In an opinion essay, Ashley Shelton of the Power Coalition in Louisiana says the 2019 state elections are an example of how families and nonprofit organizations are making progress in the movement for equity. That includes record Black voter turnout.
After almost every election, pundits step out to lay credit or blame at the feet of whomever comes across their radar first. Usually that means candidates or political parties, while they overlook grassroots organizations that do most of the important work.
In the wake of Louisiana’s 2019 statewide elections, this seems to be the case – yet again. But there is a movement of change afoot, and we are grateful to the voters of Louisiana for making their voices heard and setting a clear path forward.
Louisiana supported President Donald Trump by a 20-point margin in 2016. But on Nov. 16, John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, was re-elected to a second term as the state’s governor. Edwards defeated his challenger, Eddie Rispone, a businessman who allied himself with the president, by 40,214 votes out of the more than 1.5 million total votes cast. Edwards won 51.3 percent of the vote, compared to Rispone’s 48.7 percent.
Overall turnout was significantly higher than expected, as 50.7 percent of voters made their way to the polls, compared to just 40.2 percent for the statewide election in 2015. Edwards’s victory has largely been attributed to high turnout among Black voters, especially in urban areas. And, in fact, Black voter turnout, as a proportion of the total vote, was 30.9 percent. That’s the largest percentage in modern Louisiana history, including the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
So how did that happen? Some pundits were quick to credit the turnout operation run by Edwards and the state Democratic party. Those pundits must not have spent a lot of time on the ground. If they had, they would see that in Louisiana and other states, candidates and political parties, arguably, are barely moving the needle of progress.
What they’re missing is that community organizing and advocacy groups, like the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and our partners, are building a nationwide grassroots movement. We’re doing it state-by-state.
People of color are leading many of the organizations at the forefront of this movement. These organizations are putting the voice and power of people of color at the center of their efforts.
I spent six months running a nonpartisan, statewide get-out-the-vote campaign focused on engaging with infrequent and semi-frequent voters of color. The people who put Edwards over the top were not responding to the political establishment or the candidate himself.
They went to the polls because they felt a personal, immediate responsibility to ensure their voices were heard. They understood that, in one of the poorest states in the country which is home to nearly 4.7 million Americans, there is a dire need for living wages, access to affordable health care and quality education, criminal justice reform and many other initiatives that will uplift low- and moderate-income communities. Ultimately, the people with whom we talked voted for the candidate who they thought was going to do the best job representing them on those key issues.
Over the course of the campaign, we made more than 1.1 million voter contact attempts – approximately 325,000 door knocks, 310,000 phone calls and 510,000 text messages – and had meaningful conversations with hundreds of thousands of people.
We held more than a dozen statewide events, including six community listening sessions and eight legislative candidate forums. People had the opportunity to speak their truth to power (or, at least, speak truth to those who were running to hold positions of power). We partnered with other grassroots organizations on another dozen events. Our organizers went anywhere and everywhere that promised to draw a crowd.
When we talked to people, our discussions went beyond voting in the 2019 election. We talked about staying engaged in the political process long after they cast their votes and about holding elected officials accountable. Those are scary ideas to the political establishment. It might be why its members often refuse to engage in the kind of grassroots movement building necessary to make real, sustainable change.
It also might explain why there’s such a wide chasm between what people want and what their elected leaders are willing to do. For instance, a Louisiana State University survey found that 81 percent of the state wants to raise the minimum wage. Yet, at the state Legislature, minimum wage bills can’t even get out of committee.
While we focused on direct voter contact and grassroots organizing, encountering thousands of people who’d never had anyone reach out to them before, the candidates and their backers were wasting tens of millions of dollars on mostly negative TV ads. Those advertisements highlighted criminals (people’s families) and partisan politics – none of which changes outcomes for working families in Louisiana.
In our experience, this mainstream political messaging did nothing but alienate voters. Grassroots organizers had to step in and explain why residents should ignore the negativity they were constantly seeing on their TVs, computers and phones – and instead, focus on what the election meant to their daily lives.
Running an effective statewide campaign like ours doesn’t happen overnight, but that’s often the approach taken by the political machines.
The Power Coalition, like other grassroots organizations across the U.S., is busy doing on-the-ground work that others refuse to do. Even during this hectic election season, we were already planning and executing a campaign to drive participation in the 2020 U.S. Census. We were laying out our state agenda for next year, including advocacy around the minimum wage, reducing or eliminating criminal fines and fees for poor people, fair and equitable redistricting and continued criminal justice reform.
This is the work that is being done by our partners in Louisiana and by activists and advocacy groups in every state. This work needs to be talked about and funded nationally.
This is why we are so grateful to donors and foundations that believe in people-centered, democratic work. This is the work that will decide the future of our country. We don’t think it will be politicians or political parties who will save us. We just hope they draw inspiration from their voters and do what’s right for people in the United States because all of us will benefit.
Ashley Shelton is executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a Louisiana-based, nonpartisan organization committed to empowering communities through voting and civic education. Follow the organization on Twitter at @PowerCoEJ. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America.