Following the 2018 midterm elections, the US Congress is a more diverse place than ever before. Last year’s election saw the arrival of the youngest congresswoman ever to serve, the first Muslim and Native American congresswomen, and the first women, including several women of color, to represent several states. These legislators won their seats in an election with historically high turnout that extended across demographics.
But representation in the highest tier of government still lags far behind the actual diversity of the nation. Women make up just over 50% of the population of the US but only 23.6% of the current Congress. (And if the legislature were fully representational in terms of gender, three of its members would be trans or non-binary.) Congress also skews slightly whiter and much older than the general population. Taken as a whole, political offices from school boards to the White House are more white and more male than the communities they serve. If we want our government to be the voice of the people, the government needs to look more like we, the people.
Creating true diversity in the electoral process won’t happen overnight. But as the 2018 election proved, grassroots campaigns led by everyday people are the best way to score history-making wins. And, thanks to equal-opportunity digital organizing tools like NationBuilder, anyone can start or participate in a push for diverse candidates at any level of office, even if the next election is months or years away.
There’s no magic wand for galvanizing a community. It takes hard work and a commitment to creating lasting relationships with supporters. Fortunately, today’s political movers and shakers have more avenues than ever before in which to amplify the voices they want heard, from the tried and true basics of making real life connections to newer online platforms that help you spread your message quickly, easily, and on a national scale. To help you make those first steps in seeing a more inclusive electorate, we compiled a list of the best ways to rally behind a grassroots cause, whether you are advocating for a nonprofit, promoting a petition, or helping someone you believe in to run for office.
The first step in diversifying our electoral process is to identify potential candidates. This is not a matter of finding someone who already has the skills to run a campaign, has already held political office, or seems like they would make a good politician. Many of the best potential leaders from diverse backgrounds would never think to run for office unless someone suggested it – they’re too busy being involved in their communities and may see themselves as helpers rather than leaders. But these are the kinds of people who can create real change in politics and bring even more diversity to the electoral system.
Such was the case for Wendy Wheatcroft, a public school teacher, political organizer, and Democratic candidate currently running for San Diego City Council District 7 in 2020 using NationBuilder. Incensed after the Pulse Nightclub shooting of 2016, Wheatcroft began volunteering and organizing around gun violence prevention before entering into the political sphere. "I was at the San Diego March for Science in Winter 2017, gathering my Moms Demand Action group together to march and my friend’s husband said, 'you should run for office!'" Wheatcroft tells Mic. "After a point, it became ridiculous for me to ignore it any longer."
Is there someone in your community who posts often on social media about politics and seems eager to engage others? Or someone with a history of volunteering with local causes? A demonstrated passion for making positive change can be a good indicator of a future leader. Candidates don’t necessarily have to be focused on politics already, though. People who have had personal experience with injustice or broken systems of government also bring valuable perspective and motivation to campaigns, even if they aren’t yet engaged in activism.
Once you have some of these people in mind – you might even be one of them – find opportunities to run. A great place to start is Run For Office, a free site from NationBuilder. Put in an address, and Run For Office will provide a list of municipal and state positions in that area, along with the next election date and candidate filing deadlines. It’s a centralized way to find out what people can run for, how to get on the ballot, and when to get the paperwork in.
Tap into local groups
Because finding candidates is one of the toughest parts of making political change, existing political groups are often eager to meet emerging leaders, especially from diverse backgrounds. Once you’ve identified your candidate and started their campaign, you can reach out to local organizations for their input and support.
These groups usually have years or decades of knowledge about the intricacies of the electoral process. If they are issue-focused rather than focused on a particular party, they will have a close relationship with the demographics you want to reach. They even may be recruiting candidates to train and promote for the election you hope to win. Remember that grassroots campaigns are always about much more than a single person’s success. Regardless of whether your candidate ends up seeking a particular group’s endorsement or support, making that group aware of your campaign will still increase visibility for your candidate.
Diverse candidates more often than not come from outside the political establishment. While this is in many ways an asset, it comes with its own set of drawbacks. In light of new requirements which prioritize party incumbents over newer voices looking to make a difference, digital tools have become the necessary framework for many in gathering and organizing their support, and this is especially important for fundraising and communication infrastructure. While establishment candidates will often have big-money donors, challenger candidates more often than not will require a different type of technological infrastructure to handle a high volume of small-dollar donations. By keeping track of these smaller donations, a candidate can build a dedicated volunteer network to either replace or supplement paid staff and an advertising budget.
There are many tactics for recruiting volunteers. Personal networks are an easy place to start, since people who have direct experience with a candidate will have the knowledge and excitement to recruit volunteers unfamiliar with a new face. Make a list of everyone the candidate and their existing supporters know who might be interested in volunteering - even if only for a few hours. See if one of them wants to host a living room meeting with the candidate and a few key community members who can spread the word even further.
Managing volunteer contacts can quickly become an arduous, endless process for campaign staffers (who may themselves be volunteers). Making the most of supporters’ availability requires coordinating across disparate schedules, areas of interest, and locations. Fortunately, there are new online tools that allow organizers to merge multiple types of volunteer data into easily searchable and taggable profiles, which campaigns can then filter depending on the task at hand.
Just as the US government doesn’t accurately reflect the population, voter turnout is also not aligned with the country’s wider demographics. In the 2016 election, despite a highly charged presidential campaign, black voter turnout dropped, and turnout among other minority groups remained below 50%, where it has hovered for decades. In contrast, 65% of eligible white voters cast a ballot. Socioeconomic status is also a direct predictor of voting habits. Wealthier people are more likely to vote and to believe that their vote matters – and in the US, wealth skews white and male.
Candidates from communities with historically low turnout have much to gain by connecting with the concerns of disillusioned non-voters. In 2016, Randall Woodfin became the youngest mayor elected in Birmingham, Alabama in over 100 years. Crucially, he turned out 11,500 people who had never voted before in a municipal election. Throughout his campaign, his team relied on tools like NationBuilder to manage their voter contact tracking infrastructure and see how successful they’d been in engaging non-voters, which they had identified as a target group.
Go door to door
Woodfin’s staff also identified door-to-door contact as a key way to engage non-voters and a more diverse electorate overall. It paid off: 73% of the non-voters who cast a ballot for the 36-year-old had engaged one-on-one with campaign staffers or the candidate himself. Pounding pavement is perhaps the core feature of grassroots campaigns – whereas establishment candidates have money, grassroots campaigns have people. Not only does door-knocking help raise awareness about a specific candidate, it also informs communities about the existence of municipal elections that they might not be aware are happening at all.
Direct conversations are useful at every stage of a campaign. Early on, they inform candidates and staff about which issues are crucial to voters so that the candidate can focus campaign messaging on what matters most. Later in the election cycle, they keep voting at the front of people’s minds and sometimes provide insights about support that traditional phone polling misses. Even after an election, these points of contact bring communities closer together and encourage them to keep working on the issues they care about.
Grassroots campaigns are about more than a single election. They energize everyday people to engage in politics and hold the government accountable to the people that politics affect the most. Those effects last long after the final ballot has been counted.
Even if your candidate loses or your measure fails, the community you’ve built around a campaign is a crucial way to keep filling the leadership pipeline. This year alone, a total of 29,862 state and local offices went up for election, and in many of these instances incumbents went uncontested. Creating a better tomorrow starts with recognizing the places you can add more diverse perspectives, and by holding a local office a candidate can prove their mettle to potential voters.
Use the relationships you’ve built and the online contacts you’ve acquired to keep things going after the election, whether that’s laying the groundwork for an eventual re-election bid or highlighting the next batch of candidates. "Think of your group as a magnet that should keep drawing people together on a regular basis," NationBuilder's Alex Stevens maintains, "and identify who among your supporters can host events like mixers, phone or text banking parties, and debate viewing sessions." Continued communication is key to keeping your base energized as well as creating opportunities for the next crop of political hopefuls.
You never know who will carry the momentum forward. Teenagers who volunteered even though they couldn’t vote could soon become advocates for newly-eligible young voters, who are a key demographic for diverse candidates. The host of a living room meet-and-greet might be inspired to run for office themselves in the next municipal election. If you keep the fire burning, the network of volunteers committed to your candidate’s vision will be ready to keep on fighting.
This article is sponsored by NationBuilder.