Millions of disenfranchised minorities have been sitting out elections, and the Republican state legislatures have initiated an avalanche of voter suppression laws to keep it that way while our Democratic leadership has done nothing to respond. In fact, our leaders are defending the filibuster and telling minority activists that they just need to “out-organize” the GOP in lieu of legislation. It’s not just insulting, it’s unrealistic: Republican candidates enjoy sophisticated operations targeting potential voters, while Democratic candidates in key states like Florida are forced to pay exorbitant costs just to access outdated voter data. The truth is that in most red states, the GOP isn’t afraid of the Democratic Party.
Who they are afraid of are people like Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown. They are people who can’t be placated, compromised, or bought. Despite massive structural obstacles put in place to disenfranchise minority communities, they reached out, registered, and worked tirelessly to turn out ethnic minorities in lower-income communities throughout Georgia. Even worse for the GOP, they provided their playbook for others. Granted, they didn’t work alone, as other Black women stepped up to turn Georgia blue, including Nsé Ufot, Helen Butler, Deborah Scott, and Tamieka Atkins. The good news is that community leaders in other states are also stepping up.
There’s a long and rich history of Black women’s groups fighting for full voting rights after white suffragist groups fell short or disbanded. That tradition continues as new leaders try to replicate the success in Georgia tailoring their approach to the unique challenges and unique communities in their states. As our national party flails in the face of Republican opposition to voting rights, our only hope lies with these leaders to save us from right-wing authoritarianism.Here are some efforts happening right now in North Carolina, Texas, and Florida.
In the Tarheel State, educator and former candidate Aimy Steele has formed a group called the New North Carolina Project. Steele is a Black woman who lost two consecutive elections by less than 3,000 votes each time. Although she came up short, it wasn’t due to lack of effort; She spent many hours with volunteers knocking on doors and talking with neighbors. With the hundreds of conversations she had with people, she realized the necessity of an organization in her state to engage with people of color year-round to get them involved in the political process. Biden lost North Carolina by just under 75,000 votes, yet over one million voters of color didn’t cast their ballot.
Steele’s group is attempting to get those million eligible folks of color out to vote next year. The New North Carolina Project directly engages in political activity, and has already raised over $2 million for their effort. Their sister organization, the New North Carolina Project Foundation, accepts tax-deductible donations to register voters but cannot engage in partisan political activities.
Steele believes that if she can get early voting close to 50% among minorities in 2022, that will be enough to swing the state in the critical open-seat Senate race. It’s a challenge: 80% of white voters cast ballots, but only 67% of minority voters turned out in 2020. In the 2018 midterms, people of color cast fewer than 53% of the ballots in total. Instead of blaming them for not coming out, Steele says we need to give them a reason to do so:
“We need to engage more communities of color, not just in political and electoral organizing, but in general everyday life stuff. You cannot go into communities of color when you need a vote and then leave and say, you know, thank you very much and then not return back with some tangible response to needs in those communities,” said Steele, who has three degrees from UNC-Charlotte in education and school administration.
“We’re here to build a year-round community organizing infrastructure.”
The group is going door to door, holding events, and planning on calling and texting people closer to the election. The key is person-to-person engagement, something the Republicans figured out long ago. In last year’s election, Democrats relied on phone calls and online events to counter the personal engagement strategy of the GOP due to the pandemic, and we got clobbered.
Texas has the largest pool of nonvoting people of color in any state, besides California, which is why the right-wing legislature there is trying so hard to erect obstacles for minorities to vote. Texas is, in fact, a minority-majority state, with Mexican Americans and Black folks making up over 53% of the Texas’ population, and that percentage grows every year. Texas should have at least 50% minority representation in the state legislature, but with extreme gerrymandering, minority districts only make up 18% of the state. The gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics keep the GOP in power and have the added “benefit” of disenfranchising the minority communities, who feel like they aren’t being listened to.
Texas had a whopping 4.5 million eligible minority voters who didn’t vote in 2020, which means the Democrats lost by only 631,000 votes. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke lost his Senate bid to Ted Cruz by 215,000 votes, whereas over 5.4 million people of color didn’t cast a ballot. The Texas Organizing Project Education Fund commissioned a nonpartisan face-to-face study to find out what drives civic engagement in minority communities. The study featured open-ended questions with face-to-face interviews. The results were enlightening. Many Mexican-Americans and Tejanos considered themselves Democrats, or aligned closely to Democratic issues, but responded that they didn’t feel that their vote mattered. Many said they don’t vote because their votes never seem to change anything.
Both Democrats and Republicans tend to only focus on immigration issues with this community, but the study showed that there was a wide range of topics they wanted their legislators to focus on, such as a higher minimum wage and affordable health care. Even though the Democrats champion these issues, they felt Democrats just used them as platitudes for election season. Not getting things done, and in some cases, not even attempting to get things done, has consequences.
Many study participants were financially struggling, which significantly affected their priority to vote. Most said they did not feel empowered. The common thread found that Latinos in Texas were well-informed, not “sleeping,” as described by many pundits. Yet they felt our political system was rigged against them, and that their concerns weren’t being addressed.
“If you’ve taken the time to see what Hispanics really want, all they really want is somebody to listen to them,” said Claudia, who had been the first of our 104 interviewees.
“You might not even be what they want in a [candidate]. But as long as you listen to them and give them that attention and respect, they’ll respect you just for that. And you might even get their vote.”
Many of the participants said the study was the first time that someone had ever even asked about their concerns and issues, and just by doing that, it made an impression. In a follow-up interview, several participants who identified themselves as nonvoters registered to vote and participated in the primary.
The Texas Organizing Project is the sister organization to the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund. The mission of the project is to organize Black and Latinx communities across the state, but particularly in Dallas, Harris, Travis, and Bexar counties, with the goal of transforming Texas into a state where people of color get fair representation. It is led by Michelle Tremillo and Brianna Brown, the executive director and deputy director, who were featured on Daily Kos’ podcast “The Brief.” Their organization is responsible for several success stories at the city and county level, and their efforts have already tipped the outcomes in several close races in Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston.
Fight4FL was launched to register voters and give candidates campaign support and data that the Democratic Party doesn’t provide to its candidates outside of very select “battleground” races. As a progressive candidate for CD-18 last year, Pam Keith was utterly frustrated by the massive disadvantages she had compared to her opponent, Republican Brian Mast.
Republican candidates here are largely backed by the Chamber of Commerce, and get access to a massive database of citizens, both registered and non-registered, that they can use to target not just to register to vote, but to tailor a message. Their candidates know education level, income, interests, affiliation, etc. that helps them target individuals to get them to the polls.
This strategy has paid off dividends for the right wing. The Republican party is in firm control of the state legislature, as well as all statewide offices sans one. In addition, as of Nov. 5, for the first time in Florida history, Republicans have registered more voters than the Democrats. We just can’t do much worse than we have been doing.
According to Keith, Democratic candidates in Florida essentially only work with NGP VAN, which Democratic campaigns must spend a lot of money on in order to obtain the basic demographic information it provides. Many smaller campaigns can’t afford access. These lists are not the most up-to-date, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, Democratic campaigns must then rely entirely on volunteers to get their candidate’s message out. I saw this firsthand years ago when I helped arrange an event with another Daily Kos member because the state and local parties provided no resources.
Democratic campaigns parachute into minority and Democratic communities at election time, and expect them to vote. There is no engagement for non-registered voters, no professionally tailored messaging to individuals, and limited voter contact. Last year, with COVID-19, Democrats didn’t even do that. Naturally, our methodology has failed spectacularly.
In addition, the voter suppression laws that DeSantis passed are directly tied to the structural advantages the Republicans already have. One new law that just passed requires everyone in Florida to re-register to vote by mail. Why? Because the state Republicans not only already have an updated list of all GOP voters, but directly and regularly communicates with all of them through email, text, and mailers. The Florida Democrats don’t have anything close to this. Non-government organizations and campaigns primarily do voter contact.
Keith and another former candidate, Adam Christensen, have teamed up to counter the GOP dominance in this field. The plan is for F4FL to function as four entities: a non-profit that provides community-service-oriented voter engagement operations, a PAC to fundraise for candidates, an independent expenditure PAC to engage in statewide messaging, and a Florida Benefit corporation that will develop database operations and run a campaign services operation.
They have already built a mobile application for Democratic campaigns that allow for the harvesting of data from the field in real time, yet Keith said they have only been able to fund the program for the data profiles of a little over half a million Floridians. Private companies and the Florida Republican Party have the data profile for all Floridians. The payment is steep from the information companies that sell this data, but it is an absolutely vital investment to run a modern campaign.
Bloomberg invested over $100 million in this state last year, which only a tiny fraction could have been used to build the infrastructure to put us on a level playing field with the GOP. Instead, that money disappeared due to ineffective political ads, idiotic consultants, and a polling firm founded by Trump-supporter Doug Schoen.
For people like me, who have lived here for decades, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to watch a state filled with Democrats have a government more dominated by Republicans than Alabama because of how woefully unorganized and outdated our state party has become. I’m done waiting for better leadership at the local and state level. These outside groups are what is going to save us.
All of these groups that are doing so much work trying to turn us blue operate on shoestring budgets of between a couple hundred thousand to a few million dollars. Try to imagine how much winning could be done if just half of the $67 million donated to the Lincoln Project last year was given to groups organizing in Texas to mobilize Black and Latinx voters, or in North Carolina to engage in minority communities, or here in Florida to build the desperately needed campaign infrastructure.
We keep telling women of color they are the backbone of support for the Democratic party. Yet they are also the ones who figured out how to win. The formula is a straightforward one: rally to fight voting restrictions on people of color, and actually listen to address the needs of those communities that don’t feel compelled to vote in the first place. It’s long past time we stop paying lip service to the leaders of these critical organizations for their support, and instead start investing in them.
New North Carolina Project: https://newnorthcarolinaproject.org/
Organize Texas: https://organizetexas.org/