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article imageGetting out the vote with tinder and texts Special

By Les Horvitz     Jun 25, 2018 in Politics
Brooklyn - In 2016, nearly half the voters eligible to vote in the U.S. election failed to show up at the polls. Years ago, candidates would ply people with alcohol to vote for them. For the 2018 midterm elections, more imaginative strategies will be needed.
Short of forcing millennials and minorities to vote at gunpoint, there’s a good deal that can be done to mobilize them this time out – but it will take a fresh approach. That’s the consensus that emerged from a recent panel discussion at the Northside Festival, an annual tech and music extravaganza in Brooklyn. Many activists aren’t waiting for the Democratic Party to act. They’re already experimenting with innovative strategies to tap a potential pool of voters used to being overlooked or ignored because they often don’t bother to vote.
“After the last election a lot of us began resisting,” said Siraj Patel, “I started an organization to get young people involved.” He notes that the average age of Congressional representatives is 61. Time, he believes, for new blood, and that’s why he’s running for Congress. He’s 34. A first generation American of Indian descent, a hotel executive and adjunct professor, he’s hoping to represent New York’s 12th Congressional district where he faces a tough primary challenge against a powerful incumbent. An avowed progressive, he holds his own party partly responsible for the string of electoral reverses it’s sustained in recent years: “The Democratic Party doesn’t look at itself in the mirror. It doesn’t blame itself for what went wrong.” Without a radical change in attitude, he warns, “We’re going to be in this situation forever. We’re talking about the future -- that’s what elections are about.” Minorities don’t turn out and restrictive voting regulations in many states have further discouraged them. “We have to engage with people who were previously disregarded.” The 12th district has a very diverse population – but only about 8 percent of eligible voters go to the polls. “If you only looked at past history, you’ll ignore 18-year old’s,” Patel says, “despite the fact that it’s one of the highest registered groups in the city.” His volunteers are targeting high school students (the legal voting age is 18) and first-time voters (often from immigrant families that make up a large proportion of the district’s population.) Patel has even gone so far as to appropriate popular dating apps – Tinder, Grindr and Bumble – for his upstart campaign, but in this case, the object isn’t to attract a match but to encourage civic engagement. To reach a younger, often disaffected electorate, he’s also been canvassing yoga studios and bars across the sprawling district he hopes to represent.He’s not only interested in making himself a household name; he wants voters to remember his face too. “There are now 200,000 coffee cups with my face on them.” (Actually, it’s the sleeves on the cups.) What’s more, six coffee carts have also been registering new voters at the same time they’re selling them coffee and bagels. “It’s what the Democratic Party should have done decades ago.” Coffee cups on one end, mass text messages on the other.
Plastering candidates’ faces on disposable coffee cups may not work everywhere. Nonetheless, there’s evidence that millennials are more interested in participating this year than in previous elections. Voting rolls across the U.S. show an uptick in registration by millennials and Gen Xers.
If anything, reaching minority voters is even more of a challenge than mobilizing millennials. They often think that their vote doesn’t count and that politicians don’t understand the needs of their communities. Ysiad Ferreiras, a Dominican by birth raised in the Bronx, is committed to proving conventional wisdom wrong. He’s COO of Hustle “a venture-backed, peer-to-peer text messaging platform, which he describes as “tool that’s used to get young people in politics.” He has an unusual resume: as a teenager, he was convicted for stealing and selling illegal cable boxes, which he says he did to earn money to put food on the table for his family. He subsequently turned his life around, transforming himself into a successful entrepreneur – his ventures have included software, real estate, hospitality, logistics – and now politics. Ferreiras first got involved in politics in the 2004 presidential election, making and selling anti-Bush T-shirts. (They were an immediate hit.) He also registered new voters, who, like himself, mostly spoke Spanish. “There wasn’t any excuse for why people who looked like me and my family weren’t voting.” He has continued to expand his get-out-the-vote campaign with each succeeding electoral cycle.
“How come young people, people of color aren’t voting? When all the candidates are all white dudes, how are you going to appeal to people of color?” He admits that he can understand why the Democratic Party might be reluctant to invest in this demographic. “If they haven’t voted recently, they think it’ll be a waste of money, it isn’t efficient.” The Democratic Party, he says, hasn’t done much to innovate its technological strategy since Obama’s first campaign in 2008. “Ten years in technology is like a century. We need both technology and traditional methods to win.” So he decided to take the ball and run with it. What was needed was an effective means of targeting this disaffected group that was both effective and cheap. Cold calling potential voters wasn’t going to do the trick. Many of them only spoke Spanish and were reluctant to talk to strangers. Besides, “no one picks up the phone when they get a call from a random number anymore.” The answer? Texting. “People are more apt to respond to texts than they are to calls. We’re speaking their language – literally and figuratively.”
Monica Klein wants to reach out to another constituency – young women fired up by the surprise victory of Donald Trump in 2016. But she has the same goal in mind that Ferreiras does: Dislodging incumbents who tend to be white, older (and not coincidentally, Republican). Klein previously served as a regional press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and communications director for New York Mayor de Blasio’s more successful 2017 election campaign. It was during that campaign that she met another activist Elana Leopold. They teamed up to form Seneca Strategies, taking the name from Seneca Falls, NY, the home of the women’s suffragist movement. “We’re targeting young women 18-35, about how to talk about politics, how to knock on doors. We’re training women to run for office. We’re creating a space for women to learn together and ask questions.” That training includes setting up an experienced staff “to help with communications, speech writing, fundraising, all the things that need to be in place so that the press and donors take you seriously as a candidate.”
The challenge – one in which women arguably have a leg up on men – is to project authenticity. “Young voters grew up with Instagram with experience in running a personal branding campaign.” But they’ve also acquired a distrust of institutions and tend to resist traditional messages. “How do you convey to new voters that you’re a real person?”
One way to do that, Klein believes, is to get women to relate to this new wave of female candidates. If they see that the candidate is coping with the same problems that they have to deal with in their daily lives, they’re more likely to vote for them. “One of our candidates doesn’t have a lot of money, but she has a lot of personality. She couldn’t figure out how to pay for child care and so she used her campaign money for it.” She assumed – correctly as it turned out – that mothers with young children in her district would identify with her plight. It might prove a more winning strategy than paying for buttons and banners.
Klein and Leopold’s efforts – along with those of similar organizations – are already paying off: by the end of April, 527 women in the U.S. were running for Congress, most of them Democrats -- a 67 percent jump from the same time in 2016.
Recruiting new candidates to run – and then giving them the support they need to win -- is also the goal of Square One Politics.
Founded by Will Levitt, Square One Politics is hoping to "pave the path for the future of the Democratic Party" by getting first-time, progressive candidates to run for Congress.
Levitt says his baptism in politics occurred when as an eighth-grader in Boston he managed to talk himself into the 2004 Democratic Convention. An editor at Condé Nast with extensive experience in branding and promotion, he decided to extend his portfolio (which included The New Yorker, Teen Vogue and WIRED) to first-time candidates, which led to the creation of Square One in 2017. He reached out to almost two dozen likeminded professionals -- nurses, doctors, journalists – to encourage them to run for office. He and his associates were looking for the types of candidates that were being overlooked by the Democratic Party. The response was almost invariably the same: I’d like to run but I have no money or connections. “We went back to them and said: If we got you the money and the connections would you run? Everyone said yes.”
To provide these fledgling candidates the resources and funds they need to get their campaigns up and running, Square One says that it relies on “technology and data analytics, highly-effective messaging and PR strategy, and new methods for grassroots mobilization and fundraising.”
But technology and data analytics alone don’t constitute a winning strategy. “We know that no amount of technology will work without transparency, empathy, and the honesty which people crave.” He cites the students who survived the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Many of the Parkland, Florida students have launched a nationwide campaign to register millennials to vote in hope that they’ll turn out for candidates who support tougher gun regulations.) “They know the policies and intricacies of gun control inside and out. We should let this generation take its turn and speak. There’s no machine behind them. Older generations should step back.” But he’s quick to add that he doesn’t mean to ignore the importance of Gen Xers, Boomers or seniors: “Youth isn’t an age, it’s a state of mind. A lot of older people are young at heart. The obligation to talk about future is as old as history itself. No one wants to hear about clinging to the past.”
More about northside festival, Square one, will levitt, siraj patel, 2018 midterm elections