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Swinging the Vote: Midterms Mobilization

Issue 274

Grassroots group will send thousands of volunteers to key midterm swing states.

Steven Wishnia Oct 12

“We don’t want you to have to worry about fascism,” says Kara Murray-Badal of Seed the Vote.

Seed the Vote, founded in 2019 in the Bay Area, is one of several groups that have abandoned the left’s traditional disdain for electoral politics. “We coalesced around the strong belief that the left and social-justice movements needed to prioritize defeating Trump,” it says. “Our communities were under relentless assault from a white nationalist, authoritarian ­administration.”

Their methodology is sending volunteers to canvass in battleground states, working with local community organizations and labor unions, says Peter Hogness of Water for Grassroots, a New York City-based group that merged with Seed the Vote in April.

“We’re going to be knocking on doors six days a week until the election,” says Andrew, a canvassing co-leader in Philadelphia, who asked to be identified by only his first name.

In 2020, Seed the Vote had almost 7,000 volunteers. This year, it’s working in six states: Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada, trying to defend incumbent Democratic senators against Trump-cult challengers, and North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, trying to win Republican-held ­Senate seats.

Seed the Vote, founded in 2019 in the Bay Area, is one of several groups that have abandoned the left’s traditional disdain for electoral politics.

It’s campaigning in Phoenix with LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona) and UNITE HERE Local 11; in the Atlanta area with the Asian American Advocacy Fund PAC and Showing Up for Racial Justice; and in Reno with the Culinary Workers Union, UNITE HERE Local 226. It’s canvassing in Durham, North Carolina, with Durham for All; in Philadelphia with UNITE HERE ­locals; and in Wisconsin, phone-banking with ­Citizen ­Action Wisconsin.

States “have their own cultures, experiences and organized groups,” explains Murray-Badal. “We wanted to support that work instead of acting like we knew more.”

Rather than give a blank check to Democrats, says Hogness, their goal is to build working-class power that lasts beyond the election. They’re also eschewing the mainstream Democratic strategy of trying to persuade “swing voters” such as moderate Republicans. Instead, they’re trying to reach “the other swing voters” — people who don’t often vote.

“We’re not looking to convince red voters,” says Murray-Badal. “We’re trying to get workers who otherwise would not vote to the polls.”

When she canvassed in Georgia in 2020, she says, “­every single day, I talked to someone who wouldn’t have ­other­wise voted.” She adds, “I don’t think I talked to a single person” who liked elements of both Democrats and Republicans.

Both she and Hogness say reaching voters is more about listening than talking, trying to find out what is important to them and what motivates them to vote. People who don’t vote regularly have a “justified cynicism” about political parties, says Hogness.

“We’re not trying to convince people that elections solve everything,” says Andrew, “but that it’s a necessary ­element.”

He first volunteered to canvass with Seed the Vote in the Atlanta suburbs in 2020, when he was a recent college graduate just out of quarantine and looking for a way to do something political. Now, he organizes on labor issues and rent control with the Democratic Socialists of America. On the day we speak, he’s taking a break from canvassing in a largely black neighborhood of North Philadelphia.

It’s a neighborhood where most campaigns don’t bother to canvass, because turnout is usually low — so showing up “really makes a difference,” Andrew says. “We can’t always change people’s minds, but having that conversation is important.”

It’s the political “harm reduction of keeping fascists out of office.”

In Philadelphia, he says, the concerns people mention most frequently are gun violence and poor garbage collection. There may be no Democratic or Republican way to pick up garbage, as the saying goes, but there are differences in the parties’ attitudes about funding public services and whether sanitation workers should get union wages and pensions.

In Nevada, says Hogness, it’s housing costs. Rents for one-bedroom apartments in Reno and Las Vegas are estimated to have gone up by more than two-thirds. The Culinary Union has begun campaigning for local rent control laws (see article on page 8). Canvassers also talk about UNITE HERE’s job-training program for the hospitality industry, in which graduates are guaranteed a union job.

Abortion rights are a huge issue everywhere, says ­Murray-Badal. “People feel like the government is taking something personal.”

In Philadelphia, Andrew says, even people who consider themselves apolitical were “genuinely shocked” by the Supreme Court decision to let states outlaw abortion. (Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano has said that women who get abortions should be prosecuted for ­murder.)

Another major aspect of canvassing, especially in the shadow of voter suppression, Schneider says, is giving people information about how to vote — the deadline for registering, applying for mail-in ballots, and where they’re supposed to go to the polls.

On one level, Hogness says, the goal is to elect politicians who can deliver legislation that would protect abortion rights and voting rights and improve workers’ ability to organize unions. On the other, it’s the political “harm reduction of keeping fascists out of office.”

The Republican senatorial candidates in all six states have either claimed that Donald Trump won the 2020 election or evaded acknowledging that Joseph Biden won. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the state’s top election official — and Mastriano chartered buses for the Lite-Beer Hall Putsch of Jan. 6, 2021.

Hogness plans to go to North Carolina, because the ­Senate race there between Democrat Cheri Beasley and ­Republican Ted Budd has not gotten much attention. ­Beasley, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, lost re-election by 401 votes in 2020. If elected, she would be the first black senator from the state since it ratified the Constitution in 1789.

“If we do the organizing right, that is a very winnable race,” he says. “This could be the race that decides whether we’ll be able to have a democratic election in 2024.”

To volunteer for Seed the Vote, sign up at seedthevote.org/sign-up/. You can also volunteer to phone bank from home.

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