This year, more than 800,000 people registered to vote in November’s upcoming midterm elections—a striking comparison to the 154,500 who registered for those in 2014. Folks are becoming civically engaged more than ever before and Community Partners is proud to support a growing number of projects working to encourage that impulse all year-round. With the elections just days away, it seemed like a good time to highlight four of those projects specifically focused on voter engagement and the barriers faced by different populations.
The Civics Center
Deeply disturbed by what she saw as an attack on democratic institutions during the 2016 elections, Laura Brill, an attorney and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg, knew she wanted to take action, she just wasn’t quite sure how. Then she came across a 2014 law that allows high school students to pre-register to vote. “I almost fell out of my chair,” she said, recognizing the value it held in encouraging more young people to register and vote. She also realized very few people actually knew about the law.
And so The Civics Center was born; its mission to help high schools comply with the little-known pre-registration law. They connect with high school teachers and administrators, providing them with resources to conduct their own voter pre-registration drives, along with non-partisan educational research to help increase interest in voting. They’ve also created an online voter pre-registration ‘button’ that links each high school’s website to a voter pre-registration resource. So far, according to Brill, The Civics Center has made thousands of connections at high schools in the west, as far north as Washington and Texas in the east. “While we don’t currently have the means to track how many voters we’ve helped get registered, I’ve heard back from each of these schools that they’ve registered hundreds of students and that is a huge victory,” she said.
California Native Voter Project
Also founded after the 2016 election, California Native Vote Project was created in response to what project leader Chrissie Castro saw as the lack of a cohesive native voter engagement entity in California, similar to those established in New Mexico and Montana. California itself contains the highest representation of native peoples in the country and the barriers they face to voting are legion. “There is a justified historical mistrust that our communities have with the government. We hear, ‘I don’t want to participate in a system that was never for us,’ and we understand that,” Castro explained. “We go into our communities and share a new perspective that if we don’t engage, then that leaves others to make decisions that impact our families and our communities.”
The California Native Vote Project helps native people understand where and how they need to register to vote, educates them on the issues on the ballot and how they will affect their communities. Other barriers that the group is working to address is the lack of a box to check identifying voters as Native American and voter suppression and intimidation in California’s rural northern counties. In those counties, registered native voters have faced verbal harassment at polling places and problems with non-traditional housing like trailer parks and motorhomes that don’t have required addresses. The California Native Vote Project now has a membership of 4,000 Native American community members engaged in their efforts and has registered 1,400 additional Native American voters so far. One of the more meaningful experiences for Castro has come when registering Native American elders in their 80s to vote. “When I asked them why they had never voted before they told me, ‘I didn’t know that this was something that our people did.’ We’ve received overwhelming feedback from the community that they love what we’re doing and they want more.”
Future of California Elections
The Future of California Elections, a project of Community Partners since 2012, brings together a cohesive network of election officials, civil rights organizations and election reform advocates to address the barriers that prevent robust voter engagement. Their first collective win was helping to establish a more equitable online registration process by advocating for the expansion of languages used beyond English and Spanish. Today online voter registration is available in ten languages, and serves as the model for online voter accessibility for the country.
One aspect of FOCE’s programming that project leader Astrid Ochoa is most proud of is their annual conference. “It is so important for election officials to meet face-to-face with advocates for communities of color and for folks with disabilities because not only do they learn what their communities are concerned about, but they learn how they can reach their communities, which is a huge factor in making elections more accessible.” FOCE is continuously looking ahead to methods in the future to keep fostering learning and understanding among their members to improve equity within California’s elections.
IssueVoter, a relatively new project to Community Partners, is an online platform that works to keep citizens engaged in the democratic process all year round. When founder Maria Yuan was a campaign manager in Iowa, she realized that community engagement was limited to an election season and that when the elections were over, individuals’ interest in the actions of their electeds would die down. “It really frustrated me because you would never hire and promote an employee without reviewing their work, and essentially that is what we are doing with our elected officials…it’s the work that’s done throughout the year that really effects our lives.”
It was that frustration that inspired Yuan to create IssueVoter which not only evaluates an elected on how they serve users’ particular interests, but also informs them of which new bills address an issue they care about and tracks the progress. Over 10,000 bills are introduced each year, yet only about a handful receive media coverage. With legislators passing new laws every week, it is Yuan’s hope that with more informed voters there will be more engagement year-round. Users receive alerts when new bills are about to be voted on that correspond with their concerns and interests, and within that alert is space to write to your representative’s office on that bill’s behalf. Representatives are engaging as well; in some instances, representatives’ offices have reached out to IssueVoter in order to be connected with a constituent directly and asked them to facilitate an introduction. Looking ahead to 2019, IssueVoter plans to introduce video content and text alerts.