My Experience with Grassroots Efforts
during the 2017 Virginia Elections
- The support of grassroots groups in the successful 2017 Virginia legislative campaign may provide some lessons for the upcoming November 2018 state- and federal-level elections in other states.
- I have been a member of We of Action (WofA), a grassroots group based in Arlington VA that prioritizes action on progressive concerns.
- I have found hope, intellectual challenge, connections with people of diverse views, and new friendships from my activism and focus on state politics.
- WofA’s operations have been inclusive, used a variety of social media, and focused on progressive values rather than political party affiliation. WofA members supported political campaigns including selected swing districts beyond Arlington.
- State government elections are important — support for state legislative races enables simultaneous support for up-ticket races (e.g., state-wide state government and US federal legislature offices). A different composition of state politicians in the future can also help combat gerrymandering. Focus within a state legislature district also enables more intensive communication between candidates and potential voters.
- Pre-primary activity can include voter registration and canvassing on political views and orientation, while subsequent activities can include canvassing, phone-banking, and postcards for specific progressive candidates.
- Final Get-Out-the Vote and election-day activities are important.
- Networking with other grassroots groups help minimize duplication and make best use of the strengths of various groups, but a tolerance of a degree of chaos is still required.
- Running progressive candidates in as many districts as possible is important to overall success, even when those candidates lost the election.
- Fundraising is important, but volunteer support is even more crucial.
- There are good generic resources available to support for volunteers with training, knowledge and skills, and grassroots groups can develop additional support for specific campaigns.
- Success has generated enthusiasm for additional activism during 2018.
Purpose of this paper. The success achieved by progressive candidates in the 2017 Virginia legislative campaign with support of grassroots groups may provide some insights and lessons for others seeking to have an impact in the upcoming November 2018 state- and federal-level elections. My experience has been mainly as a member of the Executive Committee and a co-leader of the Voting and Elections Group of We of Action (WofA — www.wofava.org), a large Indivisible/women’s huddle group based in Arlington, VA. Arising after the November 2016 elections, WofA now has over about 1500 members including 1300 people on its Facebook feed, and hosts monthly meetings with attendance of about 50–80 members, as well as other smaller task force meetings. This paper solely reflects my personal views and is not intended to indicate approved or official stances of WofA.
My initial focus on state politics. Even before I became a member of WofA, I started to focus on Virginia state legislative issues and upcoming 2017 elections. After the January 2017 Women’s March I began to read everything I could about the Virginia General Assembly composition, voting patterns, status of electoral races, and opportunities for engagement. At the start, I knew practically nothing about state politics, although I was vaguely aware that the lopsided composition of the General Assembly had severely curtailed legislative achievements by my own Delegate. Because of gerrymandering and low voter turnout in off-year elections, the Virginia House of Delegates had 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats — a ratio that did not accurately reflect Virginia’s electorate or progressive values on a wide range of issues, including healthcare, environment, social justice, civil rights, voting rights and gun violence prevention. In early March I independently summarized my main findings and posted these on a variety of Facebook group pages in order to help orient others. In aggregate this posting received over 500 “likes” and I think helped raise awareness among activists across the state of the issues and opportunities at this early stage. The link to this now out-of-date document is at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OBp-o-dqcyqaR2IYIxEC8CUDXuu3MIBGfT0ldeAEie0/pub . Based on this response, I began to hope that grassroots mobilization could make a real difference, compared to past “off-year” state government election campaigns.
Benefits of activism in state politics. I have been able to stay hopeful and sane during what otherwise appeared to be very difficult and discouraging political times, by supporting for state legislative candidates who appeared to have relatively good chances of success. I have also found the topic of state politics to be intellectually stimulating, since as mentioned above, my learning curve has been steep (my involvement in any type of elections had been previously limited and superficial, and my prior active involvement in political movements took place mostly as a teenager and young adult). My activities, especially the canvassing work in outer suburbs, helped me move beyond my bubble of like-minded friends and family.
Benefits of WofA membership. I joined WofA in late February 2017 and soon found this group provided a supportive framework for my focus on state politics. I also have found a whole new community of friends, and a warm atmosphere of appreciation and encouragement. The involvement, skills, and comardery within WofA have also helped magnify my own efforts and effectiveness.
Organizational Arrangements and Approaches
Activities of WofA. As its name implies, WofA prioritizes action by its members. WofA’s activities are based on the concerns and passions of its members. During 2017 this led to an initial organization into five basic groups: Issues (with subgroups including immigration, environment, and gun violence prevention), voting and elections, common ground (i.e., communication across political divides), youth outreach, and administrative/information technology support. Like many Indivisible groups, WofA as a whole initially focused mostly on lobbying our federal legislators about issues of concern and overall integrity, but as the 2017 election season proceeded we became more and more focused in the Virginia state legislative and state-wide office campaigns. In general the extent of our activities has been driven by the degree of enthusiasm, skills, time availability and commitment of our active members. Accordingly our ambitions have sometimes been moderated by the “art of the possible”, and the extent and focus of activities have varied over time. The depth and breadth of professional skills of WofA members, which have included legal, communication, group facilitation, and analytical expertise, have strengthened our mutual respect and group effectiveness.
Inclusion and social media. WofA, whose core leadership is comprised mostly of female “gen-Xers”, has welcomed and appreciated participants across all ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds. As a baby booomer, I have enjoyed my participation within the Executive Committee and appreciated the social media and presentation skills of other WofA members. WofA members use a variety of social media to communicate — Facebook, email including google group links, Slack, Twitter, and Instagram. They also prepare slide shows with music for its meetings, and post photos (“if you don’t have a photo, it didn’t happen”) and videos, and compile charts. The WofA Facebook group has “secret” membership (i.e. membership and postings not visible to non-members) due to the relatively high number of members who prefer privacy due to their jobs. Facebook is the most active forum, but a majority of the baby boomer members whom I have recruited rely only on email and associated online links to google groups and other websites. I don’t use Twitter or Instagram, and my presentational skills are basic, but I have deeply appreciated the outreach and motivation that the efforts of others have fostered.
Organizational framework. To date, WofA has not organized itself as a separate legal entity. Minor administrative expenses have been covered by individual members. In order to comply with Virginia’s political campaign laws (which I understand are in any case looser than in many other states), WofA itself has not fundraised for political campaigns — instead individual members have sponsored fundraisers. Similarly, for most activities including political campaign activities, WofA has served as a clearinghouse to mobilize WofA members to join activities of other groups who have the appropriate legal status. For example, most voter registration was handled under the auspices of non-profit organizations or political parties. Similarly, candidate-based canvassing was conducted through the campaigns of the Delegate candidates or in some cases, the Combined Campaign of state-wide candidates. (Canvassing within campaigns makes sense in other ways since it helps avoid duplication of effort and/or annoying potential voters with too many canvassing visits or phone calls).
Group unity. As a group we have tried to be inclusive and avoid single-issue litmus tests. We have not rehashed the 2016 elections or the division between Bernie and Hillary supporters. WofA does not take a group position in Democratic Party primaries — WofA’s position was and continues to be that members would support whoever won, provided the candidates held generally progressive values. Primary winners were supported even if they didn’t necessarily endorse everything that many of us wanted (e.g. Northam on Dominion Energy and pipelines; Herring on the death penalty). WofA members also valued demonstrations of unity within the electoral campaigns themselves. The losing candidates, both in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and most of the Democratic primaries for Delegate, actively supported the winning candidates after the election and this facilitated overall support from voters. E.J Dionne wrote an essay which helps further explain aspects of this philosophy: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/stop-the-sniping-washington-democrats-learn-from-the-grass-roots/2017/11/19/788a9880-cbd9-11e7-8321-481fd63f174d_story.html?utm_term=.21d61b9b4f23.
Political party affiliation. In Virginia, WofA members supported Democratic candidates, but our support has always been based on the candidates’ views and values rather than their party affiliation. While we communicated with the campaigns and various levels of the Democratic Party (especially the House of Delegates Democratic Caucus) we maintained our independence. In the delegate races, this independence meant we channeled more support to relatively more marginal candidates. Being relative political novices, we initiated activities outside the box that were not necessarily priorities of local Democratic committees, such as postcards, social media “buzz”, and paraphrased summaries of recent legislative proposals. Not all our ideas have succeeded but we have had fun learning, even from our failures. We have drawn in volunteers not comfortable with mainstream party politics. However, those of us who worked on electoral campaigns have gained invaluable knowledge and skills from experienced party activists.
Outreach for candidates beyond our borders. Arlington is heavily progressive Democratic (historically above 70%). Our own state delegates were incumbents who were either running unopposed or did not face meaningful opposition. Voter turnout within Arlington has always been important in the races for state-wide office, and in 2017 WofA members assisted in raising turnout in an “off-year” election when turnout is usually relatively low. We organized “WofA Wednesdays” when volunteers from WofA would canvass within Arlington using the county Democratic party voter lists and materials. We also joined the final Get- Out-the-Vote canvassing push within Arlington. However, this local situation also meant that we could share our volunteer energy and financial resources (Arlington is relatively affluent compared to other parts of Virginia) with what were likely to be tight Delegate races in other districts. Our positive experience suggests that grassroots groups in other states in 2018 may also want to foster collaboration between groups in “safe” districts and groups in “flippable” districts.
Voting and Elections Activities
Raising awareness of 2017 state government elections’ importance. In the beginning, WofA members needed to educate themselves in order to help focus, maintain enthusiasm, and motivate/influence others. One of the early activities of the WofA Voting and Elections group was to draft a one-page flyer on why the 2017 state government elections were important: https://wofavaorg.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/votereducationflyer.pdf . While the text was specific to elections in Virginia in 2017, some of it could be adapted to explain why state government elections in other states are important in 2018. For example in Virginia there was a synergy between the state-wide office and local legislative district efforts — support for state legislature races enabled us to simultaneously support state-wide races (i.e., Governor, Lt Governor, and Attorney General). During 2018 campaigns in other states, in addition to this benefit, support for state legislature races will also enable up-ticket support for races in the larger US Congressional Representative districts and the state-wide US Senate races. Another factor that continues to be relevant for other states in the 2018 state government races is the importance to combating gerrymandering in 2021. In Virginia, the Governor will have veto power over state redistricting in 2021. All the Democratic candidates for Delegate as well as state-wide offices expressed their support for fair redistricting during their campaigns. Although not highlighted in the Vote in 2017 flyer, another advantage of a focus on individual state legislature districts is that it facilitates more intensive communication between candidates and potential voters. A recent article in the New Republic further explains the importance of state legislature races: https://newrepublic.com/article/145820/virginia-taught-democrats-winning-back-states .
Selection of Delegate districts and the district adopters program. Since incumbent Delegates in highly-Democratic Arlington were facing little or no competition, individuals from the WofA voting and elections group focused on supporting 22 of the 54 new candidates in other Delegate districts. The principal criteria in all but one was the relative “likelihood of winning”, but even so, several could still be considered “stretches”. WofA members also supported three incumbents who had faced close races in 2015. In addition, some individual WofA members supported other candidates with weaker prospects (i.e., not on the list of 25) because of personal reasons — e.g., candidates who had ties to Arlington, who had positive publicity and personalities, or who lived in districts where the WofA members had personal connections. Our support included having WofA members “adopt” districts by liaising with the campaigns and locally based activist groups, mobilizing additional volunteers, helping with canvassing, phone-banking, postcard writing, providing advice on issues, summarizing state legislative history including positions of Republican incumbents, etc. It also involved individual WofA members sponsoring fundraisers.
Election results. As is well-known, results were overwhelmingly positive. The 22 state new delegate candidates supported included all 15 of the now-certified winners, the two races that were extensively contested, one other very close race that regrettably lost after recount, and three others who lost by less than 5%. All supported districts showed an increase in the percentage of Democratic votes compared with previous elections. The gain in seats has increased the number of Democrats from 34 to 49 as of early December.
Factors Contributing to Our Success
Strategic scheduling of activities. Prior to the primaries, those of us supporting voting and elections focused on activities to foster eventual electoral success in the general election. This included:
- Getting to know grassroots groups based within the swing districts
- Encouraging people to run as candidates in as many races as possible;
- Gathering and sharing information on primary candidates
- Canvassing for information on political orientation and views (but not for specific candidates).
- Expanding voter registration, especially among communities with historically low voter participation. After trying to reach out directly to these diverse communities, we ultimately found that we could be more effective by collaborating with other groups which already had effective ties and outreach programs, e.g. New Virginia Majority, CASA, NAACP, League of Women Voters, Next Gen, churches, unions, etc. A recent article discussing the importance of expanding the voter base is in https://www.thenation.com/article/democrats-dont-need-trump-supporters-to-win-elections/
After the primary (and before that in districts where there was no primary competition) we directly supported the candidates’ campaigns. We began with a focus on voter identification (confirmation of political views in the Voter Activation Network (VAN) database) and persuasion, and then, during the last two weeks before the general election, on get-out-the-vote (GOTV). WofA members undertook over 100 canvas shifts during the final GOTV weekend alone. As mentioned above, additional support included analytical work and fundraising. Our election-day support included reminding voters at metro stops, poll greeting, and poll watching.
Networking, coordinating and collaborating with other grassroots groups. Specific WofA leaders networked and coordinated with other grassroots groups to minimize duplication and maximize impacts. It was important to be willing to tolerate a degree of chaos. This collaboration and tolerance of chaos is reflected in one of the best descriptions of a 2017 Delegate campaign in VA, in a New York Times Magazine article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/magazine/how-the-resistance-helped-democrats-dominate-virginia.html?_r=0 . I really appreciate the countless hours of meetings and online communication that a few WofA members undertook to facilitate this coordination.
Breadth of competition. In retrospect we have realized how important it was to run progressive candidates in as many districts as possible even when the candidates didn’t stand much of a chance. The competition meant that conservative incumbents had to defensively spend resources on their own campaigns, rather than sharing with others within their party. For example, Democratic candidate Kellen Squire ran in a conservative district north of Charlottesville against a Delegate who was the Republican Caucus Chair, who then didn’t distribute his funds to other races: https://bluevirginia.us/2017/11/why-democrats-must-compete-everywhere . As a consequence, this race helped progressive candidates in other districts keep up financially and increased their chances of success.
Fundraising. Early fundraising helped catalyze additional support from other groups and raise the profile for other in-kind support. It also gave an opportunity for more of us to meet the candidates in person and become more engaged. In July, individuals from WofA, in collaboration with members of other grassroots groups, hosted an on-line fundraiser for all 25 of our sponsored candidates, in conjunction with a fundraising event where we were able to meet most of the candidates in person. Several of the district adopters also recruited their own groups of sponsors to host additional fundraising events for individual Delegate candidates. We raised an aggregate of almost $55,000, not including contributions from WofA members to the fundraisers hosted by other groups. We often invited the chair of the House of Delegates Democratic Caucus Campaign, who is also one of our local delegates, to serve as the master of ceremony for our fundraisers. Post-election analysis shows that, with a few exceptions, funding levels and distribution were an important factor in affecting the election outcomes: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/12/11/1720944/-Virginia-a-month-after-election-night-big-wins-and-a-look-at-resource-allocation .
Support for and from volunteers. Volunteering is essential — canvassing, phone-banking, postcard writing, and research (e.g., summarizing why Delegate races were important, paraphrasing bills supported by the current legislature and then vetoed by Governor, paraphrasing desirable bills rejected by current legislature). Having a variety of ways of support allows individuals to participate in accordance with their interests, talents, availability, and comfort. WofA provided opportunities for new volunteers to partner with others who were more experienced, to travel to canvass sites by carpool, and to phone-bank and write postcards in groups. Some “adopters” also provided advice, moral support, and service as a sounding board for candidates who did not have much funding for staff. WofA was only one of multiple sources of volunteer support. Some of the wins, e.g., those of Lee Carter and Dawn Adams, demonstrated that volunteer ground support can be more important than fundraising and monetary expenditures.
Canvassing knowledge and skills. Training and guidance on canvassing was important — an excellent guide on canvassing is available at https://wofavaorg.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/canvassingguide091317.pdf . WofA and collaborating groups also provided detailed descriptions of candidates, so that volunteers were knowledgeable about candidates. The WofA descriptions of candidates are no longer posted on the website; for examples of comparable data see http://www.whyvamatters2017.com/vam-candidates.php. Virginia also have an excellent source of non-partisan information about state legislature districts at www.vpap.org , a resource I would recommend be replicated in other states. The Democratic party is also increasing its training and reference materials for activists, as is evident in https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/to-take-back-the-house-democrats-arm-the-rebels-with-new-tools-and-manpower/2017/10/09/372f12f2-ad17-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html?utm_term=.2b600ca7b3c6
Campaign literature. While candidates for delegate had their own campaign literature, literature on the state-wide candidates was not available until late in the campaigns, and even then supplies were inadequate. Arlington proved to be the exception, due to local initiatives. During the first few weeks of general election canvassing a local volunteer in one neighborhood produced informal flyers based on web site information and excerpts from WofA’s Vote in 2017 leaflet. Then the Arlington County Democratic Party produced its own official “Combined Campaign” brochures which included information on all the endorsed candidates including those running for state-wide offices, delegates with districts covering parts of Arlington, and county- based offices. In the future, I would suggest that county Democratic Party and/or grassroots groups take the initiative to produce literature covering the full slate, if campaign literature support from state or national entities is delayed or inadequate.
Importance of voter turnout and get-out-the-vote. High voter turnout was an essential element of the election success, as is evident from http://bluevirginia.us/2017/11/comparing-2017-to-2013-house-of-delegates-results-leads-to-some-interesting-observations . The final push to Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) was extensive, and the GOTV canvassing script took into account the latest research, as is described in https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/research-backed-ways-get-out-vote .
My findings on good canvassing practices. Once I overcame my initial hesitation, I discovered that I really enjoyed the one-on-one conversations of canvassing. As one of the co-leaders of the WofA Voting and Elections group, instead of adopting a specific district, I canvassed in all ten (of the 22) candidates who were located in Northern Virginia (where I could easily travel on almost every weekend through the summer and fall). I also canvassed for one of the nearby vulnerable incumbents, plus with the Combined Campaign in Arlington. This enabled me to identify and internally share good practices across campaigns. I found that it is good practice to ensure canvassers are able
- to register new residents and others not already registered;
- to explain local specifics of early absentee voting procedures;
- to have bookmarked state voter registration websites on their cell phones; and
- to facilitate follow-up by candidates or their staff with selected voters on special issues of concern.
In addition, I found that
- Campaign websites should have links to websites on voter registration, absentee voting, and like-minded up- and down-ticket candidates.
- Open-ended questions on what issues voters cared about proved helpful, not only for early “persuasion” canvassing, but also for undecided voters in final GOTV canvassing.
- Sunday afternoons were a particularly desirable time to canvas since more people were home than on Saturdays, yet there was still daylight.
Highlights from my canvassing. My favorite canvassing involved meeting and educating recent citizens who were relatively new voters and often unfamiliar with the role of state government or voting procedures. I also enjoyed canvassing in relatively more rural areas, where residents do not often encounter people knocking on their doors and taking an interest in their views. To encourage other WofA members to gain familiarity and join in, I posted written descriptions and photos of recent canvassing experiences on WofA’s Facebook page. I also tried to bring new canvassers along, who in some cases then continued to canvass for that particular candidate.
Contributions from others and summaries of lessons learned. Other WofA members and other activist groups have made significant contributions. While some of us focused mainly on canvassing, others spent hundreds of hours on phone-banking, postcards, and getting signatures for petitions on fair redistricting. In other groups, those who developed http://www.whyvamatters2017.com/ produced some wonderful videos on gerrymandering and on specific candidates. Activists involved in http://thunderdomepolitics.com/ undertook a range of initiatives such as the creation of large home-made yard signs and hosting a forum for lively online discussions about Virginia politics. One particularly helpful output is a blog summarizing an online discussion of lessons learned: http://thunderdomepolitics.com/lessons-learned-from-2017-elections/ . At least one group with a range of representatives from grassroots groups including individuals from WofA is still in the process of drafting an additional summary of lessons learned and associated guidelines, taking into account perspectives of candidates and their staff.
Celebration and post-election momentum. Within WofA we had a great time celebrating election night. The enthusiasm has been such that our subsequent WofA meetings, even during the midst of holiday preparations, have been lively and well-attended, full of a variety of follow-up ambitions including active engagement in the upcoming state General Assembly session, and plans to support flippable districts for the US Congress in VA as well as state legislature races in other states in 2018.