February Meeting: Organizing Voters for the 2018 Mid-terms

Last year, hundreds of new central Jersey grassroots activists (such as members of STAND CNJ!) learned how to mobilize people for marches and town halls, and flood congressional offices with constituent feedback. In 2018, we find ourselves with a slightly different, but absolutely vital task of mobilizing voters to show up at the polls for November’s mid-term elections. This is likely the most important mid-term election most of us will ever take part in. And it is especially important in New Jersey, where we have the opportunity to elect more progressive candidates in at least 4, and maybe even 5, congressional districts (NJ’s 2nd, 3rd, 7th, & 11th districts, and maybe even the 4th)! Such a feat would go a long way to making Congress as a whole more progressive.

STAND CNJ Vice President Olga Starr

Central Jersey’s grassroots community senses the responsibility before us. As STAND CNJ vice president Olga Starr said, “Really, what it comes down to is that each and every one of us has to do something.”

L-R: Analilia Mejia; Jim Girvan; Liz Glynn; Dena Mottola Jaborska

What is that ‘something’? On February 25th, STAND CNJ and Indivisible Cranbury invited 4 experienced community organizers to our monthly meeting to help us figure it out: Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of NJ Citizen Action; Analilia Mejia, executive director of NJ Working Families Alliance; Liz Glynn of NJ 7 Forward; and Jim Girvan, of NJ 7 Forward and the People’s Motorcade. Together, our 4 speakers drew us a road map for electoral work in 2018 that emphasizes coordinating among groups, broadening the community of voters, and micro-targeting our messages to voters.

COORDINATING

One of the biggest challenges grassroots groups face is “biting off more than we can chew on our own,” says Mejia, of NJ Working Families. Her organization is focusing this year on how to avoid duplicating efforts, and instead coordinate with other groups for maximum effect. Glynn echoed this sentiment. Working in NJ’s 7th congressional district, home to more than 50 community groups, her organization (NJ 7 Forward) is currently working to educate group leaders on organizing strategies, and make sure that each group knows what to do. “It’s an ongoing challenge,” says Glynn. She sees a role in this group effort not only for Indivisible and other broad progressive groups, but also for single-issue advocacy groups. For example, environmental organizations can work effectively to educate voters about the environmental consequences of this election, and mobilize voters who care about the environment to show up at the polls on election day. At the same time, campaigns for specific candidates can also help increase voter turnout by mobilizing voters who are excited about the candidate.

STAND CNJ president Karen Haskin

STAND CNJ President Karen Haskin encourages all central Jersey grassroots groups to share your events with us at standcnj@gmail.com, for publishing on our FB pages and website, so that we can help keep the wide variety of groups in our region connected. (You can also find a list of local groups in our directory).

BROADENING THE COMMUNITY OF VOTERS

Voting in a better Congress in 2018 requires us to reach beyond the members of our own groups and out to the wider central Jersey community. “We need to think about how we can revitalize our democracy,” says Jaborska, of NJ Citizen Action, and go “beyond just taking seats back and think about how we can make our political system more open and more responsive to more people.”

This is a challenge because many potential voters are not aware of or interested in November’s mid-term elections. “There’s still a lot of people outside of our world who aren’t really doing the ‘resistance’ day in and day out,” according to Glynn. Voter turnout in the US is generally low nowadays, and turn-out for ‘off-year’ elections is even lower (often in the range of only 20-40% of registered voters). Grassroots groups who want to help get out the vote need to make sure that New Jerseyans know why this mid-term election is so important.

We also need to consider a voter outreach strategy that is broad enough to engage with swing voters and base voters.  Mejia believes its a mistake for progressives to neglect their base while focusing most of their efforts on white working class swing voters, and forcing candidates to avoid certain important issues as a result. Instead, base voters need to be more deeply engaged too, and not just in the two days before an election in a last-minute, door-knocking GOTV effort. “Unless we talk to base voters and give them a reason to go out and vote, they’re going to stay home,” warns Mejia.

Grassroots groups also need to avoid the mistake Hillary Clinton’s campaign made in 2016 by not sufficiently reaching out to communities of color, Jaborska reminds us. It is vital that new resistance groups connect up with organizations led by people of color, as well as recruit people of color for leadership positions in our own groups, says Jim Girvan, of NJ 7 Forward and the People’s Motorcade. Mejia seconds that, and described a trend she has noticed in her extensive organizing background: when there are more women and people of color in the leadership of a group, there are more women and people of color involved in that group. Mejia urges grassroots groups to be intentional about this often-difficult effort: “We have to talk in a way that expands the issues…Are we going to say ‘black lives matter’? Are we going to talk about issues that disproportionately affect people of color? Its okay to feel uncomfortable [with the steps we need to take to deal with the lack of diversity in the ‘resistance’] but its not okay to ignore that we’re not as diverse as we should be.”

Along with communities of color, young voters do not often get sufficient attention in voter outreach and turnout efforts. According to Glynn, young voters tend to have only a vague awareness that an election is approaching, so “its important to engage them early.” She recommends issue-oriented outreach strategies for young voters, who often get excited and mobilized to vote because they care about the environment, gun safety, healthcare or affordable college tuition. “They’re definitely worried about their future,” says Glynn. Its also important to recruit young volunteers to reach out to other young voters. For example, instead of tabling at a college campus with middle-aged or retired volunteers, ask college-age volunteers (and especially students at that very campus) to work at the table, register other new, young voters, and talk to them about issues.

MICRO-TARGETING OUR MESSAGES

Jim Girvan sees micro-targeting and messaging as two of the biggest challenges for grassroots work on the 2018 mid-term elections. Groups need to become more skilled in identifying their target audience and crafting micro-targeted messages for specific audiences. In order to accomplish this, “we know that its important to get the best possible understanding of the electorate as we can,” says Girvan. Mejia adds, “We have to talk to people about the issues that are motivating them to vote.” To help uncover these motivating concerns, Girvan is leading a massive project for NJ 7 Forward, gathering voter turnout data from multiple election cycles. They’re breaking down this data by district (the 7th), municipality, and even precinct, then going door-to-door to talk with voters about their concerns. The patterns they find will help NJ 7 Forward plan its ground game for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

In addition to considering your audience, Girvan also emphasized the importance of context when crafting a message. For example, the most effective messaging at a rally will be different from the most effective messaging in a conversation with neighbors.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN WASHINGTON……

At the same time as grassroots groups consider voter turnout strategies, we also need to remember that “defensive issue work isn’t going away,” as Jaborska reminds us. We still are faced with daily attacks on progressive values at the federal level. But with the end of the Christie administration, we finally are in a situation where we can do a lot at the state level. Mejia wants everyone to know about the NJ Legislative Resistance Caucus, which formed last year and will soon resume its efforts to create “firewalls” to protect our state from damaging rollbacks by the federal government. She also recommends spending time every week catching up on what is happening at the Statehouse in Trenton. Suggested news sites are Politico’s NJ Playbook, Observer’s New Jersey Politics page, NJ Spotlight, and InsiderNJ. And don’t forget to urge your state legislators and local officials to counter damaging developments at the federal level with state and local actions! Check out our calls to action on Facebook or on our website.

A huge thank you to our guest speakers, volunteers, attendees, Indivisible Cranbury, and St. David’s Episcopal Church for making this meeting a success!

January Meeting on Election Reform & Voting Rights

Our fabulous panelists in the front row. From left: Jesse Burns, Julia Sass Rubin, Amol Sinha, David Goodman, and Adriana Abizadeh.

Last Saturday, we at STAND CNJ were thrilled to bring together 5 expert panelists and nearly 100 concerned citizens to discuss election reform and voting rights. A wide variety of improvements are needed in our election and voting systems. Saturday’s panelists discussed five issues vital to ensuring fair elections: independent redistricting, removing the influence of secret money, redesigning ballots, voting rights restoration, and engaging minority voters.

The Fair Districts NJ Campaign

The League of Women Voters of New Jersey has just launched a  campaign to reform the state’s redistricting process, according to Jesse Burns, executive director of the League. The Fair Districts NJ initiative seeks to create an independent redistricting commission like those already in place in 6 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington). Independent commissions prevent elected officials from directly influencing how district maps are drawn, thereby preventing gerrymandering. Instead, citizens would apply for a spot on the commission (currently in New Jersey, commission members are chosen by the chairs of the state Democratic and Republican parties). The result is more fair and competitive elections. This in turn “restores public faith in democracy and helps to increase voter turnout” because “people have more faith that their vote in their district counts,” says Burns.

The process for creating an independent redistricting commission in New Jersey has to begin in the state legislature, where a majority of lawmakers must approve a ballot question. Then the issue is turned to voters, who will be asked whether the state should change its redistricting process and establish an independent citizen commission. The League of Women Voters has already begun collecting signatures on a petition to pressure legislators to act.

The American Anti-Corruption Act

Meanwhile, the Central New Jersey chapter of Represent.Us is busy advocating for the American Anti-Corruption Act, which also calls for independent redistricting and other reforms. Since 2013, team leader David Goodman and his chapter have helped 6 towns in Mercer County pass resolutions calling on the state legislature to enact the American Anti-Corruption Act or other legislation that would support its goals: fixing our broken election system through independent redistricting, open primaries and ranked-choice voting; ending the influence of secret money by requiring public disclosure of political donations; and reining in the influence of lobbyists. Says Goodman, “the issue that we’re talking about is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue or a Green issue. It’s an American issue.”

The Central New Jersey chapter takes a very local approach to making change. “What we’re focusing on is what we can do at the grassroots level,” Goodman said. Old-fashioned methods like writing letters-to-the-editor and showing up at meetings enabled them to succeed in passing the first Anti-Corruption Resolution in the country, in Princeton. Since then, Ewing, Lawrence, South Brunswick, West Windsor and Cranbury have approved similar resolutions. Now, the state legislature is considering two bills (A1524 and A1957) that would, according to Goodman, “take major steps” towards the goals of the Anti-Corruption Act. After eight years of the Christie administration, Goodman feels that “we have a real chance in succeeding this year in shedding light on dark money” in New Jersey. Contact your state legislators to share your support for the Anti-Corruption Act, A1524 and A1957. You can learn more and get involved here.

The Good Government Coalition of NJ

Panelist Julia Sass Rubin represented the new grassroots organization Good Government Coalition of New Jersey (GGCNJ), another group seeking “to ensure that all branches of government, at the state and local levels, work on behalf of all of us,” and not just power brokers and party bosses “who shape decisions in backroom deals,” according to their website. Rubin discussed the levers of power available to party bosses: choosing who will run for which position, doling out money and foot-soldiers for campaigns, influencing legislative committee assignments, and influencing appointments to New Jersey’s many boards and commissions. One way to counter these powers is to reform the nomination process for these appointments, or even turn appointed positions into elected ones. (In many states, for example, the Attorney General is elected by voters, not appointed by the governor).

Alongside this goal, GGCNJ is also researching whether changes to ballot design might lead to more fair elections. In most of New Jersey, ballots list candidates by party, with Democratic and Republican candidates dominating one side while various third-party candidates are less obvious on the other side of the ballot. In primaries, candidates want to be the first person listed on the ballot. The location of a candidate’s name on a ballot “has an overwhelming impact on who gets elected,” according to Rubin. GGCNJ is “trying to dig down and understand how much of [ballot design] is statutory” and how much is not. “County clerks have tremendous discretion as to ballot design,” Rubin said, but no one really knows why ballots in all but 3 counties group candidates by party line, and why those other 3 counties have grouped them differently (e.g. by the position they’re running for).

Restoring the right to vote to people with criminal convictions

While GGCNJ is working to improve ballots, the ACLU of New Jersey is trying to make ballots available again to disenfranchised citizens, specifically individuals with criminal convictions. According to executive director Amol Sinha, 6 million people across the country have lost the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. This is a huge number — consider that a state of 6 million people would have 10 electoral votes! In New Jersey, people who are incarcerated cannot vote. In addition, people on parole or probation are not allowed to vote, despite being judged safe enough, and being urged, to rejoin the community. The number of New Jerseyans affected is around 100,000. Periods of parole or probation can be quite long. For example, “if you’re sentenced to 20 years but get out after 10, you can’t vote for the 10 years you’re on parole,” explained Sinha. This has become extremely problematic because of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. New Jersey has the nation’s most extreme racial disparity in incarceration rates. Black adults are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults, and black youth are 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. Tying the right to vote to a discriminatory criminal justice system violates the 15th amendment of the Constitution. Says Sinha, “We should all be worried that the 15th Amendment says that voting rights should not be determined by one’s race.” Unfortunately in New Jersey, “we have created a system where the vast majority of people who are disenfranchised are black.”

Along with the League of Women Voters of NJ and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the ACLU has begun a voting rights restoration campaign for people on parole or probation, and might possibly advocate for ending disenfranchisement of the incarcerated. Sinha noted that two states, and countries such as Canada, already protect the voting rights of prisoners. “The right to vote is fundamental and I believe it should never be lost,” he said. Protecting the voting rights of the incarcerated makes sense “not only because its a fundamental right, but also because it’s the least expensive accommodation of a constitutional right that we can provide to people who are incarcerated. People who are incarcerated are entitled to religious accommodations…They’re entitled to some first amendment rights. All of these things are accommodations that are quite expensive, and the government has to provide them because of the law. The right to vote seems to be the easiest. All you have to do is provide for an absentee ballot and deliver it to inmates. That seems to me to be a really simple accommodation that we can provide.”

Sinha believes passing a voting restoration bill is possible in New Jersey, as long as there are “strong voices in the legislature and the government overall saying that the norm should not be that we disenfranchise people. The norm should be that we promote the right to vote.” To help urge your state legislators become those strong voices, visit the ACLU’s platform www.peoplepower.org to find local groups working on this issue via the Let People Vote campaign.

Easier registration and voting for underserved communities

Promoting the right to vote is also vital for minority and low-income communities who typically have very low voting rates. Adriana Abizadeh, executive director of the Latin-American Legal Defense & Education Fund (LALDEF), says her organization has begun to focus on voter education and registration in the Latino community of Mercer County.  They have found that Latino voters often don’t know much about elections or candidates because campaigns and organizations do not reach out to them. This leads to very low registration and turnout rates.

To fix this problem, LALDEF surveyed Latino voters and discovered that many believe their vote doesn’t matter, and many have difficulty actually getting to a polling place. As a result, LALDEF is helping people get absentee ballots and learn the many ways they can engage as citizens. According to Abizadeh, the most effective way to register Latino voters is to create “a network of businesses and clergy to do voter registration. It’s a collective effort and it should be a collective solution.” LALDEF’s efforts don’t end there. “Its easy to get someone to register to vote. Its harder to get them to turn out to vote,” she says. For the 2018 mid-terms, LALDEF is considering get-out-the-vote strategies such as text reminders, robo-calls, and providing transportation to the polls.

Engaged and Organized People

Our January meeting presented us with a daunting list of problems in our voting and election systems. Especially when we consider the moneyed interests creating these problems, it is easy to get discouraged. But, as David Goodman of Represent.Us reminds us: “We’ll never be able to match the wealth of powerful people, but we can outmatch them in terms of engagement.” STAND CNJ President Karen Haskin echoed this sentiment when she shared the inspiring words of Benjamin Todd Jealous last Saturday: “There are only two types of power: there’s organized people and organized money, and organized money only wins when people aren’t organized.” So, people, let’s get organized and take our power to the polls this November!

Ready for 2018 After an Inspiring Weekend

It was a busy weekend for STAND CNJ and progressive Americans everywhere. On Saturday, more than a million people attended hundreds of Women’s Marches all over the country, in major cities and in smaller locales, in “blue” states and in “red”.  STAND CNJ was a proud sponsor of the Women’s March on NJ in Morristown, for which an unprecedented 15,000 to 20,000 people showed up!

What were these marches about? To paraphrase a sign we saw in Morristown, “Ugh, where do we start?!” In other words, we marched in order to express our opposition to the Trump administration’s year-long attack on civil rights, healthcare, tax fairness, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, the environment, government transparency, the free press, the Mueller investigation, Muslims, immigrants, and people of color. Of particular concern this weekend was the #TrumpShutdown and the White House’s sudden abandonment of a bipartisan deal to protect DACA recipients from deportation. These pressing issues are a powerful reminder of just how vital it is to take our outrage and bring it to the 2018 mid-term elections. And that was the overarching message of this year’s Women’s Marches: bring your Power to the Polls! Showing up at marches won’t make a difference unless we also show up at our polling places and get our friends and neighbors to show up too.

To that end, in 2018, national Women’s March organizers aim to launch a voter registration tour of swing states and register 1 million voters nationwide, advocate for progressive policies, and help elect women and progressive candidates in the 2018 elections. This is an exciting goal, given that 2018 will see a record-shattering number of women candidates for all kinds of offices.

Sunday’s A Year of Resistance event reiterated the importance of the 2018 mid-terms. Organized by the Central Jersey Coalition for Justice, of which STAND CNJ is a proud member, the gathering brought local grassroots activists together to look back on the year behind us and brainstorm for the year ahead. Keynote speaker Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15)  kindly stepped in and saved the day after it became clear that Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) was stuck in DC due to the #TrumpShutdown. Assemb. Gusciora emphasized the need for progressives to focus on this year’s midterm elections, and reminded us that “we all have to work…but we really can do it and make change all across America.” Gusciora also pointed out that after a year of progressive grassroots activism, four of New Jersey’s Republican-held congressional Districts (2,3,7,and 11) are now considered vulnerable! Said Gusciora, “I hope each of you will adopt one of those districts and help them out…and stay involved until November!”

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora

In addition to this year’s congressional elections, there is also much that can finally be done at the state level here in New Jersey. With new governor Phil Murphy, Gusciora sees an opportunity to undo the damaging policies of the Christie administration, such as Christie’s 2016 veto of legislation that would have continued the Urban Economic Zone program. Also, New Jersey may finally be able to pass progressive legislation and actually get it signed into law! Gusciora spoke at length about the possibility of legalizing marijuana, which would bring in much-needed revenues and help to undo the school-to-prison pipeline.

2018 brings us the possibility of major change in New Jersey politics and in Congress. It’s more important than ever to regularly contact our governor and your state legislators. And this year, make a resolution to get involved in the 2018 mid-term elections: register people to vote, phone bank for a candidate, write postcards reminding voters about election day, donate money, host a fundraising dinner. No matter how little time or money you have, there are still ways for you to help increase voter turnout this November and elect progressive candidates. Bring your power to the polls!