Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Voter Registration, The Democrats' Sleeping Giant


-by Alice Marshall

In 1980 The AFL-CIO's Committee On Political Education hired me to run a voter education project in Virginia's 4th Congressional District. I made my headquarters in Franklin, Virginia, a paper mill town 40 miles west of Norfolk Virginia. My job was to contact union members who were not registered to vote and persuade them to register as well as contact members who were registered to vote and persuade them to vote for the candidates the union had endorsed.

I was given two computer print-outs of union members, one of union members who were registered to vote and a second, and far larger list, of members who were not registered to vote. Again, my job was to persuade unregistered members to register to vote, and persuade both groups to vote for the union endorsed candidates. So I went about contacting members at the factory gate, by phone, and by mail. In Franklin I went to each shift change at the paper mill, 6 AM, 3 PM, and 11 PM, and distributed fliers urging workers to register and giving the times and places that they could register. I made sure that everyone knew that the registrar kept evening hours on Wednesday evenings. In those days there was no mail-in registration, that was put in by Bill Clinton. So if you could not get to the registrar during regular office hours, there was only one evening you could go to register. Wednesday is prayer night in the South, every church, black and white, has their prayer meetings, choir rehearsal, bible study, and so on, on Wednesday evenings. So by offering extended hours only on Wednesday evenings, the local establishment could effectively disenfranchise workers. Unless, of course, someone like me came to town and asked every worker to register to vote.

The local registrar told me that 1980 had seen the largest increase of voters of any election in her career. In 1976 Franklin had gone for Gerald Ford. In 1980 Franklin voted for Jimmy Carter. I suspect that it was one of the only jurisdictions in the country that flipped from Republican to Democratic in 1980. That experience taught me the power of voter registration. I don't think we could have saved the country from Reagan merely by voter registration. But there is no doubt that Democrats have lost many elections by failing to incorporate voter registration into their campaign strategy.

I am told that it isn't worth the effort to mobilize marginal voters, that it is too expensive. But Republicans don't think so. Republicans spend millions of dollars on voter suppression. For some reason Democrats have never drawn the obvious conclusion, that they can win elections by pushing back against voter suppression. Somehow Democrats think they can win elections even when much of their base stays home.

When I became Chair of the Voter Registration for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, I knew that I could dramatically increase the Democratic vote merely by targeted voter registration efforts. By 1998 Bill Clinton had changed the law so that every state had mail-in voter registration. This meant that it was no longer necessary to create satellite registration sites, it was no longer necessary to persuade voters to go to the registrar's office. Now all you had to do is to get boxes of voter registration applications from the registrar's office, print up a flier asking people to register to vote, and distribute them. And so, this is precisely what I set about to do. Carefully examining precinct returns to identify those areas with Democratic vote of 60% or better, I identified low rent garden apartments all over Fairfax County for my campaign.

At first I went out by myself; no one on the committee understood what I was doing. But after I was able to report that indeed, voter registration applications were trickling into the registrar's office, committee members began to volunteer. After a few months I had a regular group who could be depended upon to go out, even in the hottest weather, and distribute fliers and forms in every low rent garden apartment complex in the county.

It was difficult to persevere. I remember a very hot Saturday in July distributing forms in the Vista Gardens apartment complex. My volunteers distributed forms to each of the 1200 apartments. Of these, only 11 were mailed in, a return of less than 1%. Furthermore there is an excellent chance that 3 of these new voters were Republicans. Virginia does not register by party, so this is only a guess. But if the guess is correct we registered a net gain of 5 Democratic votes. However, when you consider that Jack Kennedy won the 1960 election by an average of less than one vote per precinct, you realize that 5 new voters per precinct is a significant gain. Moreover, there were several large apartment complexes in that precinct and we worked all of them. And yes, each weekend saw a return of less than 1%. But altogether we added something like 60 new voters in that precinct that year, and almost certainly at least 50 of them Democrats, for a net gain of 40 votes. 40 additional Democratic votes in a single precinct is a major gain. Furthermore, all the voter registration activity in that precinct had the effect of mobilizing those people who were already registered to vote. The Democratic vote in that precinct increased by an additional 10 points, one of our best gains. Only some precincts offer the opportunity for this sort of gain. But it breaks my heart that local Democratic committees are walking away from these opportunities.

In his great documentary, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Greg Palast observes that before they take away your job, your pension, your house, first they must take away your vote. If progressives are to protect jobs, collective bargaining, pensions, and the rest, first progressives must defend voting rights. If you are not doing voter registration and voter protection, can you really say you are a progressive?

The cumulative impact of my voter registration work in Fairfax over successive years helped shift the entire county. In 1999 Democrats won a State Senate race, school board race, and Board of Supervisor's race based on the increase of the Democratic margin in Democratic precincts. There can be no doubt that we could shift the whole country with such efforts.

This post is addressed to members of local party committees, precinct captains. Candidates and campaign managers will not understand this. Candidates and campaign managers are interested in winning their election. They are focused only on the campaign season at hand. They are not interested in cultivating the Democratic vote in a single precinct over time.

Most of the Democratic politicians in Fairfax County did not understand or support my work. Gerry Connolly was one of the few who understood my work and supported it. I know that he is not popular with progressives. But there are reasons that he remains popular with Democratic activists in his district.

If you live in Virginia, New Jersey, Kentucky, or any state which has elections this year, I encourage you to start planning a voter registration effort now. People will tell you that you will not get a good return in an off-year election. Yet  it is precisely in low turnout years that voter registration can play a crucial role in victory. It is true that you will not get anything like the response you would get in a presidential year. But in a low turnout election, 40 additional votes in a Democratic precinct is the difference between winning and losing. For more information about voter registration, voter protection, and pushing back against voter suppression read my book: The Precinct Captain's Guide To Political Victory.

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At 12:43 AM, Anonymous ap215 said...

Good post Alice thanks.

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

only a third of the battle. Yes, register people to vote. absolutely. In fact, there is a youtube thingy with some R fascist douchenozzle advocating for voter suppression so that republicans will win... from back in the '70s. look it up.

But you must also give all these voters someone and something to rally behind.

And you must also prevent the racist fascists (and even the less racist fascists) from stripping, flipping, suppressing and caging votes.

If you go to the trouble of the first, you cannot ignore the equal or greater efforts of the second two. And when both of the second two are from your own, you'll never win.

So... you'll never win again.

The "party" that sometimes works toward progress and ALWAYS works harder toward regress needs to be euthanized and replaced by something truly progressive.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger Alice said...

there are ways to push back against voter suppression

and you will be amazed how politicians evolve when they know that retail clerks, hospital workers, and janitors will be voting. Gerry Connolly became an energetic champion of immigrant rights after the voter registration effort. He is also very good on the minimum wage.

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Dems registration sleeping giant?

One word: ACORN.

Another victim of Dem establishment self-destructive stupidity and spinelessness.

John Puma

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alice, your example is the exception to the rule. Crosscheck whacked 7 million voters. Various photo-id and other laws suppressed many millions more. Ds have been NEARLY mute on these.

And the Ds themselves exploited tactical suppression during the primary to make sure Bernie did not become the nominee.

And John, another good point. Any successful effort to get more voters will result in a strategic and successful push back by the racist fascists to get voting back to a manageable minority of the eligible. And, as usual, the Ds will be mute.

At 6:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Democrats think they can win elections even when much of their base stays home."

One needs to define "win" to truly understand why the obvious (to most rational people) actions aren't taken to correct this problem.

To current "Democrats", win means that the political bribes known as "campaign contributions" continue to roll in. They know that as long as they ensure that the Republican issues are passed and the popular outrage quelled, they won't face a real challenger - and later the need to find a real job and live off those comparatively meagre wages.

The Democrats only remain a party because they function as the Praetorian Guard of the economic elites. Doubt me? How many banksters did Barry's lapdog shyster Holder ever indict? Yet how many whistle blowers ended up behind bars because they were leaking the truth to We the People? Can't mess with the profits of the MIC, or Congress critters might become impoverished and homeless. How could we voters do something that nasty to Skid Row?

I have no hope that the Democrats can be saved or reformed. I also have no hope that the American people are awake enough to save our nation from the growth of corporatism. They want to be coddled, be entertained, and be told they are the greatest when they have done nothing to merit anything.

Corporatism is going to lead the world into the largest conflagration ever, for the places where the best profits are seen to be contain people for whom such "value" is meaningless, and they will fight back. Greater and greater force will be applied to harvest these riches for a select few who won't pretend to care about those hurt or killed in delivering the wealth. Things will grow more violent until some fool lights off a nuke or unleashes an enhanced version of the 1918 flu virus. Or worse.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in one of his last works that the epitaph of humanity should be "They didn't like it here." Daily, humanity proves him to be an astute observer of the human condition. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

At 7:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

6:09, very good post. Vonnegut would have been more correct had he written "too stupid to live" instead. But his may be a bit more prosaic.


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