Equal Voice News

Election 2016: Civic Engagement Brings New Voices to the Table

March 14, 2016

By Gary Gately | Special to Equal Voice News

Grassroots advocates, especially those in communities of color, could play a pivotal role in various levels of Election 2016, especially in the highly-partisan presidential race.

 Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network in Texas

Members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network in Texas hold a world cafe on Feb. 19 with candidates at the Spirit of Praise Church in Harlingen, Texas. The idea behind such events is to encourage genuine conversations between residents and candidates. Photo by Jazmin Francis

Across the nation, community leaders are calling on them to participate and make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Raising the minimum wage, immigration, education, jobs, health care, anti-poverty programs and adequate housing have emerged among the top issues for these constituencies, advocates say.

Here is a sample of what several organizations are doing around the country to boost civic and voter engagement efforts for Election 2016 and the years to come:

Brownsville, Texas

Voter-outreach workers from Proyecto Juan Diego, a community organization on the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas, help legal immigrants become U.S. citizens through intensive classes, workshops and visits to their homes.

Then the workers head to a federal courthouse, where residents in this primarily Latino community become U.S. citizens at proceedings every two months, and waste no time encouraging the new Americans to vote how they wish.

Lupita Sanchez, Proyecto Juan Diego’s community action coordinator, said additional classes teach the new citizens – as well as other Latinos – about the political process, registering to vote and the importance of going to the polls.

Proyecto Juan Diego, along with other organizations in the Rio Grande Valley, also invites local candidates to “world cafés” during which local candidates answer questions selected by the organizations.

But the town has been all abuzz of late over GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, who Sanchez said has enraged many Latinos with his idea about building a larger border wall and inspired them to seek to keep him from winning the presidency.

“We have been finding that to encourage people to get involved, they sometimes have to be upset, and it looks like the man has this power to get people upset,” Sanchez said.

Lupita Sanchez

“And so we’re using that in a positive way and saying, ‘So if you’re upset about something, what are you going to do about it when this man talks about building a wall [at the U.S.-Mexican border], having Mexicans pay for it and deporting 11 million people?’”

Alamo, Texas

ARISE Support Center, a community organization in the Rio Grande Valley town of Alamo in South Texas, dispatched volunteers to knock on more than 2,300 doors four times each over eight weeks leading up to the March 1 Texas primary. They focused on voters who were registered but had not been voting.

“What we wanted to do is give them an equal voice by increasing numbers at the border,” said Ramona Casas, an ARISE community organizer.

She said voters were asked to sign cards pledging that they would go to the polls. In the end, 400 voters did so. The group plans to sustain its efforts to encourage voter participation leading up to the general election in November.

ARISE also has community meetings and workshops on critical issues in local, state and national elections, especially ones that affect residents along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’re training the community to be aware of the importance of learning about the candidates and voting,” Casas said.

Oakland, California

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), based in Oakland, notes that nearly a third of the nation’s Asian Pacific Islander community lives in California. Thus, the group says, successes in California have national implications.

APEN has focused heavily on environmental justice, including a successful effort in 2010 to defeat an oil industry attempt to decimate the state’s landmark climate-change bill, combatting racism, creating jobs and affordable housing and helping eradicate poverty.

Timmy Lu, APEN’s civic engagement coordinator, said the presidential election has inspired many voters to get involved in the political process, but the group stresses local as well as national politics and long-term goals.

“We’re looking at not just 2016, but building a culture of engagement over the next five, 10, 15 years with a focus on local, state and national issues,” he said.


The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has been at the forefront of immigration reform and views it as one of the central issues in the 2016 presidential campaign. The Chicago-based coalition opposes immigration raids on Central American asylum seekers and reaches out to its constituency of Latinos, the Asian community, Arabs and Muslims throughout Illinois.

Lawrence Benito

Lawrence Benito

Lawrence Benito, the coalition’s CEO and executive director, said it launched at a Feb. 6 assembly in Chicago its “Campaign for Dignity, Respect and Equity,” largely in response to some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 2106 presidential campaign.

“We stress the need to push back on that rhetoric against Mexicans and against Muslims and to make sure that they go to the polls and vote,” Benito said.

The coalition, which runs get-out-the-vote drives and citizenship workshops regularly, has a simple message in its voter drives targeting legal immigrants who are not yet citizens: “If you make you make your voice heard, and you’re eligible for citizenship, now is the time to apply,” Benito said.

He said the coalition has found more than 220,000 Latino voters and 60,000 people in the Asian community in Illinois are registered to vote but have not done so. The coalition is persuading them to go to the polls.

Washington, D.C.

The NAACP, long a powerful force in elections, will be particularly visible this election year.

At its 107th national convention in Cincinnati July 16-20, the civil rights organization will highlight its theme, “Our Lives Matter, Our Votes Count,” continuing its emphasis on bringing about change through the ballot box.

Voter education, voter protection and voter mobilization, along with issues like criminal and economic justice reform, will be highlighted at workshops, discussions and speeches, including some by presidential candidates.

“When the right of every citizen to vote is under threat in states across the nation, we must join together to respond and be heard,” Roslyn M. Brock, chair of the NAACP’s national board of directors, said in a statement.

“In towns and cities across this country, we are witnessing a new era of activism, as a new generation rises to stand against police brutality and for the right to be heard in our democracy. We must harness that desire to be heard and mobilize our members to protect the vote and to get out the vote.”


Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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Election 2016: Civic Engagement Brings New Voices to the Table