U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison has been poring over election turnout data around the country to find a solution to a maddening problem for Democrats.
Potentially bedrock Democratic voters in the inner cities sit out off-year, midterm elections in massive numbers. Despite strong turnout when President Obama was on the ballot, Democrats nationally have lost 910 state legislative seats since 2008 and occupy the governor’s mansions in only 18 states.
Ellison is launching a new voter effort that Democrats around the country have high hopes will lead to more victories in nonpresidential elections, particularly in races where they have lost by razor-thin margins. Even nudging up voter turnout a few percentage points could have massive implications for legislative and statewide races. As a fifth-term Minneapolis Democrat who routinely wins his elections by more than 65 percent, Ellison is increasingly convinced that the future of Democratic victories is hiding in apartment buildings and low-income urban areas across the country.
“Where are they going to come from? Trust me, there’s 3 percent in every congressional district in the United States,” Ellison said. “If we had a good turnout strategy across the country, you could really turn things around.”
To do this, Ellison has workers fanning out to apartment buildings and low-income communities to reach potential constituencies in more personal ways. His idea is that through more one-on-one contact, Democrats can drive more people to the polls and cement lifetime allegiances to the party.
Enter Artiste Mayfield — a part-time employee at an Amazon warehouse and a college student who grew up in north Minneapolis. With streaked red and pink hair and glasses at the end of her nose, she doesn’t look like your typical hardened political operative. Last year, she knocked on more than 200 doors in the neighborhood. This was different from conventional political door-knocking, however. In this case, she knew many of the people behind the doors.
Mayfield also was part of a “SWAT” team — composed of blacks, Spanish speakers and Oromo speakers — who descended on apartment buildings and knocked on doors together. The idea was that no matter who was behind the door, there would be someone on the team whom he or she could relate to.
Earlier this month, Mayfield knocked on another 66 doors. Many times, those responding were friends, acquaintances or people she knew from the community — the kind of people Ellison hopes are more receptive to a conversation.
“Most people say, ‘I don’t vote,’ and then you begin to tell them why it’s important to vote,” Mayfield said.
Her message is simple: “Do they know about Social Security, about food stamps, about all the things [some politicians] want to take away?” Mayfield asked. “Their eyes be like, ‘For real?’ ”
Ellison is doing this without the enormous investment of television ads. He also pushed to get the polls open on Sundays and launched a “souls to the polls” effort to bus people to polling places after church. In 2014, some 450 voters showed up in Minneapolis on the two Sundays ahead of the election and another 124 voted on Sunday in Ramsey County.
Ellison can point to his own Fifth District in Minneapolis and parts of adjacent suburbs as proof that the system works. His was the only one in the state where turnout numbers grew significantly between 2010 and 2014 — both off-year, midterm elections. More than 13,000 additional voters in the district showed up in 2014 than in 2010 — by far the biggest spike seen across the state.
The results in Minnesota are gaining the attention of campaign managers nationally heading into 2016.
Maryland’s Eighth Congressional District is more suburban and more affluent than Minneapolis. It stretches north of the nation’s capital into the well-heeled suburbs of Montgomery County and north into some of the state’s more rural stretches. It is also a reliably Democratic stronghold: There are seven Democrats running for Congress in an open seat next year.
One of those hopefuls, state Sen. Jamie Raskin, hopes to adopt Ellison’s get-out-the-vote program.
“It’s an interesting case study in this approach,” said Raskin’s campaign manager, Marshall Cohen. “You have Maryland, a safe blue state in the Senate and presidential races, but just last year elected a Republican governor with record low turnout. I think at the top of people’s minds is that every vote matters and getting more people to participate will be a better outcome for the state of Maryland.”
Andrew Virden managed the apartment program for Ellison in 2012 and took it statewide in 2014. The crew knocked on doors in about 275 apartment buildings out of about 500 in Minneapolis. Virden said that compared with TV ads, an in-person visit is much more effective in getting people off the couch.
“By the time it’s October of an election year, every other commercial is a political ad, and that’s the time to go get a sandwich or a glass of lemonade or a cup of coffee,” he said. “You’re not actually paying attention, and if you’re not paying attention, the money is wasted. But you’re not wasting money if it’s a person standing at the front door having a conversation.”
GOP wants to match effort
Minnesota Republicans have taken notice. They say they are going to try to at least partly match this effort next year. And they have a new and growing sense of urgency.
State GOP Chairman Keith Downey noticed a disturbing trend among his base voters who are usually reliable in off-years: Turnout among them has dropped. In 2014, he cited the Democrats’ negative messaging for depressing enthusiasm for his statewide candidates, including then-gubernatorial hopeful Jeff Johnson and GOP Senate candidate Mike McFadden.
Downey plans to emphasize early voting and grass-roots outreach ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
“The hope is that we will get back to organizing the party at a neighborhood level,” he said. “We need to get them excited. We are very hopeful … that this will build turnout energy and build a base of activists.”
Ellison said he was inspired to launch his aggressive turnout operation after seeing states across the country adopt stricter voter laws, which critics say are designed to drive down turnout among minorities and those in the inner city.
“That to me is the icky side of the fence,” said Ellison, who worked on criminal justice reform before being elected to Congress.
Nationwide, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that of the 11 states with the highest black voter turnout in 2008, seven have passed laws making it harder to vote.
In Congress, Ellison has worked the other way. He introduced a measure allowing same-day registration at polling places for all federal elections, an effort likely to boost turnout. His proposal also bans new voter ID laws.
“I would far and away rather be talking to people about their God-given right to cast a vote in support of whoever they want to represent them,” he said.