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Grassroots Groups Fight for the Vote, Build for the Future

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Photo collage of voter focused flyers encouraging people to vote

Taking on voter suppression is one piece in a long-term project of building grassroots organization and political power.

Part one of this two-part series, COVID-19 and GOP vs. Voting Rights: Everything Is at Stake, can be found here.

Anyone who cares about fair elections has plenty to worry about between now and Nov. 3.

Old-school voter suppression is still in force – voter roll purges, ID laws, polling place closures. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of risk and confusion. The Republican Party is spending millions to intimidate and disenfranchise voters, while Republicans in the U.S. Senate refuse states more funds for clean elections. Trump tweets smack about the elections while his handpicked Postmaster General is slowing delivery and slashing capacity when the Postal Service is needed most.

The Supreme Court has issued several decisions hostile to voting rights. Most recently, it gave Florida’s modern-day poll tax a pass, ruling that the state could demand payment of fines, fees and court costs before ex-felons could have their voting rights restored.

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But a huge movement against voter suppression is rolling out to take on these threats. Broad national coalitions are activating: The Voting Rights Alliance draws in Rainbow PUSH, NOW, the Hip Hop Caucus, Color of Change, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Transformative Justice Coalition and more. Democracy for America, the PAC founded by Howard Dean in 2006, is partnering with Black Voters Matter, Credo,, and others. There’s Reclaim Our Vote, Woke Vote and MPower Change (M for Muslim). Jews for Racial and Economic Justice is schlepping out the vote. And groups rooted in communities of color and low-income communities are taking on voter suppression as one expression of systemic racism and exclusion, the fight against it as one piece in a long-term project of building organization and power.

Fighting for fair rules

Activists around the country are demanding changes in rules and procedures that will make voting safer. These include making mail-in ballots available for all and easier to return, with prepaid postage, accessible drop boxes, and no rule against dropping off ballots for others. To be sure the ballots get counted, they call for extending the deadline for receipt of ballots postmarked on Election Day.

Mail-in ballots cut health risks and provide a paper trail. But safe options for in-person voting remain essential: COVID-safe and accessible precinct sites or vote centers; extended early voting time; equitable distribution of polling machines, ballots, and personal protective equipment (PPE) at all voting locations.

“Traditionally in electoral programs like as ours, we wouldn’t think of running an advocacy campaign parallel to our voter engagement work,” said Grecia Lima, political director of Community Change Action. But this year is different, “because we’re being forced to pressure county elected officials and state legislatures and governors to take action to make the vote by mail process as easy and accessible as possible, and make sure the requested ballots get to the voters,” Lima said.

The peanut gallery is watching

Georgia has 159 counties, and the Georgia Peanut Gallery keeps an eye on all of them. (The name is a sly nod to the days when visitors to the state legislature sat in the balcony, and threw peanut shells to show displeasure with the proceedings.) Peanut Gallery volunteers attend monthly election board meetings, listen, and take notes. Is there talk of purging voter rolls, closing polls? The information goes in a blog, and campaign partners respond – with letters to the county, press alerts, or lawsuits as necessary. New Georgia Project partners with community, civic, and faith organizations in the campaign, everyone from the ACLU and the NAACP, to Black fraternities and sororities and small local groups.

The Voting Rights Act required both Georgia and Arizona to get Justice Department approval for any changes to voting. After the  Supreme Court gutted the Act in 2013, “we’ve seen a ton of voter ID rules and other racial attacks,” said LUCHA Democracy Director Randy Perez, who  monitors voter suppression bills. Right-wing state legislators introduced 15 such measures in 2019, after LUCHA and its partners in One Arizona helped elect three Democratic women to statewide office in 2018. People in the streets plus advocacy in the suites defeated 11 of the 14 bills. None of the 2020 bills have made it to the governor’s desk.

Wisconsin secured a $6.3 million grant to make elections safer in its five largest cities; Milwaukee was to get $2.15 million. Black Leaders Organizing for Communities is working closely with the mayor and the election commission, but is willing to do what’s needed to ensure the elections are safe.

Pennsylvania Stands Up is developing demands around voting rules at both the state and county levels. Their plan includes “constant bird-dogging of  local election commissioners to do what they’re say going to do,” said Deputy Executive Director Michaela Lovegood, and building a volunteer infrastructure to fill in whatever gaps remain. “We shouldn’t have to, but we could,” she said.

Explaining how to vote

In the best of times, complicated election rules and sudden changes of polling locations suppress the vote. In pandemic times, with rules still not set three months before the election, the need for voter education becomes even more acute. Everyone needs to know how to register, and how to check their registration to be sure they haven’t been purged from the voter rolls. If they’re voting by mail, they need to know how to apply for a ballot, return the application, fill it out the ballot, return it, be sure it’s counted.

Rules vary state by state. In Wisconsin, a voter must submit proof of residence to register, supply a photo of an ID in order to get an absentee ballot, and have their signature on the absentee ballot witnessed for the ballot to be accepted. Arizona requires proof of citizenship.

New Florida Majority is deep into what Statewide Organizing Director Serena Perez calls the “super-granular work” of educating voters.  “We need to have conversations with millions, people need to know they need a signature match, need to date their ballot…. we have to go through it step by step, have them make a plan.  We’re taking huge chunks of every forum, every People’s Assembly, every organizing space, to do this education,” Perez said.

The pandemic has forced organizers to shift the ways they register, educate and mobilize voters.  In Milwaukee, BLOC pivoted from door-to-door to phone and text canvassing in 48 hours. LUCHA used to be out “anywhere there were people,” said Civic Engagement Director Stephanie Maldonado. Volunteers went to events, strip malls, laundromats and community colleges to register voters. That created trust, Maldonado said, “because we were there, we believe their voices matter, and they deserve to have a vote in things that will affect their day-to-day.”

LUCHA is calling and texting hundreds of thousands of infrequent voters and running digital ads on social media. Neither they nor other groups have seen contact rates drop much with the switch away from in-person canvassing.

The murder of George Floyd after weeks of the deadly disproportionate impact of COVID-19 has awakened people, according to New Georgia Project CEO Nsé Ufot. “We are all watching these events happening in real time and people are responding to what they see,” Ufot said. “Our people are answering their phones and responding to text messages and joining us in virtual town halls and responding to us on social media pages and really figuring out what they can do in this moment.”

Fighting disinformation

As conspiracy theories metastasize and the President lies, fighting misinformation and disinformation has become a key element of voter education. New Georgia Project teaches digital media literacy, and has built video games and an app, “Where civil rights meets civic tech,” to help get eyeballs on the correct information. “We want to be in people’s phones because this is where they get information, where they communicate, where they interact with their communities,” Nsé Ufot said.

Win Justice, a partnership of Community Change Action, Planned Parenthood Votes, Color of Change and the SEIU, addresses disinformation through an app that helps people communicate with their personal networks, so information comes from trusted messengers. “At a time of misinformation and mistrust, people will look to people they know,” Grecia Lima said. Win Justice offers new tools for tracking conversations and following up, but the idea of building on relationship networks goes way back.

“Indians have been organizing since the beginning of time,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance and a citizen of the Caddo Nation. “Our traditional cultures were built on the circle, bringing people together and helping each within our tribal community to play their role and understand that role in relationship to the circle. So when you talk about organizing at a community level, whether in a Black community or a rural white community or a labor union, the same premise applies. People become engaged in something beyond their family, and within the community and even beyond their community in national political struggles based on relationships, trust, values.”

Looking at the whole P.I.E.S.

Even as COVID has separated people physically, it has heightened our needs for relationship and connection. Organizers have responded to that by changing the nature of the conversations they have with people. New Florida Majority had hired 200 people to do voter registration. When the pandemic hit, they switched to making wellness calls, connecting people to resources. Pennsylvania Stands Up was already moving towards a “deep canvassing” model, which they adapted.

“You can’t be on the phones and say, ‘hey, go vote’ when people are dying and having a reaction to that,” Michaela Lovegood said. “We have to build in those structures of community care, asking people ‘How are you coping, who’s holding you, do you need anything? Just to be asked by a stranger, ‘Are you OK’ was sometimes more than they would get before COVID, even. . . we recognize that people are feeling a lot through this crisis and we have to have our wits about us if we’re going towards anything that brings us to the kind of solutions our community needs.” Drawing on her practice with the Political Healers Project, she calls this a “whole PIES” approach, one that sees people in their physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions.

By “ending the erasure of people’s experience,” these conversations also help people turn towards organizing, Lovegood said. “The work of actually turning people out is more than just getting people to sign up and register. It is giving people a sense that there is something tangible that is going to come out of their effort. Not just the effort of clicking links but the effort to believe that somebody out there is going to do something that they care about, for them.”

Breaking through apathy

The deep discouragement that slides into apathy is itself a potent form of voter suppression. Different groups try many different ways of breaking through. New Florida Majority and its statewide allies have developed an eight-hour political education program around voter suppression for their members and base. They’ve found that talking about the reasons for suppression strikes a chord and energizes people.

The New Georgia Project connects the act of voting to issues people care about. “We tell our organizers: ‘You have twice as many ears as mouths, listen. People will tell you what they care about.’ Health care, police violence, Black maternal mortality. the fact that two new nuclear power plants are being built in Black communities. People will tell you what their hopes and concerns are,” Nsé Ufot said.

Year-round organizing

Whether or not people will or can vote, they can be drawn into work for change when electoral organizing is part of a larger program. Some members of the communities targeted by voter suppression are excluded from voting, either because they’re too young, or they lack documents, or they were incarcerated – but they can and do participate. LUCHA’s voter education and mobilization efforts are “basically run by youth, by young people of color that are ensuring that their families and their communities have a voice,” Stephanie Maldonado said.

Other community members may not want to vote.  “Some people are still deeply hurt and traumatized and… may not be ready to think about the election because they see voting as just another part of the status quo that hasn’t yielded results for them,” said Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. “There are opportunities to engage them if organizations keep their infrastructure in place, and organize on a year-round basis ….. Our liberation is not going to be tied to one election, and elections are one tactic to a broader liberation strategy, and it’s important for people to have that political and organizing home that’s not just for an election season.”

Strengthening ties

In this moment that’s stretching the capacity of many grassroots groups, allies from around the country are stepping in to support, creating new webs of connection in the process. Seed the Vote, for example, is building a volunteer crew to phone bank and text with LUCHA, Pennsylvania Stands Up and New Florida Majority. SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice) runs national phone banks that reach out especially to white voters in key states on behalf of candidate and issue campaigns by the New Georgia Project and others.

Pennsylvania Stands Up itself formed when nine organizations in eleven counties came together in 2019. New Florida Majority has upped the ante with its statewide allies, forming the Florida For All coalition. “It’s a literal exercise in movement building, being more deeply rooted with each other, being more formalized, putting all our eggs in a basket together…we’ve endorsed in over 130 races across the state,” said New Florida Majority Political Director Dwight Bullard.

The coalition has also formed the Theory of Change project to coordinate and share resources with smaller grassroots groups on a county by county basis. Organizers hope that the project will not only help on a practical level, but contribute to a new movement culture.

“If we can all agree we’re working towards collective liberation, the root thought process will be one of assuming best intentions,” Bullard said. “If we can agree that we want to save people’s lives, then how you do it versus how I do it should not be of great concern, because we’re all working towards a particular goal. As simple as it sounds, that’s been a major hiccup in movement building for forever.”

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