of Montana Women Vote canvass in the rain to stop LR-126 to protect Election Day registration on Monday, Nov. 3rd. (Photo: Micah Nielsen)2. Do Civics 101 because they need to know what they’re voting for.

“People don’t participate because they don’t feel it matters, and they feel so disconnected from it,” explains Adriann Barboa, Forward Together’s director of Strong Families New Mexico, who set out with 17 partner organizations to create the “Conozca Su Voto” or “Know Your Vote” voter guide that lays out in Spanish and English what each elected office does and how it impacts the potential voter. “That’s what our communities are asking for,” Barboa explains. “We need to know what we’re voting for and to be able to talk about it with people in our community.”

Every community organizer knows that the first step in engaging people to take action is to provide education on who has power and what decisions they can make. Motivating people to engage in elections is no different. From school board members to senators, the decision-making process is opaque to the majority of the electorate. As the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania recently reported, “Americans show great uncertainty when answering basic questions about how its government works.”

To address this challenge, Strong Families partnered with local organizations across six states to produce and disseminate 26,000 guides for voters about the decisions that elected officials make that impact their daily lives. In Texas, the voter guide was so readable and provided basic knowledge about government functions that it was used as a study guide to prepare for the citizenship test.

3. Invest in mobilizing communities long after the election is over.

The Respect ABQ campaign partnered with local organizations throughout New Mexico working in rural communities of color. Unlike traditional electoral campaigns that tend to invest in reaching regular voters, such as older whites, they reached out to irregular voters and organized forums to allow meaningful conversations about issues impacting their lives. “Little to no outreach is made to communities of color, except when small nonprofits decide to put in some effort,” Barboa says. But such outreach never compares with efforts by big campaigns.

Unlike most electoral campaigns that just move into a community and run their GOTV operations, Strong Families New Mexico is building capacity and leadership across the state so that after November 4, the community isn’t left with a bunch of clipboards and pens, but an organization and leaders they can turn to about how they can continue engaging civically. “It’s exciting to think about the potential of getting folks mobilized to start seeing their involvement at a bigger level and exercising their power,” Barboa says.

In Texas and Florida, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) is replicating the same year round civic engagement model. During the election cycle, they recruited 66 Latina activists who mobilized hundreds of volunteers to call and canvass nearly 40,000 Latinas aged 18 to 55 and sent mailers to over 30,000 households. NLIRH’s Diana Lugo-Martinez says, “We are proud to have knocked on doors, distributed voter education materials, and called voters in states where the power of the Latina vote is growing every day. But our work continues after Election Day to develop and amplify local leaders to advocate for their communities 365 days a year.”

4. Focus on irregular and new voters.

“Unlike partisan campaigns, our desire is to have more people come out in larger numbers and get them to feel why their vote matters,” says Barboa of Strong Families New Mexico. Most electoral campaigns don’t think about how to increase the voting participation rate, but how to win that one election. “If we got another 200 people to turn out in Gallup, then we could literally rock that vote.”

At NLIRH, Lugo-Martinez and her colleagues were affirmed by the strong desire of the Latina community to get involved in the elections. For example, in Texas, they attached a pledge card asking readers to commit to a range of civic engagement actions, from voting to sharing their voter guide with neighbors. They had to rapidly revise their strategy for collecting and engaging everyone who made commitments when the response rate tripled their goal of reaching 1,000 respondents.

5. Generate materials that speak to them, literally.

The Respect ABQ Women campaign spoke to women of color in a way that was culturally appropriate to their lives, explains Barboa, a 16th generation New Mexican at the center of the campaign. They used language focusing on the importance of women and families making decisions for themselves: “We are parents, tias, ninos, brothers and sisters. We are neighbors, friends, people of faith – We are New Mexican families.” Our allies also ran radio ads – created by local New Mexican organization Young Women United and supported by NLIRH and NARAL – of beloved New Mexican heroine Dolores Huerta encouraging voters in Spanish to turn out on Election Day.

Every voter guide that we produced was accessible and included images of real people engaged in real actions from their community. For example, the voter guide produced in Texas contained photos of a Latina with her daughter and one of Latinas at a rally for reproductive justice. “We want our collateral to reflect our multi-generational families and communities and to be useful for the community,” Lugo-Martinez explains.

In Oregon, although the immigrant rights community that fought to pass Measure 88 for alternative driver’s licenses had very few financial resources, it recruited 3,000 volunteers that engaged Oregonians of every stripe. In particular, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon translated their voter guide into eight major Asian Pacific Islander languages, including Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog and Urdu, and mobilized dozens of volunteers to disseminate it widely through their communities in order to turn out the vote.

The work of hundreds of volunteers mobilizing thousands of their family and community members is awe-inspiring. But imagine how much more effective we could be in mobilizing the RAE to vote and vote together to bring about social change if we could get the established electoral powerhouses in this country to put their resources behind these strategies. We don’t have to wait for 2050.

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