Max Smith, co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship, reviews the Tools for Radical Democracy guide to electoral organising, and draws out some key considerations for deciding whether or how to engage in elections.
Elections represent a window of opportunity for community organisers and campaigners to build political power and influence, and possibly even win tangible outcomes for our communities. But how do we know if electoral organising and campaigning is the right approach for our community, organisation, or issue? And what considerations are most important for working out how best to engage in elections?
In their 2007 book Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organise for Power in Your Community, authors Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos devote a chapter to answering these very questions. The book is something of an instructional manual outlining the basic principles for building community and organisational power, developing and implementing campaigns, and putting them into practice. Electoral Organising is just one manifestation of organising for power in your community.
Tools for Radical Democracy was written for the United States organising context. As such, I attempt to modify some of their writing to the Australian context.
Before deciding whether to engage in elections, it’s critical that we are clear about the purpose of our engagement and how this political moment and window of opportunity fits into our longer term vision, goals, and objectives.
In their book chapter titled Power in the Voting Booth: Electoral Organising Minieri and Getsos outline four key purposes of electoral organising:
- To shift power, strategically and over the long term, by empowering marginalised communities or constituencies to take action in the political arena
- To wield a base of voters to pressure candidates and elected representatives to commit and act for a community/organisation and its issues
- To influence the outcome of an election (a particular focus of politically partisan campaigns)
- To shift election candidates into publicly addressing and supporting your issues
We must be clear about our purpose and theory of change before devoting the significant resources required for electoral organising. It’s important that we watch out for ‘magical thinking’ that envisions goals and impacts beyond the capacity and control of our community/organisation. For example, influencing the outcome of an election may not be a realistic goal for community organisations given the confluence of factors beyond our control (more on this, below).
Common elements of electoral organising and campaigning
Electoral organising and campaigning typically has a number of common elements and activities. Which approach you adopt and which activities you employ will depend on the identified purpose of your electoral engagement (see above).
As with most forms of community organising and campaigning, effective electoral organising relies fundamentally on face-to-face conversations and leadership development, where people in the community are empowered to build their own voter contact networks.
The core electoral organising elements identified by Minieri and Getsos are:
- Voter Contact
- In the United States, political parties and organisations can access the voter roll, with basic information about each enrolled voter, including their voting history. In Australia, only political parties have access to the voter roll (the roll also does not include information about voting history). Community groups and organisations in Australia need to build their own database of voters based on contacts, conversations, and commitments.
- Voter Registration
- In the United States, voting is optional and voters must first register their intention to vote. This places a strong emphasis on electoral organising approaches which identify under-voting communities or constituencies using the voter file, registering them to vote, and then mobilising them to vote at the polls. In Australia, where voting is compulsory and most voters are automatically enrolled, this is a less common approach to electoral organising. That said, there are marginalised communities in Australia that have been targeted for voter suppression and disenfranchisement, who can effectively grow their power through mass voter registration tactics. This is particularly the case for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, incarcerated people, and to a lesser extent young people and students. GetUp First Nations Justice Team, Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, and Young Campaigns offer good examples of this approach in action on this continent. Note that this approach is crucially connected to voter mobilisation (see below).
- Voter Identification (ID)
- Voter ID requires identifying the position voters have on an issue or candidates (usually through conversation), so we can then contact them again for voter persuasion or mobilisation. It’s important to keep track of this data from conversations, especially if voters are supportive and express interest in taking more action, like volunteering.
- Voter Mobilisation
- In the United States, voter mobilisation is often referred to as “Get out the Vote” (GOTV), where organisers activate supportive voters to go to the polls. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, and people face fines for not attending the polls, this approach might not be necessary or suit your organising purpose. Note, however, that this element aligns with voter registration, which is an important approach in some communities and electoral organising contexts.
- Voter Education
- Educating people about the political system, our issues, and where political parties and candidates stand on the issues. This can be a complimentary part of Voter ID conversations.
To this list I would add:
- Voter Persuasion
- Attempting to persuade ID’d voters to pledge their vote for a particular candidate, any candidates who support our issue, or to not vote for candidates who oppose our issue. (Note the possible legal implications of this approach, especially for non-partisan community organisations.)
- Engaging candidates
- For example, through lobbying meetings, forums or accountability sessions where candidates have to front up to your community voter base; so that candidates are encouraged or pressured to shift their position and commit their support for the community/organisation and its issues.
- This approach includes yard signs, billboards, and handing out election day how-to-vote cards (for partisan campaigns) or scorecards (non-partisan). Note that this approach on its own is rather ineffective, and is only useful insofar as it is connected to a campaign of voter contact, voter ID, and voter education/persuasion.
- Training and leadership development
- This is a critical principle of community organising and should always underpin our approach to electoral organising, so that we build our leadership, power, and capacity for further action beyond election day towards achieving our long-term goals. If training and leadership development is not a priority in our electoral organising campaign, it’s probably not a sustainable campaign.
In essence, any electoral organising campaign is premised on our ability to engage and motivate or persuade a large number of voters to action. This often takes the form of tactics that enable face-to-face persuasive conversations, like doorknocking and community stalls. Phonecalling is another way to engage a large number of voters in conversations (especially when pandemics are a thing), albeit less effective than a face-to-face interaction.
Electoral organising conversations are generally easier than other campaigning conversations because people usually know about the election context. Voters might therefore better understand our theory of change, and appreciate the opportunity to discuss the political moment and share their views. However, if you’re engaging in a non-partisan campaign, you will need to work harder to connect voters to your issue or community campaign as the logic of your engagement with them is less clear than a partisan ask.
The biggest risk to effective conversations is inertia, as politics everywhere can be overwhelming to people. This is why you will need to start engaging people very early in the election cycle so that you can build a relationship, ask for a commitment, and follow up with them again before they vote (when your contact will be most effective at motivating or persuading).
Community Mapping and the Spectrum of Allies
If you are clear on your purpose and approach for engaging in elections, Community Mapping and the Spectrum of Allies may be useful tools in identifying which voters to contact and where/how to grow your voter base.
Considerations for deciding whether to engage in electoral organising
Minieri and Getsos provide a useful list of questions for reflection and discussion to aid in decision-making around whether and how to engage in electoral organising. I have made some modifications to their original list to fit the Australian context, along with some added questions and emphasis of my own (I have put these in Italics).
- Will electoral organising help us achieve our organisational and campaign goals?
- What is the purpose of our engagement in electoral organising? Eg. To elect a particular candidate (partisan organising), to secure a commitment from candidate(s), to shift the politics on an issue?
- What is the political landscape in our community and/or on our issue?
- Are the targets of our campaigns elected, electable, or capable of winning a significant enough proportion of votes to change the election outcome?
- Will changing who is in office improve our ability to win campaigns for our community/issue?
- Is building political power critical to achieving our goals? Will we reach our long-term goals only if we have more political power?
- Can we work with numbers? How many many voters do we need to persuade or mobilise? How many conversations do we need to have to reach our persuasion or mobilisation target? How many volunteers do we need to activate and organise to have enough conversations to reach our persuasion/mobilisation goal? How will we track and prove this?
- Where/who are the voters we are trying to persuade or mobilise? Is it by geographic area or by issue? (The issue is harder to pin down.)
- Do we have enough existing capacity, or do we need to build new capacity? Eg. Do you have sufficient organised power, institutions, or coalitions to implement the campaign and achieve our goals and targets?
- What are the legal implications of our engagement in electoral organising? Eg. Do we need to adhere to third-party laws?
- Do people in our organisation want to do electoral organising?
- Do our members and leaders see building electoral power as critical for our work?
- Are they willing to expend resources—time, money, and staff—to do electoral organising?
- Are they willing to engage in the political system to achieve our goals?
- Are they willing to focus almost exclusively on electoral organising in the eight to ten weeks before elections? (More like 12-16, in my opinion.)
- Do we have the capacity to run an electoral project? Will it enhance our core campaign work or detract from it?
- Does our organisation have the staff and leaders with the skills and drive to engage in electoral organising?
- How will we track, monitor, and evaluate our impact?
- Do we have the technology and systems for tracking voters and managing large quantities of data?
- Can we get the volunteers and develop the systems to do these tasks effectively?
- Will our organisation suffer or benefit from the electoral organising experience? Will it build leadership and capacity, or expend it?
- What resources and assets do we need for electoral organising? How will we get them?
- Are there other organisations with leadership capacity, knowledge, and resources that we should partner with?
- Who else is engaged in electoral organising?
- How saturated is the field? Eg. Will other groups be active on the ground? What are they campaigning on? How will it affect our work? How will we differentiate ourselves? Will we get lost in the field because so many other people are talking to voters?
- What are the opportunities for collaborations, partnerships, and sharing resources?
- What are our clear and realistic goals?
- What is our three-year plan: objectives, goals, benchmarks that build off of one another?
- What are some limited, short-term projects we can do to build our capacity and expertise?
- How will we use this experience to build our power for the longer term? Will we recruit new volunteers and start new organising groups or teams? How will we absorb supportive voters into the campaign/organisation?
When deciding whether to engage in elections or not, it is critical to establish the purpose of your engagement; understand the role of electoral organising in building your community/organisational power and achieving your campaign goals; identify the organising approach and activities that best fit your purpose and goals; and consider the various factors, both external and internal, that will shape the window of political opportunity for your community, organisation or issue.
It is important to remember that engaging in elections will not suit every organising context. Elections are often touted as “the most important one in recent history”, “a critical moment that will shape our nation’s future”, or “our only chance to secure victory for our campaign”. But elections are by no means the be-all and end-all.
In reality, elections represent only a short burst of political activity and opportunity in the broader context of our political lives. We must always connect our electoral engagement back to this bigger picture and our organising purpose. If we cannot, then we should consider alternative organising approaches for achieving our goals.
- Deciding Whether To Do Electoral Organizing
- Elections and Activism: Campaign Skills
- Elections and Activism: Case Studies
- Elections and Activism: Concepts and Tensions