One in three. That’s how many people eligible to vote actually did in 2014. It was the lowest turnout since World War II.
We’ve seen the results of declining turnout. Democrats have lost 910 state legislative seats since 2008 and have only 18 governors. Republicans have the biggest majority in Congress since the Truman administration.
I am launching a Voters First program to put voters at the center of our politics with effective grassroots organizing and a commitment to increasing turnout. Voters First aims for a resurgence of civic participation to take back the states and the Congress. Today, I’m calling on campaigns to commit to run by Voters First principles. I’m also asking for individuals and groups to endorse our effort at votersfirstcampaign.com.
What is Voters First? A Voters First campaign commits first to boost voter turnout by 3 to 7 percent over the last comparable election cycle and invest in field to achieve this target. There is an ideological gap among voters. According to a Pew poll, 78 percent of consistent conservatives vote but only 58 percent of consistent liberals do.
Consultants and donors routinely ask candidates how much money they are going to raise for their TV advertising budgets. They should also ask them how much they are going to raise for organizing voters. Why? Because while TV ads may help convince a voter who to support, there is little evidence TV ads help turn out new voters. In fact, negative ad wars can turn off voters by reinforcing cynicism about politics.
Second, a Voters First campaign commits to using best practices for effective field organizing. There is a big difference between average field practices and great field practices. Effective organizing means starting field organizing early, recruiting a robust volunteer organization, and making sure they are well trained. It means having high-quality, face-to-face contact with voters at their doors, in their dorms, or in their apartments.
Third, Voters First campaigns should partner with candidates up and down the ticket. In Minnesota, my campaign prioritized boosting turnout in the progressive urban core to help statewide campaigns for Senator Franken and Governor Dayton. Both candidates won in recounts in their first races, but in 2014 they won with large margins. Minnesota’s statewide turnout decreased 5 percent in 2014, but increased 3 percent in my district and provided the margin of victory to elect a Democratic Secretary of State.
Federal party committees like the DCCC and the DSCC should reward congressional candidates who help out local and state campaigns. Too often state and local races have been neglected, resulting in devastating Democratic losses. We seem to have forgotten that state legislatures and governors set the rules for who can vote in elections and draw the district lines. In 2012, congressional Democrats won 1.5 million more votes than Republicans, but lost seats in Congress due to Republican domination of district maps.
Fourth, campaigns should extend grassroots organizing to fundraising. Campaigns should set a goal to raise 25 percent or more of their contributions from low-dollar donors. This goal means much more than just a number. We know that candidates are talking to the donors who give $1,000. But are they also talking to 100 folks who give $10? If a campaign builds a relationship with these $10 donors, they will be more invested and more likely to volunteer.
The importance of grassroots fundraising extends beyond campaigns and makes a real difference in policies that get implemented. According to Demos, in 2010, 62 percent of those making $150,000 voted, while only 27 percent of those earning less than $10,000 voted. Non-voters are more progressive than voters as a whole. A Pew study found that only 39 percent of voters think government should do more to solve problems, while 52 percent of non-voters do. When more low income voters turnout, politicians will respond with fairer economic policies.
Finally, Voters First candidates must work to make it easier to vote. In Minnesota, we beat back conservative attempts to pass Voter ID laws, which could have disenfranchised as many as 215,000 Minnesotans who lacked an ID—disproportionately the young, elderly, and people of color. We need to answer every conservative attack on voting. We should support same day registration, early voting, voting by mail, voting rights restoration, and automatic registration for young people.
After Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot by police in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, activists marched bravely from Selma to Montgomery and changed history. Shortly thereafter, the instigator of the brutal crackdown Sheriff Clark was voted out of office. 50 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act it’s time to make voting count again.
Like the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Americans are organizing for justice through movements to raise the minimum wage, prove that black lives matter, combat climate change, and more.
Our democracy is in trouble when issues supported by the majority of Americans, like increasing the minimum wage or passing immigration reform, can’t even get a vote in Congress. Our voters are demoralized and unengaged when only 36 percent turn out to vote. It’s up to all of us to make voting count again. The solution is to put voters first.