Heidi L. Sieck is the chief empowerment officer and cofounder of #VOTEPROCHOICE, a digitally savvy reproductive rights advocacy organization that tracks pro-choice candidates nationwide. I spoke with her in October. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
KP: When we chatted in early October you said the democratic electoral ecosystem is not ready to meet the moment. Is that still true?
HS: For 30 years, the GOP has created infrastructure at the state and local levels—nonprofits, policy development, templated legislation, leadership development. This was to make sure that the 18 to 20 percent of the electorate that is anti-choice stayed connected to the GOP, because the GOP knew they could never win an election without them. The Democratic Party never answered that tactic. They focused on federal elections and lawsuits that ended up with the Supreme Court—because we had Roe. That’s why we lost Roe when we have a country where 75 percent didn’t want it overturned. Everyone was caught off guard, but they shouldn’t have been. This has been a long, slow march toward the loss of our rights because everything was going on in state and local. So here we are. When we lost Roe, federal elected officials wrung their hands and said we’re all going to run on abortion rights. People started mobilizing, women started registering and we all thought this is going to be the issue. The polling data was, OK, Democrats are going to run on abortion everywhere and they’re going to win. But then Kansas happened, and the ecosystem said, Oh, in post-Dobbs America women are going to mobilize themselves, so we don’t have to invest in it. Donors are still putting their money into television ads for federal races. When you talk to, say, Latina women, a huge majority says no campaign or organization has talked to them, not once.
We’ve lost so much when we didn’t have to! We could be engaging these newly registered women, these young people that are really upset about what’s going on, but who don’t have a connection to a particular campaign, a particular party, they don’t have civics education about how to vote. We had an $18 million plan that we really thought was going to make a huge, huge difference. We could only raise a couple of $100,000 for it. We’re hearing the same thing from feminist organizations and folks that do young people engagement. So we’re going to get to November 8th and we’re going to see a margin, a slim margin, either way. That margin doesn’t need to be as slim. In Michigan there are 368,000 unregistered likely pro-choice voters. In Georgia 567,000, Texas 2.3 million—that really breaks my heart.
KP: Someone might say those unregistered pro-choice voters can be reached by other campaigns, other issues. So there’s a more widespread failure going on.
HS: That’s exactly right. It’s an engagement failure across the board. From our perspective, reproductive freedom is a foundational issue that includes voter democracy, voting access, environment, and most importantly now, economic issues. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times analyzed their polling data and claimed that voters are really upset about the economy, and only a few people are talking about abortion. It blows my mind! As Stacey Abrams says, when people say that they’re voting on the economy, they’re also voting on reproductive freedom. They’re worried about filling up their cars, buying food, paying for health care, taking care of their families. Almost two-thirds of people who seek abortion are already mothers! Economic concerns have reproductive freedom baked in. But the Democratic Party ecosystem fails to make the connection. It’s all siloed: economy over here, abortion over there. But abortion is an economic issue. It’s about being able to plan your families—and feed them!
KP: What would the donors and consultants say if you said, look, there are millions of unregistered, probably pro-choice voters in Texas—what’s the matter with you?
HS: They’d say that polling data tells us these women are with us anyway. So we should put our money over here to buy more television ads in this difficult Senate race. That is generally the culture. Plus if you give a lot of money to a federal candidate, you have access to that candidate. Democrats love the shiny objects at the top of the ticket.
KP: Yesterday, there were two debates: Oz versus Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Zeldin versus Hochul, in New York. Abortion came up in both of them. The Republican candidates were waffling and trying to change the subject. Dr. Oz actually said that abortion should be between women, doctors, and local political leaders! So every town gets its own abortion laws? It doesn’t seem that the Republicans are all that confident that the abortion issue works for them.
HS: Dr. Oz was reflecting those decades of local investment, local mobilization, local propaganda, state legislation that frames the issue of abortion in such stark, horrible terms, using medical terms that don’t exist.
KP: Partial birth abortion?
HS: And “crisis pregnancy centers.” Meanwhile, the Dems abdicated the conversation to feminist organizations. Now, finally, Democratic candidates are running on reproductive freedom, but they’re doing it in random ways. They’re calling it women’s choice. They’re calling it abortion. They’re saying Roe v. Wade. They’re not really embracing it as a way to mobilize across the board, and they’re not investing in these newly registered women, which fundamentally in my mind is misogyny.
KP: What will you be doing in the in the run-up to the election?
HS: I’m going to be chasing unregistered and newly registered voters until the polls close on that night. We’ve got programs running in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia. That means getting into the hands of every single voter our guide that helps people vote pro-choice all the way down the ballot. And we’re already starting on 2023, particularly local offices. There will be 94,000 races in 2023. We’ll be looking at sheriffs and district attorneys, because those are the folks that are going to be criminalizing abortion care. And coroners—80 percent of coroners are elected, and they’re who will be investigating fetal remains in the case of a miscarriage. We’re already starting to recruit candidates. I’m trying to raise money for 2023—having very strongly worded conversations with donors about the failure to invest in down-ballot infrastructure.
KP: Predictions for November 8?
HS: I think it will be a razor’s edge. The polling data and the media framing is based on voters that are already in the ecosystem. The women and young people who are mobilizing themselves aren’t in anybody’s programs. Michigan has same-day registration—who is going to show up and vote? Whatever happens will be on a margin and that is not reflective of who we are as a country. The young people, the women, the unengaged voters, support reproductive freedom, fighting climate change, voting rights, criminal justice reform, gun control, but they’re not being helped to engage in those conversations or engage in that voting. And that is a tactical mistake of the Democratic and progressive ecosystem.