It’s a mistake to think about elections only when someone you don’t like is in office
This past year has reminded me of many debates I have had about whether or not the Left should engage in electoral work. My stance on this question has been evolving over the years. This year in particular, I reflected on how I have been blinded in the past by what is, instead of what is possible. While I am realistic about the relative weakness of the Left in the current period, I feel a sense of possibility in building power for our communities in the future. As some folks in the Vietnamese community have coined it, this is the Year of the Underdog. In order to claim the year of the Underdog, we will have to do the hard work of reaching out to thousands of people, and work with an eye towards shifting the terrain, and claiming our power.
Back in 2003, I was walking around Lake Merritt in Oakland. I was chopping it up with a fellow organizer about what it would mean to do electoral work. The Iraq War had been declared, Oakland was being gentrified, and we were questioning whether electoral strategies made sense. By the end of the walk, though, we had settled on the fact that since many oppressed people cannot vote, how could this possibly be a pathway for building power? People who are undocumented – who are members of our community, contribute to the U.S. economy, and pay taxes – cannot vote. Black people are over-represented in the prison system, which often strips away their voting rights. This of course is still true. In 2003, Black people were over seven times more likely to be incarcerated than White people
Although I may have called myself a revolutionary at that time, this was not revolutionary thinking. This argument recognized the ways that people were oppressed, but did I really have a way that we were going to build power, to transform the system?
On the other side of the country, in Northern Virginia, where I was born, organizers were feeling the limitations of community organizing tactics. They had first built up a tenants rights group, a women’s project, a taxi workers collective, a day labor program, and a youth program. They had large organizations coming together to build power without engaging in elections. But many of their demands still weren’t being met by those in power.
In 2008, they formed New Virginia Majority (NVM). I came to help start the canvass and organize new immigrant, Asian, South Asian, Latinx, and Black people who wanted universal healthcare and immigrant rights. They focused on people who have never voted or rarely voted. These people have been written off by mainstream political groups, since the Democratic Party only thinks about winning the next election and not about building the independent power of the people.
NVM was brand new to this work, but in less than two months they contacted 50,000 people. Those who we talked to wanted some way of engaging in politics, and elections were the first way they knew how. While they started with elections, these people would later be mobilized to attend town halls on healthcare and immigrant rights marches.
On election day, I was doing a last round of Get Out the Vote and checking to see if folks had any problems at the polls. I met a South Asian woman who had registered for the first time with NVM, called our hotline to get information about where to vote, got a ride from a taxi worker to the polls, and was now watching the elections coverage at home. Why would we give up the opportunity to talk to 50,000 people like this person? We need a movement of millions. This is the scale that we need to be working at.
In 2016, I started working with Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, an organization that organizes young people in red states for reproductive justice. In Alabama, URGE registered voters and talked to them about comprehensive sex education. At the doors, people were surprised to see us. One man told a canvasser at the door, “Nobody comes to our neighborhood. Nobody cares if we vote.” In Texas, people were hungry to talk about the issues that were going on. They wanted talk about immigrant rights. They even wanted to talk about abortion – which many people still think is a taboo topic, especially in Texas. While I was trying to train canvassers, I could barely get through my list because people had so much to say. This type of voter engagement allowed URGE to talk to people about the importance of immigrant rights and keeping families together. URGE was then able to help pass “No Border Wall” resolutions in 15 cities in Texas. And there are still so many more people to talk to.
The second thing that challenged my original so-called revolutionary assessment of electoral work, was that NVM did not ignore the disenfranchisement of people who were formerly incarcerated. Revolutionary thinking is about changing the terrain of struggle. Disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people in Virginia, as in many other states, was created with an explicitly racist intent. They worked on an eight-year fight to give people who had been formerly incarcerated back their right to vote – and they won. NVM showed that they had real power on the ground and advocated for re-enfranchisement and when it passed, they did the work to register people.
I helped coordinate Freedom Summer50 to start the first iteration of voter registration of the formerly incarcerated in 2014. It wasn’t easy. I met people who had already had their appeals to restore their voting rights refused, and they didn’t want to go through that pain and rejection again. But I also heard from people who were trying to get a new start, and they wanted the chance to vote. Along the way, I had the opportunity to hear about other challenges that people were facing with the cost of paying fines and restitution fees. At the time, you could not restore your voting rights without paying them off. It is difficult to find a job and a place to live is when you have a record. Finding a job above minimum wage to pay off the fines is even more difficult. If you cannot pay off the fines, they can be sent to a credit agency for collection increasing the fines even more, and there can be warrants out for your arrest. You end up paying double and triple for your crime. Essentially these fines were a poll tax. Talking about these issues planted the seeds of a new organizing base. The fines and fees were removed as a financial barrier to voting in Virginia in 2015. Over 40,000 newly enfranchised people registered to vote. In the 2016 election, three quarters of people who got their rights restored voted.
The right spends a lot of effort making it harder for people to vote, or so that their vote doesn’t matter. As a result, the Democratic Party has largely given up on these people. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t the potential for power there. Elections are a terrain of struggle that we should see as a path to power for our people for the long term. Voter engagement is a way to both mobilize people around elections, but more importantly it connects us with a broad base to build power independent from elections. So let me set the bar up a notch: it is not enough to get white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and Trumpism out. Let’s think about how we want to change the game even past 2020. We need the enfranchisement of all our people. We need to be doing the work in a way that builds up our forces, and our grassroots leaders, to contend for power. We need to have a higher level of conversations when we take our walk around Lake Merritt in Oakland, or Townpoint Park in Norfolk, VA, or the San Antonio River Walk.