The Future of Democracy Depends on the Ground Game

The Future of Democracy Depends on the Ground Game

The Future of Democracy Depends on the Ground Game

The street-level work to educate and motivate voters goes uncelebrated, but our norms and institutions depend upon it.


Anybody paying attention—and not everybody is—knows that the upcoming midterms are different. This election will determine whether autocrats gain ground, consolidate power, and set themselves up for a 2024 federal trifecta, or whether they are pushed back hard enough for a nascent pro-democracy alliance to cohere.

The digital equivalent of vats of ink have been spilled in speculation about races up and down the ballot in key states. Pollsters, somewhat chastened by their howling failures in 2016, are offering guarded predictions, while TV pundits are bringing daily hype, their eyes focused on the ratings.

But elections are not won by pollsters and pundits. The outcome often hinges on who’s got the best ground game—who’s doing the work at the granular level to educate and motivate voters and to resist voter suppression. This work is mostly unseen and uncelebrated, yet the preservation of democratic norms and institutions depends upon it.

Georgia has surprised the nation, and proven pollsters and pundits wrong, repeatedly. In 2018 Stacey Abrams came closer to winning the governorship than most people outside the state imagined she could. In 2020, Georgia voters broke a decades-long Republican lock on the state’s presidential electors. A few months later, they followed that up by sending Jon Ossoff and Rafael Warnock to the Senate.

None of this would have been possible without the massive registration of new voters and record-breaking increases in voter turnout. The highly informed and motivated voters who turned Georgia into a site of unexpected wins and fierce contention did not appear out of nowhere.

Cliff Albright, a cofounder of Black Voters Matter (BVM), knows firsthand that the 2018, 2020, and 2021 Georgia wins were not a fluke. Headed toward the midterms, he is doubling down on what has already been amply demonstrated: Black voters have the power to make history.

Albright is both realistic and optimistic. BVM, headquartered in Georgia, works across the South and in the Midwest. Legislation passed by Republicans in multiple states makes his job harder. If the windows for voter registration or early voting are reduced or if the ID requirements for mail-in ballots become more restrictive or locations to drop off ballots are eliminated, then organizations in the field must ramp up their voter-education efforts and deliver more complex messages. If a state legislature is petty and cruel enough to pass legislation making it illegal to provide water to people standing in line to vote, then Black Voters Matter needs to tell voters that they should prepare for long lines by bringing their own water, phone chargers, and chairs. Grassroots groups need to encourage an in-line culture: If someone needs to step out to hydrate, welcome them back in. It shouldn’t be this hard to exercise a constitutionally guaranteed democratic right, but it is.

The Black Voters Matter bus tour is currently traveling throughout the South, stopping at HBCU tailgate parties, community centers, and churches. Everywhere they stop, their intention is the same: to spread love, build power. and drive home the crucial message that freedom is on the ballot. Albright is clear: There will be no backing down. Getting new voters registered, keeping folks engaged and motivated, and powering a massive turnout is all that stands between some semblance of democracy and ever deeper reaction.

In its daily work, UNITE HERE organizes and represents workers in the hospitality industry seeking better wages and working conditions. But the union recognizes that what happens on the job is not its only concern. The broader political environment profoundly shapes workers’ lives as well as the context for organizing. The union has made a substantial commitment to turn out voters in midterm races in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. In each of these states, election deniers are on the ballot for senatorial and/or gubernatorial races. Mario Yedidia, UNITE HERE’s national field director, calls them “flamboyant liars.”

UNITE HERE workers will be knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors, two to three times as many as they hit in 2020. In Nevada, they’ll likely hit a million. According to Yedidia, they are “fundamentally committed to the non-ideological, practical idea that in close elections, face-to-face conversations between working-class people can turn the tide.”

Yedidia and the workers of UNITE HERE have no interest in perpetually playing defense against fascists. With an enormous amount of hard work and a little bit of luck, millions of door knocks will secure a political landscape that favors the growing militancy of workers, including those who are not yet unionized.

There’s no glamour in door knocking or in registering lapsed and first-time voters, but there’s much to learn from the unsung and under-resourced work without which what remains of US democracy cannot be salvaged. If we squeak by in November, it will be due, in no small part, to the efforts of groups like Black Voters Matter and UNITE HERE.

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