Here’s an Organizing Strategy to Revive the Democratic Party That Doesn’t Depend on White Voters

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Many Democrats assume it’s impossible to get more people of color to vote. That’s just not true.

I’d like to take a moment to speak to the country’s Democratic donors. Many of you are, rightly, appalled at the presidential election results and energized to act. Some donors are planning to gather at a conference called to discuss how to “kick Donald Trump’s ass.” Others are planning to run for office themselves on the theory that Democrats “need to look beyond the type of people who have been elected before, and look at who else might be out there.” In my personal conversations with donors, I’ve heard people argue that we should rethink old assumptions, listen more to various sectors of the population, and streamline communications and messaging. All of that is well and good. But I have to ask: Aren’t we overlooking the obvious solution? Wasn’t the problem, at its most elemental, that not enough of our supporters voted with us? Shouldn’t our resources and energy focus on solving that problem?
Clinton lost Michigan by 11,000 votes. Of those black folks in Michigan who did vote, 92 percent of them voted for Clinton, but 300,000 African Americans who were eligible to vote didn’t vote; 153,000 black voters in Michigan who came out for Obama in 2008 stayed home in 2016. Clinton lost Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes, and 400,000 African Americans who were eligible to vote didn’t cast ballots. In Arizona, the margin was 91,000 votes, and 600,000 Latinos who were eligible to vote were not mobilized to the polls.

Listening empathetically to aggrieved rural whites, more clearly articulating values, and revisiting old assumptions all matter and are worthwhile. But to overcome margins as close as what just decided this election, simply picking up more people and driving them to the polls counts too.

Implied but unstated in the focus on messaging and rethinking is a core assumption that it’s not possible to get more people of color to vote. But that assumption is unfounded. In 2012, the NAACP, under the direction of then-President Ben Jealous and Senior Vice President Marvin Randolph, registered 375,618 voters, mostly African American, across the country. They registered 100,000 in Florida alone, in a year when Obama won the state by 74,000 votes. The Texas Organizing Project (TOP) mobilized tens of thousands of voters of color in 2015 helping elect African-American Sylvester Turner as mayor. The Center for Community Change Action and other grassroots organizations created the Immigrant Voters Win PAC this year, which contacted more than 80,000 Latino voters in Nevada, a state Clinton won by 27,000 votes.

Lisa Garcia Bedolla, who literally wrote the book on Latino politics, has called for an affordable, effective, and sophisticated voter-engagement infrastructure she calls the Civic Web. The model is to use direct voter contact and long-term relationship building driven by neighborhood-based teams who work year-round in their communities with a universe of 100 people per team leader. The civic-web model would cost about $3 million to move 100,000 voters. By those metrics, margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona could more than have been closed at a fraction of the cost of what was spent on television ads.

Hindsight is 20-20, but we have to be looking ahead and starting to plan now for the year 2020. And as donors consider digging deep to spend tens of millions of dollars to respond to this new era, shouldn’t some sector of donors commit eight-figure sums to solving the problem of getting more people to vote? Revolutionary movements to take over countries win and secure local areas, use those gains as a foundation for expanding into broader regions, and then tie those regions together into an unstoppable force. So too can progressives rebuild from the ashes of 2016 over the next four years. Plus, from an investment standpoint, the initial local investments are less expensive in terms of capital put at risk.

In 2017, progressives can lay the foundation for the expansion of civic engagement of those voters who have shown the greatest propensity for supporting Democrats (74 percent of people of color supported Clinton; 80.5 percent for Obama). The way to do this is by targeting local races in strategic states whose demographics are trending in a progressive direction. In 2017, there will be key local races—for mayor and, in some places, district attorney—in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida. These cities can be testing grounds for this approach and, in the process, become building blocks for winning those states in the 2020 presidential election. If the results are promising in 2017, each of those states has gubernatorial or statewide elections in 2018, with inspiring candidates of color likely to run. As those races ramp up, the investments from 2017 can be escalated to galvanize greater voter participation statewide. And all of that work can then come to fruition in the 2020 presidential election.

Given the scale of spending being contemplated and discussed in many donor circles, this type of program is eminently affordable. Implementing a Civic Web model in those four states could be accomplished for about $15 million per year. Fourteen different individual donors each spent more than that amount in 2016. So if people are prepared to spend big money to respond to the challenge of the Trump era, why not solve the actual problem that led to this sad state of affairs in the first place?

This story originally appeared 12/22/2016 in The Nation.

Hispanics have undersized impact on Texas voter rolls

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AUSTIN — Mary Moreno’s brother has never voted, but this year she made sure that he saw the Republican and Democratic conventions on television, as well as the first presidential debate.

“He’s going to vote,” said Moreno. “He’s pumped.”

Moreno’s brother, Alejandro Moreno, is among the nearly one-quarter of new registered voters with Hispanic surnames, according to Austin researcher Derek Ryan, a veteran GOP data expert who analyzed information from the secretary of state’s office. That matches the portion of existing registered voters with Hispanic last names, according to Ryan’s research, which measures changes since the March primaries.

But in a state with such a large Hispanic population – about 9.9 million, nearly half of whom are eligible to vote if only they register – Ryan said it’s a surprise that Hispanics don’t have greater weight on the voter rolls.

Texas has about 15 million registered voters. It is home in 1 in 5 Hispanics living in the United States.

Four years ago, just 39 percent of Texas Hispanics who are eligible to vote cast a ballot, meaning that candidates in both parties left potential votes on the table.

Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm, said Republicans and Democrats cannot be counted on to sign up new Hispanic voters.

“Expanding the electorate isn’t a priority for the parties,” she said. “Their job is to win elections.”

Registering new voters can hurt incumbents who count on a loyal voter base and consistent party support, Manzano said.

It can help challengers – but only in close races.

“They can’t do all the things they promise to do if they can’t win,” she said. “Very few people are going to say, ‘I want to invest in losing by a smaller margin.’ ”

Though reliably-red Texas is not a battleground state in the fall presidential race, Tariq Thowfeek, communications director for the state Democratic Party, said the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are “heavily invested” in the contest for the 23rd House District.

The race pits incumbent Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, against Pete Gallego, a Democrat who lost the seat two years ago.

Throughout the state, U.S. congressional districts, as well as in both Texas Senate and House districts represented by Republicans have enrolled more new voters since the spring primary election than those with Democrats, according to Ryan’s research.

Twenty-five of the state’s 36 U.S. House districts are represented by Republicans.

In the state’s urban areas, voter rolls have increased from 6.9 percent in Harris, Dallas and Tarrant counties, to 7 percent Bexar County and 8.6 percent in Travis County.

The state’s Hispanic voters have supported Democrats, at least in presidential races. Four years ago, about 70 percent voted for President Barack Obama.

In the 2014 elections, the Texas Hispanic vote was 48 percent for Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, versus 47 percent for challenger David Alameel.

In the 2014 gubernatorial race, Wendy Davis, a Democrat, took 55 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote to 44 percent for Greg Abbott, the Republican who won the overall vote and became governor.

And given GOP nominee Donald Trump’s negative comments about Hispanics during the campaign, observers aren’t expecting many to defect to the Republican Party, at least in the race for president.

Moreno, who is a spokeswoman for the Texas Organizing Project, a Houston-based non-profit working to sign up voters by next Tuesday’s deadline and encourage them to go to the polls on Election Day, said the group is focusing on down-ballot races – for Harris County sheriff and district attorney, for example.

Its workers are knocking on doors in Latino and Hispanic communities. This weekend, she said, “you’re going to see a lot of effort” to register Harris County voters.

That will include the use of taco trucks, which also stock applications to register to vote.

“Taco trucks on every street corner have become a huge thing,” she said.

The spotlight on a recent federal court ruling that found Texas’ voter identification law violated the Voting Rights Act, along with subsequent changes to the types of ID acceptable at polling places, is raising awareness among Hispanics, she said.

Manzano said voter registration is a state responsibility.

Following the federal court’s ruling, Texas in August began a $2.5 million voter-education campaign.

The state has sent letters to high school principals, telling them schools must distribute voter registration applications to students. Until recently, that requirement was “not very well known,” Moreno said.

For now, there’s no telling how many new voters — of any ethnicity — the state’s effort will yield.

While new voter registrations are a good sign, Mazano noted, there’s lots of room for improvement.

Four years ago, she said, the number of Texas Hispanics and Latinos who were eligible to vote but didn’t “was larger than the entire population of New Mexico.”

This story originally appeared 10/7/2016 in the McAlester News-Capital and other CNHI newspapers.

STATEMENT: TOP Ready to Promote the Vote to Protect Country from Demagogue

Shouting Trump

The following is a statement by Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, in response to Donald Trump’s immigration speech in Phoenix:

“Every thing Donald Trump said last night was a lie, from his opening line of it being a detailed policy speech to his closing line of winning in November.

“What Trump delivered was red meat for the people who already support his destructive immigration enforcement ideas that scapegoat immigrants for difficult problems facing the country. Even if Trump’s delusional fantasy of deporting every undocumented immigrant and stopping all entries of undocumented people were to come true, our unemployment rate would only get worse because deporting 11 million consumers and small business owners would devastate our economy. Crime rates wouldn’t decrease either, because despite his spending nearly half his speech breathlessly railing against criminal immigrants, it’s been proven by studies that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native born Americans.

“Trump did not say anything new or anything that will be beneficial to the country. And even his bad ideas were devoid of details on how he would implement them.

“Every American who cares about our country should be alarmed at the prospect of this reality TV star becoming the next president. Turning our police into immigration agents and deporting mothers and fathers who are part of our communities would be inhumane and devastating. Taking away the temporary relief President Obama gave young people would be cruel, not just to the young people who have used their temporary status to find better jobs or continue their education, but to the communities they serve.

“Our communities have heard Trump’s hateful, destructive words, will move into action, starting with voting. Next week, we’ll kick off our robust Get Out the Vote program knocking on doors and calling voters to encourage them to vote, not just for president but the whole ballot. We’re ready to fight for our country. Trump just gave our movement more urgency.”

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The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a membership-based organization, works to build power through community organizing and civic engagement. For more information, visit organizetexas.org.