The task of turnout has been subcontracted to candidates with little coordination among allies: national issue organizations, local membership organizations, technologists or anybody else. But if we lined up all we have toward a specific goal, with a network-based turnout experiment in a specific area targeting a state or city with an election on Nov. 5, 2019, we could finally illustrate a new method for success.
The current effort to persuade people to vote is handled partly by various nonpartisan and a few partisan efforts. At the last minute, these volunteers yell at people to vote, including those who would vote anyway, and at those for whom strangers yelling at them won’t work, and those who aren’t even registered. But the main responsibility falls to candidates at all levels, who naturally overlap in seeking votes, funding and volunteers.
Those volunteers call possible voters, block-walk and batch-text. This is a giant effort that provides an enriching and exciting experience for volunteers. But as we can see, it doesn’t work well enough and campaign professionals know it. They don’t say it because they want to keep the volunteers motivated and don’t have any other ideas.
Plus, these professionals have a very big personal stake in keeping fundraising central to how campaigns are run. This effort deploys urgency, the false urgency of fundraising deadlines and the real urgency of the election itself. Since urgency is the only motivator, there’s nothing for volunteers to do in the months between elections.
Research shows that when we are barraged and under constant stress, the response is to shut down, as so many potential allies do during election season. That’s what we see with the electorate. To gin all this up, we use fear of the other side, which turns off independents. The campaign is a military metaphor and so we fight to the end. But this victory or defeat is for candidates, not for voters, not for government, and not for activists.
The way volunteers are dropped after they have been used for an election is the greatest waste in the whole process and is terrible for democracy. We need a way of organizing all of us to vote that is calm, deliberate, constant and effective.
A networked turnout experiment for a November 2019 election would entail these steps: Build a comprehensive list of all likely progressive voters and a separate list of activists in the area. The activists will have one set of demographics and the potential voters have a slightly different make up. It is key to treat the voters and activists as different groups who respond to different motivation and play a different roles.
Activists already vote and are looking for ways to help. They don’t need to be motivated, they only need to be directed with meaningful, effective work throughout the year. Potential voters will vote if somebody they know and trust helps them. Matching all potential progressive voters with activists who will take responsibility for helping them vote will take several months and must be completely separated from the competition among candidates. It will be slow and deliberate rather than loud and public. It will focus on personal contact and building trust, and it must be documented, measured and a part of a goal-focused effort.
This effort will build a permanent progressive turnout machine. After the election these activists can keep their voters informed about what officeholders are doing related to issues they care about, at the local, national and international level. All these voters don’t only need to vote, they need some indication that it matters.
This is the difference between campaign volunteers and activists. Volunteers are deployed, released after an exciting emotional push, then let go. That is fine for an effort to persuade voters to vote for a particular candidate, but not to convince people to go to the polls. Those two jobs should be separated, and turnout should be the responsibility of activists, who will do that constantly.
A network model would have at its heart not parties or candidates, not campaign staff or campaign consultants, and not volunteers who work hard in the weeks before elections and then wonder what to do until the next election. It would be based on a network of activists reaching out and taking responsibility for voters they already know throughout the year.
We use networks to do everything in this world — from finding a job to picking a taco. Yet, in our core duty as citizens, networks are absent. We rely on candidates to hire consultants to create new lists of strangers each and every election. We should rely on activists who who will work, learn, grow and engage these voters. And their voters will grow with them. It is time to help activists in this quiet dedication of a lifetime. And start winning more elections.
Mark Mullen is founder of BeTheWave.Vote He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2018/11/07/progressives-keep-losing-elections