Introduction: Why should we care about electoral politics?
Lasting change can only be assured through electoral wins. This guide will give you the background on campaigns and elections you need to get involved in electoral politics for the first time.
Ch 1: Why do we hold elections?
Elections let us determine who makes our decisions for us. Different decisions are made at different levels of government, and knowing who the final decisionmaker is on the issues that matter to you, will make you a more effective electoral advocate.
Ch 2: How do elections work?
Understanding campaigns is critical before diving into the electoral process. Campaigns and elections come with a lot of jargon. How do primaries, general elections, and independent expenditures work? Who’s who on a campaign staff, and what’s up with outside campaign consultants? This chapter helps demystify some campaign buzzwords.
Ch 3: How do governments shape elections?
Governments can have a huge impact on election accessibility. Our country has a long history of intentional voter suppression. State governments typically control elections, and can make it easier or harder for people to cast a ballot.
Ch 4: How can your group take action?
Your group can make a real impact on electoral politics. Through volunteering, generating earned media, and endorsing, your group can be a real player in electoral politics.
Conclusion: How do we get started?
Election Day 2018 is a year away, and groups are excited to hit the ground running. Once you’ve finished reading through the guide, here are some immediate steps you can take to put your knowledge to action.
PLEASE NOTE: How you engage in elections depends a lot on your group’s organizational status. This guide is intended for unincorporated local groups and those spending money under 501(c)(4) tax rules--independently, or through fundraising tools we plan to offer as a 501(c)(4) organization ourselves. We do not recommend you incorporate as a 501(c)(3), as these organizations have serious limitations on their ability to participate in elections.
Why should Indivisible groups care about electoral politics?
Over the last year, we’ve demonstrated the power of standing Indivisible. Indivisible groups helped save the Affordable Care Act from repeal. We flocked to airports nationwide after the first Muslim ban was announced. We demonstrated solidarity in the wake of horrific white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville. And we are fighting to defeat the Trump Tax Scam and ensure permanent protections for DACA recipients and their families. We’ve proven that, together, we can resist this authoritarian administration and its agenda to hurt our families and neighbors—so why should we turn our attention to the messy business of electoral politics?
When people talk about hating politics, they often mean that they hate campaigns. Campaigns can be frustrating. It can seem like the industries and candidates with the most money drown out the rest of us in a flood of meaningless or negative campaign ads. Talking heads on cable news treat campaigns like horse races, and trivialize issues that matter to our families.
But elections and campaigns don’t have to be so painful! Once you cut past the jargon and the spin, elections are another way of exerting constituent power. Exercising that power by participating in electoral politics can be thrilling -- not to mention a great way to make lasting friends, and feel stronger in solidarity in the fights to come.
And there are lots of reasons for groups to get involved in electoral politics:
To secure our wins long-term, we need to elect people who see them as wins. The current leadership in Washington continues to push a harmful agenda that hurts our families, weakens our democracy, and endangers our environment. If we want to actually create lasting change on the issues that matter to us, we need to win electoral victories first.
Participating in elections helps highlight progressive values and policies. When we get out in front on important policy issues, and fight for our values through electoral participation, we can win a coveted place at the agenda-setting table. Flexing our movement’s electoral muscle sets the stage for progressive candidates and electeds to serve with political courage.
It’s past time we recognize that progressives exist in every state and district. For too long, the political left has overlooked or taken for granted vast swaths of the American electorate. In many parts of the country, there is no progressive bench -- because progressives haven’t contested key races in generations. You’ve all proven that there are progressives in every Congressional district in the country. Engaging in electoral politics is a way to build local power and grow capacity so that our movement endures beyond this moment of resistance.
Getting involved in elections reminds us that we’re not alone in this fight. The health care fight became a flashpoint: a key political moment that united people across the county, allowing local groups to take meaningful action, recruit new members and grow existing members’ leadership and skills. Electoral campaigns provide the same opportunity. Campaigns can be a great way to meet other local activists and forge new connections for the fight ahead.
What’s this guide for?
Just as you’ve taken back constituent power, you can take back electoral power. This guide is meant as a long-term resource, rather than a quick how-to. We want you to have the background you need to engage effectively in electoral politics. This guide is a 101 on elections in America, from what elections actually determine, to specifics on how campaigns work, to why your vote matters.
Make this guide work for you. You don’t have to read this guide in a single sitting. Feel free to refer back to it over the coming months whenever you have questions on campaign specifics. And always feel free to get in touch with your Indivisible Organizer via their email or via email@example.com if you have any questions that aren’t covered in here.
CHAPTER 1: Why do we hold elections?
Elections let us determine who makes our decisions for us.
In a democracy like ours, we elect representatives to craft policy for us. Every policy that impacts people -- from federal laws on health care to local legislation on concealed carry of firearms -- is decided by representatives who answer to their constituents.
Policy at every level is about distributing resources and ranking priorities. Does your town government care more about boosting the budget for the parks department or giving teachers a raise? Does your county government consider it worth the money to invest in the security of voting machines? Does your state government invest meaningfully to make college more attainable and affordable? Is a federal tax break for millionaires worth cuts to other programs (the answer is always no)?
Elections are one key way we’ve chosen to make these decisions. They determine who will be in the room when important decisions are made -- and they ensure our representatives know who they’ll have to answer to when they rank priorities and make tough decisions.
Different decisions are made at different levels of government.
Elections matter because they decide who makes the calls on issues we care about. Under the Constitution, some decisions are controlled by the federal government in DC, and some are left to state and local governments. You and your group know what issues matter most to you, and the issues Indivisible groups choose to prioritize will vary from place to place.
Election law and reporting requirements vary significantly from state to state, and between the state and federal level. One thing that’s always okay, however, is to volunteer your time. We encourage groups to use your volunteer time, rather than your money, when getting involved in electoral politics at every level.
Federal Issues -- Decisions made by the federal government -- the Executive branch and the US House & Senate -- tend to be on issues that will impact Americans in every state. These include international issues, like trade agreements, immigration and treaties. Both NAFTA and the Iran deal are federally-negotiated deals, and all decisions about immigration have to stem from the federal government. The federal government is also responsible for managing safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The federal government can also regulate companies that do business in more than one state. That means they have a lot of power over issues like pharmaceutical drug approval, major banking regulations, and which chemicals are considered toxic. Elections to the federal government happen every two years. Members of Congress serve two-year terms, presidents serve four year terms and US Senators serve six year terms (with one-third of Senators running for reelection every two years).
State Issues -- State governments control issues that only impact people within their borders. This includes most education issues, like what kids learn in school, statewide standardized tests, and the overall school budget. States are also responsible for setting certain tax levels, and determining how revenue will be spread out across the state. They set election policy, including things like voter ID laws, and the procedure for redrawing Congressional districts every 10 years. State governments also have a lot of power to determine what local governments can and can’t do (a power called “preemption”). For example, in some states, cities can pass new, city-level taxes. In others, the state government is the only one allowed to raise or lower taxes. Elections for governor, state attorney general, state supreme court justices and other statewide elected officials typically happen every four years. Elections to the state house and senate usually occur every two years. And some places, like Virginia, time their races so that they have some kind of statewide election every year.
Local Issues -- Local issues are ones that only impact people living in a particular city or county. These types of issues tend to include policing reform, changes to public transit, access to clean water and green spaces, zoning laws that often have a major impact on environmental justice, and city planning. Often these are the issues that impact a constituent’s life most directly on a daily basis. Elections for city or county council, school board or mayor happen at different times in different places -- you’ll want to do some research to figure out when they’re coming up in your area.
Joint Issues -- Many issues are decided across different levels of government. For example, the federal government makes most decisions on Medicaid, but states do have the option of choosing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The federal government needed to take action on that issue first, but states were able to decide whether or not to move forward with expansion. The federal Department of Education is responsible for ensuring states are complying with laws like Title IX, but state governments control what is taught in schools -- from comprehensive sex education, to whether or not to teach evolution.
Knowing who controls these policies makes you a better electoral advocate. If you’re most passionate about protecting access to our national parks and other federally protected public lands, you’ll want to get involved in elections for the US House of Representatives and US Senate. If you care about criminal justice reform, you should focus your attention on elections for district attorney or State Attorney General. If your group is deeply interested in city planning and school zoning, you may want to engage in elections for city council or school board.
Example: North Carolina and HB 2
Politicians at the local level can often be much more progressive than those at the state level, particularly when it comes to blue cities in red states. There has been a concerted effort in red state governments to “preempt” local legislation, passing conservative statewide bills that overturn more liberal citywide laws. In February 2016, the city council in Charlotte, North Carolina, passed a bill allowing residents to use the public bathroom that most closely aligns with their gender identity. In March, the state legislature held a special session to pass statewide legislation nullifying Charlotte’s bill. While the hateful state bill was eventually partially repealed, the fight in North Carolina is a good reminder that living in a blue city isn’t necessarily enough to protect red state residents. Electing progressives statewide is also crucial to protecting your rights.
CHAPTER 2: How do elections work?
Knowing how elections work inside out will give you confidence in your efforts.
Getting involved in the electoral process for the first time can be intimidating. What’s the difference between open and closed primaries, and why does it matter? What exactly does a campaign manager do? Why does everyone keep talking about “IEs”?
This chapter provides background on the basics of campaigns and elections. The truth is, campaigns will look different from district to district, and vary based on level of the ballot. Our guide is meant to give you some background on the terms that are thrown around in the campaign world, and how they relate to real-life politicking.
Our electoral process functions through a two-party democracy.
The American political system has generally functioned as a two-party system. The names, platforms and make-ups of those parties have changed over the years, but we’ve typically worked as a democracy with two parties. These two parties are responsible for selecting candidates to run for office in all “partisan” elections. In some places, all elections for office are partisan. In others, elections for certain offices (like school board, judgeships, or even city council) are non-partisan, meaning candidates don’t identify publicly with any political party.
Both parties typically elect a single candidate to run for office in every election. Each party determines which candidate they will throw their support behind using a primary process.
Open primaries are open to any registered voter in the state, regardless of partisan affiliation.
Closed primaries require you to register with a party before you can vote.
Caucuses are in-person events where voters publicly express their candidate preference. Caucuses happen most frequently in elections for president.
“Jungle primaries” have every candidate run in a single primary election, regardless of party. Whichever two candidates receive the greatest number of votes in the primary move on to the general, whether or not they’re from different political parties. These primaries are only fully used in three states: California, Louisiana, and Washington state (with a modified jungle primary in use in Alaska).
Jungle primaries can create headaches for candidates challenging incumbents. For example, a particularly bad conservative may inspire half a dozen progressive challengers, but only a single challenger from the right. In these cases, progressives can wind up splitting the vote, leading to a general election with only far-right candidates.
Major party candidates face each other and any other candidates in the general. Typically, independents and third party candidates struggle in general elections because the two major political parties start with a major advantage in resources, party infrastructure, and voter support.
One of the ways the two major political parties maintain their power is through limiting third party and independent candidate ballot access. Ballot access decisions are made at the state level. In many cases, candidates or parties may have to gather a certain number of signatures, or have won a particular percentage in the last election, before they’re allowed to run for office.
Elections look different depending on if an incumbent is running.
As mentioned in the guide to Indivisible Endorsements, the presence of an incumbent impacts elections. Elections for “open seats” will look different from ones with an incumbent. Incumbents change the tenor of a race both in the primary and during the general.
Primary elections with an incumbent are elections in which a new candidate is challenging a member of their own party who currently holds office. Incumbents often build up large campaign bank accounts and endorsements to scare away primary challengers. But they know that turnout in primaries is much lower than in other elections, and so results are more unpredictable than general elections.
Primary elections with an open seat are primary elections without an incumbent. These primaries happen when an incumbent chooses to resign, leaving a seat open, or in cases where one party will be challenging an incumbent of the other party in the general election. While front-runners often emerge, open primaries are often real free-for-alls, attracting multiple candidates. For this reason, and because turnout is usually low, no race is more unpredictable than an open primary.
General elections with an incumbent are elections in which a candidate challenges a current office holder from another political party. Typically, this will involve Democrats challenging Republicans or Republicans challenging Democrats, but general elections can also include Independents, as well as Libertarians and Green Party members. Candidates may move to the center politically in the general, which is why primaries play such an important role in getting candidates on the record on issues you care about.
Open general elections are elections without an incumbent. In these cases, both major parties usually field candidates that they’ve chosen through a primary election. These candidates then face each other, along with any candidates from other parties, in the general election.
Full-time campaign professionals run elections nationwide.
While local elections for school board or town council may rely on a core base of dedicated volunteers, most elections -- from state house to governor to US senate -- are run by a staff of full-time campaign professionals. Some of the major roles on a political campaign include:
Campaign managers tend to be the most visible staffer on most political campaigns. Campaigns are complicated, and it’s rare that a single person is responsible for success or failure, but the campaign manager is typically the one to reap the credit or the blame for a campaign’s outcome. They are responsible for making major strategic decisions and managing the campaign staff, including the:
Field Director -- A campaign’s field director is responsible for developing and coordinating the campaign’s organizing strategy (i.e. voter contact and the volunteer program). This can include phone banks, canvassing, and Get Out the Vote (GOTV) activities, as well as making decisions in coordination with the campaign manager about which local events a candidate should attend. The field director may supervise volunteer leaders or paid organizers depending on the size of the campaign.
Communications Director -- Depending on the size of a campaign, a candidate may have a single communications director, or a full communications staff. This person is typically responsible for developing the campaign’s media strategy, responding to questions from the press, working with the field director to generate earned media opportunities, and working with the candidate to refine their messaging.
Finance Director -- Despite our best wishes, all campaigns are run on money. The finance director is responsible for figuring out an overall fundraising strategy, identifying top fundraising targets, and may be responsible for coordinating the campaign’s budget.
Data Director -- Bigger elections, for Congress or statewide office, will often employ a data director. The data team is responsible for figuring out targeting in races -- who the candidate’s base voters are, and which voters to target for persuasion.
In addition to staff, many campaigns also hire outside consultants, such as:
General Consultants are more common in federal or statewide races. They help run the campaign behind-the-scenes: helping develop the campaign’s overall message and strategy, making major hiring decisions, and ensuring that other outside consultants are getting their jobs done. These folks may be based in the district, but are often working remotely from DC.
Pollsters use polling to figure out how their candidate is doing in relation to the opposition. Even more importantly, they’re responsible for determining how the district feels about messaging, issues and specific proposals. In badly-managed campaigns, pollsters can exclusively run the show, creating poll-tested policy rather than policy that reflects a candidate’s values. In well-run campaigns, pollsters work closely with communications staff and media consultants to create values-driven messaging that will resonate with voters.
Media consultants are responsible for creating paid advertising, from TV to print and radio ads. Sometimes a campaign will have a single media consultant responsible for all of the above, and other times they’ll hire specialists depending on the audience and the medium.
Outside forces can influence elections through “Independent Expenditures” (IEs). The amount of money that industries, non-profits, and interest groups can spend when they coordinate directly with a federal political campaign is severely limited by federal campaign finance law. As a result, many of these organizations use IEs to fund large-scale electoral activity, without coordinating (discussing strategy) with the campaign they’re supporting.
IEs can engage in a lot of the same behavior campaigns can. They can hire staff or pay outside consultants. They can take out advertisements in support of or in opposition to a candidate. They can run canvassing, phone-banking and GOTV programs. They can conduct polls, and talk to reporters about why they support one candidate over another. The biggest constraints IEs face are:
Strict reporting requirements -- IE campaigns are required to report all activities they spend money on. If they take out ads, all ad costs must be reported. If they run a paid canvass, all canvassing hours must be reported.
Prohibitions on candidate contact -- IEs are absolutely forbidden from coordinating with political candidates. They cannot discuss strategy with campaigns or receive any information from a candidate or candidate surrogate that is not publicly available.
Federal IEs let outside groups spend virtually unlimited amounts of money. IEs aren’t necessarily a good or a bad thing -- both progressive and conservative organizations run IEs during campaign season. These groups can be as varied as the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees (DCCC and NRCC), the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, and PACs run by groups like Planned Parenthood, environmental groups, and labor unions. We’ll have future guides that get into more detail on the impact of money in politics, and the laws and policies we can support to decrease the impact of a few major donors on our political system. In the meantime, IEs with virtually unlimited federal spending restrictions are a fact of the American political system.
Is my Indivisible Group an IE?
Some groups will choose to run IEs in 2018, and others will coordinate with candidates. There’s no right or wrong answer here, but it does have to be a deliberate decision. The good news is that volunteer activities don’t trigger IE reporting requirements. Groups should feel free to do free volunteer activities on their own from phone-banking to canvassing, as long as you don’t spend large amounts of your personal money on those volunteer activities. We’ll be providing more tools and guidance on how to volunteer in the coming weeks.
Consensus on what makes for a good campaign or IE is in flux.
2016 threw a wrench into a lot of what we thought we knew about campaigns. There’s a lot of campaign “best practices” and conventional wisdom that candidates on both sides of the aisle tend to stick to when running for office. But as we saw in 2016, it’s entirely possible for a bad candidate with a terrible message, no field strategy, and limited paid media to win.
At the end of the day, all campaigns require voter contact. In 2016, the Trump campaign was given virtually unlimited “earned media” (free press coverage), allowing them to speak to voters while investing very little in paid media or field. Both traditional campaigns and IEs will be considering if there are better methods of contacting voters in 2018 and beyond.
2018 may change how we think about elections yet again. While most campaigns will stick to traditional strategies and tactics, others will be looking to create new methods of voter outreach. Face to face contact will always be the most impactful way to have conversations with voters, but we’re excited to see what creative ways progressive campaigns come up with to bring in new voters in the coming months.
CHAPTER 3: How do governments shape elections?
State governments enjoy a huge amount of power in deciding how to run elections. These governments can wield their power to expand the electorate, helping ensure governments at every level are representative of the communities they are elected to serve. Yet all too often, state governments choose to use their power to limit the vote.
Voter suppression dates back to the earliest days of our country.
From our country’s founding, anti-democratic forces have worked to limit the vote. For our country’s first one-hundred years, only white men were permitted to vote. White women, all black men and women and Native Americans, were denied the vote under the first US constitution. Even after universal male suffrage was guaranteed in 1870 under the 15th Amendment, women of all races were prevented from voting until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Voter suppression in this country has historically targeted black voters. Black men secured the vote in the aftermath of the civil war, radically altering the political makeup of the south. From 1870 to 1877, black men served as US Senators, Representatives and state and local elected officials in former Confederate states. These men were elected primarily by newly-enfranchised former slaves throughout the American south.
White fear of black political power led to new voter suppression laws. Starting in 1877, the federal government withdrew troops from former Confederate states and effectively stepped back from any effort to protect black men’s right to vote in southern states. Southern legislatures quickly passed legislation to suppress the black vote, including “poll taxes,” which kept poor Americans from voting, and “grandfather clauses,” which disenfranchised the descendants of former slaves. While most explicit voter suppression laws during this period were passed in the American south, they were passed with the complicity of northern states, who made little to no effort to protect black male suffrage.
Terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan targeted black voters to suppress the vote. KKK members staked out polling places, lynched black voters, and engaged in a campaign of terror to suppress the vote. By 1940, only 3 percent of eligible black voters in the south were registered to vote.
Our country’s racist history of voter suppression began with targeted efforts to prevent black Americans from voting, but today, Latinx voters also face concerted efforts to limit their access to the ballot. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEAO) estimated that laws passed since 2012 would make voting more difficult in 2016 for 875,000 eligible Latino voters. Five of the states that passed more restrictive voting laws since 2012 are in the top-ten in terms of Latino population nationwide -- and Texas (which is home to 9.8 million Latinx residents) had a law on the books in 2016 that was thrown out in 2017 for having been enacted with clear “discriminatory intent.” Voter suppression in the 21st century looks different than it did decades ago, but it shares an end goal of preventing brown and black Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
Black activists led the fight for voting rights, often without white progressives. From Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech at the Women’s Rights Convention, to Ida B Wells-Barnett’s campaign against lynching, to Dr. King’s tireless advocacy to pass a voting rights bill, black Americans fought for the right to vote against terrifying opposition. As a result of this sustained activism, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The legislation represented the federal government’s decision to re-engage to protect black voters for the first time in nearly one hundred years. It was a major step forward, requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to receive federal government approval before changing election laws, and forbidding any election policies that limit the vote based on race.
The election of the first black president coincided with a surge in new voter suppression laws. These new laws are disguised to appear less explicitly racist than those of the past. Rather than talking about suppressing the vote, new racist laws talk about “stopping voter fraud.” But, as studies show, there’s zero evidence that “voter fraud” is a real problem -- and a lot of evidence that these laws are really intended to stop black and brown Americans from voting.
Some examples of anti-democratic voter suppression laws, rulings, and policies include:
Voter ID laws -- At present, ten states have strict voter ID laws in place. These laws are a solution in search of a problem. Voter fraud is an imagined crisis, but getting an approved ID can be a challenge for many voters.
Rollback of VRA -- In June 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 5-4 decision freed nine states -- primarily in the south -- to change election laws without approval from the federal government. In the four years since the court’s decision, legal battles have raged across the American south, as states from Texas to North Carolina moved to implement new strict voter ID laws.
Reduction of early vote -- Early vote periods allow voters who might be busy on election day to vote on their own time in the lead-up to the election. In 2016, a number of states, including Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin all cut early voting days or hours.
Reduction of same-day registration - Same-day voter registration works to expand the electorate, allowing voters who may have been unaware of voter registration deadlines to register to vote at the polling location. North Carolina eliminated election day same-day registration in 2013, and the law was allowed to go into effect without federal government review following that year’s Supreme Court decision.
Cuts to polling places and hours -- Legislators have strategically closed polling places or limited hours in key locations in order to limit voting access for people of color. In 2016, The New York Times rolled out the “Voter Suppression Trail,” an interactive “game” that demonstrates the impact of cuts to polling places and hours on citizens’ ability to cast a ballot.
Returning citizens -- Nine states disenfranchise all voters convicted of a felony. In these states, citizens returning from serving a sentence must apply to the Governor of their state to have their voting rights restored. Because our country’s criminal justice system disproportionately targets black and brown Americans -- one in three black men and one in six Latino men can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to one in seventeen white men -- laws that disenfranchise returning citizens target voters of color.
Disabled Americans -- While the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 explicitly prohibited states from “categorically disqualifying” all people with intellectual or mental health disabilities from voting, thirty-nine states do have some laws that can deny those with “mental incapacities” the right to vote. In all but eleven states, some disabled Americans are barred from voting.
DC & US Territories -- Today, 4.5 million Americans (including 3.4 million in Puerto Rico and 0.6 million in DC) live in US districts and territories that have no voting Congressional representation. Most of the residents of these territories are non-white. Together, residents of these non-voting territories comprise a bigger percentage of the US population than voters in half of US states, including New Mexico, Iowa and Connecticut.
The “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” -- In May 2017, Trump announced the creation of the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” and put notorious voter suppression expert Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in charge, with the mission of uncovering evidence of the non-existent voter fraud Trump claims plagues our elections. The architect of the Commission, Hans von Spakovsky, has argued that Democrats and “mainstream Republican officials and/or academics” should be excluded from participating because they are insufficiently zealous about pursuing evidence of voter fraud. Since its formation, the commission has not uncovered any of this evidence—but it has managed to come under investigation for its funding, operations, and protection of citizens’ voting information.
States can fight voter suppression and expand the electorate.
Efforts to protect the vote have also been gaining traction around the country. Some tactics for voter expansion include:
Automatic voter registration -- In the last two years, six states have created “opt-out” voter registration. In these states, voters who interact with certain state agencies (for example, the Department of Motor Vehicles) are automatically registered unless they specifically opt-out of registration.
Same-day voter registration -- At present, fifteen states allow same-day voter registration. These states tend to be clustered in the northeast and northwest of the country, although Maryland and North Carolina have allowed same-day registration during early vote periods.
Online voter registration -- Online voter registration increases voter participation, particularly among young first-time registrants. These “digital natives” are more comfortable registering online. Online registration also removes the possibility of lost paperwork. 35 states allow electronic registration.
Long early vote periods and no-excuse absentee ballots -- Thirty-seven states allow some form of early voting, whether that be in-person early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. Increasing the time period allowed for voting boosts turnout.
Pre-registration for high school students -- Fourteen states allow high school students as young as 16 years old to “pre-register” to vote. Once pre-registered students turn 18, they are automatically added to the voter rolls.
All mail voting -- Three states -- Colorado, Oregon and Washington -- have an all vote-by-mail system. Ballots are mailed to all registered voters ahead of election day. Voters don’t have to worry about being delayed at work or getting stuck in traffic. On the other hand, mail voting does require voters to take the initiative to mail the ballot back in in time to be counted.
Both voter suppression and expansion impact election results.
State election policies have a real impact on election results. No one is trying to keep rich, straight, white guys from voting. Efforts to restrict the vote disproportionately impact voters of color, and can swing elections away from more progressive candidates.
The number of votes separating a winning and losing campaign can be really small. In 2016, progressive candidates in Nevada and New Hampshire ran closely contested elections for Senate. In Nevada, the difference between the two candidates was about 25,000 votes, or 0.6 percent of the vote. In New Hampshire, the margin was even smaller: just 1,017 votes, or 0.1 percent of the vote.
The laws our governments pass can make it easier or harder to turn out to vote. At the end of the day, voting is the strongest tool we have to take back control of our government. Stay tuned: Indivisible, along with partner organizations, will be releasing guides on voter protection efforts in the coming months.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Wisconsin by about 23,000 votes, out of nearly three million ballots cast. The state saw its lowest turnout since the year 2000, and most of that drop occurred in Milwaukee, a city in which more than half of residents identify as black or Latinx. Milwaukee’s election director, Neil Albrecht, estimates that “between 10,000 and 15,000 voters” in Milwaukee didn’t vote because of a new photo ID law passed by the Wisconsin state legislature. Mother Jones has a great article on the impact of voter suppression in Wisconsin, which shows the impact a single bad law can have on politics across the country.
CHAPTER 4: How can your group take action?
Participating in electoral politics can create lasting policy change. No matter what your party affiliation is, voting and participating in elections are critical ways to stop the harm that the Trump Administration seeks to do. We will be rolling out new guides and toolkits over the next four months, providing you with the resources and know-how you need to hit the ground running on electoral politics.
In the meantime, here are a few ways you can take action on electoral politics:
Figure out which campaigns to get involved with -- The first choice any group looking to get involved in electoral politics will have to make is which races to engage with. Many states and districts will be holding statewide and local races in 2018, meaning your group may have the option of engaging in up to a dozen different races. Figure out what policies and values matter most to your group, and consider volunteering in support of races that have an impact on those issues.
Consider making endorsements -- Your demonstrated political power means many candidates will be looking for your endorsement in 2018 and beyond. Check out our guide on the endorsement process, and remember that an endorsement is a real commitment of tangible support -- don’t endorse until you’re ready to hit the ground running.
Volunteer -- The most important way you can support candidates in your area is to spend your time, not your money. Volunteer time—knocking on doors, making phone calls, or holding candidate forums—is a huge factor in who gets elected.
Participate in voter registration efforts -- Across the country, 70.3 percent of eligible citizens are registered to vote. That number drops dramatically to 55.4 percent for voters under the age of 25, 56.3 percent for Asian Americans, and 57.3 percent for Latinx citizens. Broadening the electorate is crucial to ensuring a truly representative democracy. Check out our guide on voter registration.
Generate earned media -- Indivisible groups are experts at using earned media to exert pressure on elected officials. We’ll be rolling out an earned media toolkit for elections in the coming weeks, so watch this space for more information.
Run for something -- Our elected officials are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Studies show that women and people of color have to be invited to run repeatedly before they consider jumping into a race. Consider this your first invitation, and check out our Run for something guide once it’s available.