In Texas, a Test of Whether the Voting Rights Act Still Has Teeth

Pasadena

Within days of the Supreme Court striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, the mayor of this working-class industrial city set in motion a contentious change to the local election system that critics said was aimed at protecting white control of the City Council in the face of rapid growth in the city’s Hispanic population.

It set off a furor, which was only inflamed when at a subsequent redistricting hearing, the mayor, Johnny Isbell, brought a gun. At another meeting, he ordered police officers to remove a council member for violating a three-minute speaking limit.

Asked by SCOTUSblog why he was pursuing the change, Mr. Isbell replied, “Because the Justice Department can no longer tell us what to do.”

But just after the new year, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to do precisely that — making Pasadena the first municipality in the country ordered by a court to submit, against its wishes, to federal approval of its electoral system since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.

The judge, Lee H. Rosenthal of the Federal District Court in Houston, ruled on Jan. 6 that the city’s change to the election system violated the Voting Rights Act and intentionally discriminated against Latino voters. Judge Rosenthal put the city under federal oversight, requiring Pasadena officials to seek advance approval from the Justice Department before changing the City Council election map and procedures, a practice known as preclearance.

“This is a message to those jurisdictions that the fact that they no longer have to preclear their changes doesn’t mean that they can discriminate against minority voters,” said Nina Perales, the vice president for litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented eight Hispanic voters who sued the city.

An appeal by Pasadena officials is likely, and a court could stay the ruling, blocking it from taking effect while an appeal moves forward.

“We’re exploring it, and there’s a reasonable chance that we’ll appeal,” said C. Robert Heath, the city’s lead lawyer in the case. “While we have great respect for the court, we disagree with its conclusion that the city acted with an intent to dilute the vote of its Hispanic citizens.”

Two smaller places, Charles Mix County in South Dakota and Evergreen, Ala., agreed to submit to federal oversight and are the only other jurisdictions required to get Justice Department approval before changing their election rules. Officials in Charles Mix County agreed in 2007, and those in Evergreen did so in 2014.

The outcome of the case in Pasadena is a major test of whether the Voting Rights Act in its diminished form remains a vital tool for minority voters, particularly as the Justice Department inevitably swings to the right in the Trump administration.

In this city that was once home to the Texas headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, the judge’s ruling was hailed by Latino residents, election law experts and civil rights groups as a major victory and a reminder that the preclearance mechanism did not entirely vanish after the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act.

But some advocates said that however welcome, the piecemeal, costly and after-the-fact litigation in the Pasadena case and similar ones that were pending are a far cry from the blanket protections for minority voters alleging discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

“It just completely changes the calculus,” said Deuel Ross, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “These discriminatory changes can go into effect and stay in effect for years, while someone has to spend millions of dollars and hire an attorney in order to even potentially win it.”

In fact, Judge Rosenthal’s ruling came more than three years after the change to Pasadena’s election system was first proposed. One election in 2015 was held under the new system.

The changes at the center of the case redrew the Pasadena City Council map from eight neighborhood-based single-member districts to a mixed system with six single-member districts and two citywide at-large seats. The move to what became known as the 6-2 map eliminated one Hispanic-majority district and prevented Latino-backed candidates from winning a City Council majority.

At-large election systems in a number of cities and school districts have been found to have diluted minority voting strength. In communities where whites make up the majority of voters and where people generally vote in racial blocs, white voters can defeat minority-preferred candidates and elect white-preferred candidates for at-large districts that encompass the entire electorate. Smaller single-member districts can help minority voters elect candidates of their choice, because they can be drawn so that minority voters make up a majority in some of the districts.

Judge Rosenthal’s 113-page ruling describes a racially charged atmosphere in Pasadena politics to support its finding of intentional discrimination.

Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra testified that when he was campaigning in 2009, white residents told him that they “weren’t going to vote for a wetback.” Richard Scott, the city’s director of community relations and an ally of the mayor, directed a vendor to “pull out Hispanic names” from the mailing list of voters who would receive campaign materials in favor of the 6-2 map.

“At trial, Mr. Scott testified that when he wrote ‘pull out Hispanic names,’ he meant to direct the vendor to pull out the names of Democratic voters,” Judge Rosenthal wrote, one of several instances in which Pasadena officials “understood race and party as interchangeable proxies. By clearly and explicitly intending to diminish Latinos’ voting power for partisan ends, Pasadena officials intentionally discriminated on the basis of race.”

Pasadena is a majority-minority city of 150,000, where Hispanics account for 62 percent of the population but have long complained about a lack of city services and attention in their neighborhoods, which have aging roads and infrastructure. The city’s white population and its Latino population remain largely physically divided, as the judge noted. North Pasadena is older, poorer and predominately Hispanic, while on the other side of the Spencer Highway, South Pasadena is newer, wealthier and predominately white.

“They don’t listen to us,” said Patricia Gonzales, 49, a community activist who lives on the north side and who was one of the plaintiffs. “It’s like what we say doesn’t really matter.”

Three of the eight council members are Hispanic, but one of them, Councilman Cody Ray Wheeler, is a Latino with an Anglo surname, and the judge wrote that politicians in Pasadena thought Mr. Wheeler’s election “was the result of his Anglo-sounding name and the Anglo votes that attracted.”

In 2013, the council was split 4 to 4, with the mayor holding the tiebreaking vote: Four were aligned with the mayor and four were aligned with the Hispanic community. Many were convinced that in the next election cycle, the Latino-backed candidates would win four seats again, plus a fifth, meaning they would have a majority on the council for the first time in Pasadena’s history and weaken Mr. Isbell’s influence.

“Latino success in Pasadena elections has been slow, slight and disproportionately lower than Pasadena’s Latino population,” Judge Rosenthal wrote. “But Latino success has increased in recent years. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ theory of this case, which the court finds credible and amply supported by reliable record evidence, is that Pasadena changed to the 6-2 map and plan precisely because Latinos were becoming more successful at winning City Council seats.”

After the 2015 elections, the council remained divided 4 to 4 under the 6-to-2 map. Three seats were held by Hispanics and one of the new at-large seats was won by a white candidate who had the support of Hispanic voters, Councilwoman Pat Van Houte. The split was emphasized by the city’s lawyers in defending the new system. Mr. Heath said city officials did not think the 6-to-2 map discriminated “since Hispanics make up about 50 percent of the city’s citizen voting-age population and the 6-to-2 system resulted in the election of Hispanic-preferred candidates to half the seats on the City Council.”

An aide to the mayor referred questions about the case to Mr. Heath, the city’s lawyer.

Mr. Isbell appeared to accidentally drop the gun that he brought to the March 2014 hearing. At a trial held in 2016 on the voting-rights allegations, he testified that it was a broken pellet gun, a claim the judge discounted, saying in her ruling that the “credible evidence” was that it was a 9-millimeter Beretta.

Judge Rosenthal, the city and the plaintiffs are still sorting out a lingering question: how long the city should be under federal oversight. The judge asked both sides to suggest a time period, writing that five years “might be appropriate.”

Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert and law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the relevant section of the Voting Rights Act gave the judge wide discretion. “You can guess that the plaintiffs will argue for a longer period and the city for shorter,” he said. “Without a very close look at the facts, I’m not in a position to say what I think is the ideal number here. But I don’t think choosing 10 years would be too long.”

This story originally appeared 1/15/2017 in The New York Times.

Texas’s New Ground Game

top-vigil

For the past four decades, Texas has been a reliably red state. But that means that Trump’s nine-point victory last fall was less stunning and discouraging to the state’s left activists compared to the shock of Trump’s sweep in historically blue northern states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which many Democrats had assumed were safe bets in presidential races.

Oddly, though, while conservatives tighten their grip on all three branches of federal government, it’s never been a better time to be a left-wing organizer in Texas: now the trench-warfare tactics local activists have been honing have a chance to become a national model for mobilizing the opposition to Trumpism. The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a gritty grassroots network linking three rapidly browning cities—San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston—has fought and won enough local battles to demonstrate the value of seeding incremental progressive wins on the neighborhood level in order to build a grassroots people’s movement. And they know better than to take anything about Texas for granted.

For TOP’s communications director Mary Moreno, giving people a reason to believe voting still makes a difference in a politically predictable state starts with talking about them, not their vote.

“When we show up at people’s doors, we found that if you ask them, ‘What would you like to see changed in your neighborhood and in your community?’—that it really does help start a conversation,” said Moreno, as we drove to a union get-out-the-vote event in downtown Houston a weekend before Election Day. “Whereas if you show up with a slate of candidates, they might not be inspired,” she continued. “They might be like, ‘I don’t like politicians’. . . and they’ll shut the door. But if you ask them about issues, they always care about that. . . . It’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them, ‘What would you like to see changed?’”

Despite Texas’s history as a fortress of conservatism, Houston organizers have been building a progressive local base through street-level advocacy. In last year’s demographically and ideologically polarized election season, they presented a fresh opposition to a political atmosphere rife with racial invective and media spectacle.

TOP launched in 2009 as a grassroots operation, inspired by ACORN’s Alinskyite community-organizing model, to build localized power in underrepresented, working-class black and Latino communities. Over the years, through its three city branches, the group has built a support base of more than 120,000 people across Texas. A staff of a few dozen has campaigned alongside unions and neighborhood groups on affordable housing and fair wage campaigns; protested for criminal justice reform with the national coalition, Color of Change and the local chapter of Black Lives Matter; and advocated for immigrant-friendly local ID cards for undocumented youth and parents threatened with deportation, and the transgender migrant community. For the election, TOP partnered with voter outreach initiatives of local unions and Latino community groups in order to secure allies in local office.

As Election Day approached, TOP’s three branches canvassed hard in districts known for low turnout through home visits, phone banking, and by offering rides to polling sites. Although nationally, Texas predictably went for Trump, the mostly black and Latino voters mobilized by TOP helped deliver its cities for Clinton, and more importantly, score its most important victories locally. In Houston’s Harris County, Kim Ogg became the first Democratic district attorney in thirty-six years; she promised to end the systematic jailing of those with low-level drug charges. And the new county sheriff, Ed Gonzales, has been vocal about overturning harsh immigration enforcement policies that have spurred the mass detention of undocumented immigrants.

Yet in pushing for progressive local candidates, TOP approached the election as a vehicle to advance a budding people’s movement, regardless of who won on November 8. “We always express to the members that the elected officials and ultimately campaigning politicians work for them,” Constance Luo, TOP’s voting drive coordinator, told me. “It’s never the other way around . . . so raise your voice, flip the paradigm of power, and make them work for you.”

Harris County’s traditional blue streak lies in its union-oriented working-class base. TOP’s labor ally, the Harris County Central Labor Council, made its usual get-out-the-vote drive on early-voting weekend with a team of beefy men in trucker caps, armed with tablets displaying addresses of fellow union members.
The mobilization started with a booming send-off in the cavernous union hall with interfaith consultant Reverend Ron Lister: “If you walk these streets, then keep in mind, that you are creating a new Houston! A new Texas, a new United States, a new world, a new spiritual consciousness. Let us pray . . . Protect each worker from pit-bull dogs, Doberman pinchers, Chihuahuas, and anything else . . . Empower us, strengthen us. This is our vote right now.”

But while Houston’s union base seemed reliably loyal, labor support for Clinton tumbled nationwide compared to Obama in 2012, with many defecting to Trump. TOP’s other voter drive that day centered on more promising terrain a few miles away, on a neat green patch known as Moody Park. There, a blaring Mariachi band serenaded the ditch-strafed working-class enclave, and families clustered around a sizzling taco grill astride a life-sized Trump piñata (pointedly stuffed with nothing but hot air) outside the polling site. The community gathering, organized by TOP in collaboration with a Latino-focused mobilization campaign named Tacos & Votes, aimed to make early-voting week a festive civic ritual in Houston.

Observing neighbors and activists celebrating the early vote, Beatrice, a seventy-seven-year-old homeowner whose Mexican-American family goes back generations in Texas, remarked, “This one is awful, this year. . . . It’s not really about politics. It looks like it’s about personality.” She had voted early, all Democrat as usual. Of the two leading candidates, she said, “I wish there were another choice.”

A retiree from a clerical job with an oil company, Beatrice empathized with the economic frustration roiling in the charged political atmosphere; she chafes at Houston’s rising cost of living and her thinly stretched fixed income. But the ascent of Trump’s “build the wall” demagoguery alarmed her, the daughter of a Second World War veteran. Immigration, she observed, had “never been an issue anywhere I’ve gone, because we’re all native Texans.”
“Where are we gonna end up? That man is weird in the head,” she said of Trump, but “so many of the things he says is what they want.”

Who exactly “they” are, though, was actually in play in Harris County and other battleground territories of the otherwise red state. Though Texas remains a Republican bastion, the “browning” of the southern electorate has been driving some cities leftward, as Latinos and other voters of color tend to favor Democrats, and are steadily turning swing states like Nevada and Colorado purple.

Texas is roughly 38 percent Latino, but according to recent election data, fewer than half were eligible to vote, compared to nearly 80 percent of the state’s white population. Of those eligible to vote in 2012, fewer than half actually cast a ballot. Still, while Texas ranks only twenty-third in the country in statewide Latino voter eligibility, this demographic constitutes over a quarter of eligible Texas voters. And since 2012, estimated Latino voter registrations rose by about 530,000, apparently spurred both by targeted voter mobilization efforts and a general growth in population.

Following several weeks of knocking on doors, distributing bilingual voting guides, and shuttling about 2,000 early voters to the polls, TOP’s data analysis showed Harris County’s Latino turnout during early-voting week, from October 24 through November 4 in 2016 was double what it had been in 2012. Some 155,000 registered voters TOP contacted across the county reported voting early.

Pre-election surveys indicated that immigration was the top issue driving Texas’s Latino voters. In the United States as a whole the overall Latino turnout was 13.1 million to 14.7 million, up from 11.2 million in 2012. An estimated 79 percent voted for Clinton—but her overall support was at lower rates than the turnout for Obama in 2012, and still not enough to turn key swing states.

TOP’s “ground game” is directed more toward strengthening local civic culture by organizing black and brown voters—historically the most underrepresented groups in local and state politics—than it is to winning elections. In Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, the organization has run campaigns designed by its membership, including post-hurricane home rebuilding, legislation setting fair-wage standards for local firms, and cleaning up neighborhood pollution. TOP uses electoral organizing to amplify street-level organizing work in order to influence local officials.

TOP sees local officials as key to its broader program for criminal justice reform, which in turn helps alleviate social distress in their communities. After helping turn out a slim margin of victory for Houston’s democratic mayor last year, TOP hopes a more progressive law-enforcement approach will lead the city to redirect public funds away from jails and courts and into programs for community revitalization. TOP has pushed for the restoration of Sunnyside, a historically black community that has for years suffered chronic poverty and unsustainable housing costs. The community coalition behind the plan demands that public services and infrastructure be “provided equitably in low-income neighborhoods of color, at the same levels they are provided to privileged neighborhoods of whites.”
TOP’s vision for Sunnyside is the kind of place Tarsha Jackson, a middle-aged black woman with a tough smile, would have liked to raise her son. Jackson traced her reluctant politicization to the early 1990s, during the first Clinton administration. She first got entangled in a spate of traffic violations, she said, and then spent years cycling through the courts, trapped by the fines and fees that are routinely imposed on poor residents of color. By the time she emerged from the legal mire, Jackson, a former bank agent, recalled that her young son, a special-needs student, entered the criminal system himself. What his school deemed “misbehavior” ended up bouncing him from juvenile detention to adult prison. She considers her son, who is finally getting out of prison, as being “raised by the state.”

Years ago, Jackson noted, “When I was fighting for my son, I didn’t know the responsibility of the District Attorney and the County Judge.” As a survivor of the criminal justice system, she focuses on “educating the community [so] they start connecting [the elections to] the issue that I’m having in my neighborhood, and my schools are shutting down, and then we don’t have no sidewalks. . . . The reason I’m here is because I want to make sure that people know that they do have a voice.”

TOP’s voices rang out across Houston from its phone-banking headquarters on Halloween afternoon in 2016. Political director Tarah Taylor, dressed as a comic superhero, stood before tables of callers and a Trump piñata festooned with epithet-filled sticky notes and explained a controversial ballot referendum. The proposal was to redirect Houston school district funds, marked as “excess” property tax revenues, back into state coffers under a scheme to redistribute resources to poorer districts. Though it sounded like a fair funding measure, activists dismissed it as a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul stopgap. Despite the district being deemed “property rich,” Houston schools have suffered with impoverished classrooms and deep budget cuts.

Callers should urge a “no” vote, Taylor said, to show that “the legislature has to figure out how to fund education, be it the rainy-day fund, taking money from border patrol, whatever they got to do. They need to put a priority on Texas children, and not try to . . . make homeowners pay for it.”

As they punched through their phone lists, the callers marked the poll rides they arranged by ringing miniature red cowbells. A few days later the proposition was defeated by over 60 percent.

Rosemary Escalante, a middle-aged sandy-haired retiree, was recruited to the bank from the other end of the line. A call from a TOP campaigner during a previous voter drive drew her curiosity and led to a visit to the office. Soon, she was attending meetings and joining protest rallies, inspired by TOP’s campaigns for criminal justice reform. It was a big change from her previous job processing warrants for the Houston police department.

“My total way of thinking [before] was that yes, I’m activating the warrant, but it wouldn’t be issued if he was a good boy, so he’s getting what he deserves,” Escalante said. “But I wasn’t seeing the entire picture. If you don’t have money, you’re treated differently.” As she’s become more involved with activism, she says, “I’m seeing it from the other side, and how some of the laws are so unfair to certain people.”

The law wasn’t just unfair to Miguel Fuentes, it downright ignored him. The Mexican-born Houstonian represented Texas’s newest and most precarious voting bloc on the Saturday of early-voting week at the Moody Park polling site. When he showed up to vote early, however, he discovered his name had been purged from the registration list. Fuentes, who said he has been a citizen since the early 1990s, was shocked when he was told his name had been scrubbed automatically during a routine screening of the registration rolls, just because he had not voted in the recent federal elections. (Controversy erupted in 2012 when reports emerged of a statewide purge of voter rolls under a seemingly arbitrary plan to cull supposedly erroneous records of “dead voters.”)

The disputed delisting of voters was one of a number of polling mishaps in the election. A few weeks before the election, a court order suspended Texas’s new voter-ID law, which civil rights groups argued were discriminatory to blacks and Latinos, and would potentially disenfranchise some 600,000 people statewide. But the first days of early voting were marred by reports of polling machine mishaps and widespread complaints from some high-Latino precincts about voter harassment and intimidation. Trump stoked these anxieties with baseless, fear-mongering allegations about “voter fraud” by undocumented immigrants.

With nationwide outreach efforts, civil rights activists went into overdrive, fearing that Latino voters could be deterred from voting in tight districts. Even as projected Latino turnout in southern states appeared to be surging, particularly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida, complaints of voter deterrence and logistical mishaps kept rolling in. A nationwide voter survey ahead of the election indicated roughly four in ten Latino voters facing obstacles, including being unable to locate their voting locations.

“That’s the way to suppress voting in the community. . . . My citizenship is for life, it’s not for every four years,” Fuentes said sternly as he called, seemingly in vain, a voter hotline outside the polling center. He eventually resigned himself to the possibility that his ballot had been legally stolen.

“The system’s kind of corrupt for me,” he said. “I don’t want to give up. But the thing is, you try to suppress us, it’s gonna make us bigger. . . . This is attacking our community.”

With an untold number of voters like Fuentes reportedly blocked or obstructed at the polls, Trump’s electoral win seems even more absurd. But for TOP, it mattered more that Fuentes remained politically defiant despite his disenfranchisement. Each individual voter they mobilized mattered more than any single ballot cast, for any candidate.

After the election, Luo said TOP’s major electoral achievement was to turn Harris County bluer than ever, up and down ballot, by sweeping local offices. In the wake of Trump’s victory, activists were readying their defenses on a familiar frontline, having battled anti-immigrant state and city legislators for years.

“Right now, more than ever, our members and the wider Harris County [and] Texas community in general realizes how important it is to stay united,” Luo said. “Because really, we’re not just fighting against one man. The target itself is never just one person, President Trump. It’s multiple targets. . . . Texans are ready for the fight.”

Omar Perez’s fight was never about elections, really; the clean-cut twenty-six-year-old Mexican immigrant and former teacher has temporary deportation reprieve under the Obama administration’s “Deferred Action” program for undocumented youth. On the campaign trail, Clinton had promised to renew the measure if elected; Trump has vowed to repeal the program and ramp up deportations while building his “wall” with Mexico.

As Election Day drew near, Perez’s fate hinged on the election even though—and, in fact, precisely because—he had no direct say in the race. But he could join TOP’s canvassing team to turn out his community’s vote instead.

On his poll-driving rounds on the only Sunday of the early-voting period, Perez recounted that he had been surprised to hear many local voters denounce Trump not so much because of his racial animus, but because they resented his wealth and arrogance. Yes, racism was a factor, but “subconsciously, they know that it’s a class issue, in a way.”

Trump sought to “use fear and ignorance, so these poor white people can blame other poor minorities for their problems, when in reality it’s not the minorities that are the problem,” he continued. “It’s the ones on top—the wealthiest of the wealthiest . . . What should matter is that we’re not treated equally. . . . We need to unify.”

His last pick-up of the day was the rumpled cottage of an eighty-six-year-old Mexican-American man, who ambled with a cane down the poll line at his local community center. A member of Houston’s New Deal–era working class, the former factory worker said he had lived in his neighborhood for about half a century, each year stubbornly voting Democrat. That same political sensibility was finally turning Harris County blue, up and down the ticket, with the help of younger residents like Perez, who are committed to staying put, with or without a vote.

“I feel more involved than any other citizen. . . . The Latino vote, they don’t know how much power they can have,” he said. “It’s like a sleeping giant, and we’re waking that giant up.”

This story originally appeared in 12/20/2016 in Dissent Magazine.

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

no-trump

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.