At a mid-October voter education forum on Charlotte's east side, an elderly man stood slowly to address a panel of four judicial candidates. The elder nodded respectfully, then proceeded in a strong, feisty voice. A Vietnamese translator repeated his question in English: Why are Supreme Court justices appointed by the president, but we have to vote for so many judges locally. The candidates, once they picked their faces off the floor, sought to clarify the twists and turns of our third branch of government.
Last Tuesday's midterm elections left a lot of progressives reeling. Candidates with platforms hostile to women, minorities, gays and immigrants saw widespread victories, but voter advocacy groups like the Southeast Asian Coalition (SEAC) and Action NC's Women Voting Our Values (WVOV) are claiming a win. The organizations are not party-affiliated, but they work to foster and support an informed electorate in marginalized communities. Ahead of the midterm election, which traditionally sees an older, more conservative voter turnout, they tried new tactics and partnerships to energize their constituencies. And some of them are reporting a significant silver lining, via the engagement of their members.
Kao Cheng Lao, SEAC's civic engagement field coordinator, says her organization executed the first voter mobilization project aimed at North Carolina's Asian-American/Pacific Islander community. Makes sense: North Carolina has the fastest growing API population in the South, and the third-fastest in the U.S. A recently published piece on Huffington Post says it is the South's fastest-growing voting bloc.
"It's a population that's been overlooked by campaign managers," Lao says. "And some of us come from cultures that have a different system of voting. So it's important [for SEAC] to show what it means to be civically engaged."
SEAC rolled out an ambitious 12-touch plan to encourage voters to get to the polls, so by the time Election Day came around, each voter SEAC interacts with had received a total of 12 mailers, phone calls and door-knocks encouraging them to go to the polls. In contrast, 2010's plan only called for four or five points of contact. One of the ways SEAC was able to handle such an intensified outreach was by partnering with the Latin American Coalition. Together, they produced one of Charlotte's largest Get Out The Vote campaigns.
SEAC also hosted three voter education programs. The first was hosted by the Vietnamese-American Seniors Association, and was held primarily in the Vietnamese language. Dozens of people packed the room, raising questions ranging from the one above to confusion on registering to vote.
"For the first time, elders were able to ask questions and have them answered in their own language," says Cat Bao Le, SEAC's executive director. "We are building relationships and dialogue with those who had not been engaged at all before."
The Latin American Coalition, SEAC's Get Out the Vote partner organization, laser-focused their canvassing efforts to four districts in the Steele Creek area, which has a large concentration of established Latino voters (unlike the east side's higher percentage of unregistered, undocumented immigrants). LAC's results were the opposite of SEAC's: Instead of higher voter engagement, it was lower — and there was less interaction from political candidates, too. Armando Bellmas, director of communications, blames that on elected leaders' failure to act on immigration reform. Latinos stayed away from the polls, he says, because no one engaged on their biggest issue.
"If Congress won't pass immigration reform, President Obama must use his administrative powers and deliver a solution," Bellmas says. Otherwise, Latino engagement may continue to drop: nationwide, 10 percent of Latino voters turned out in 2012, and 8 percent in 2014.
Organizers for the WVOV campaign were happy with the level of voter engagement, but not so much with Tuesday's election results. Though it's a nonpartisan group, district chair Robbie Akhere admits that the last few days since the election have been spent "mopping up."
"It's almost like some people went into shock. They couldn't believe it ... But we are not going to back down from approaching [Tillis], meeting with him, because he has to represent us," Akhere says.
The group supports environmental reform, women's reproductive rights and raising the minimum wage. They also educate and mobilize low-propensity voters: 18- to 30-year-old African Americans and Latinos who tend to only vote in presidential elections. It's not sexy work: phone banks, sidewalk rallies, civic forums and the like. But it's important.
When Lucille Puckett ran for mayor of Charlotte earlier this year, there were 4,000 registered voters in her precinct. Only 300 voted in the mayoral race, and Puckett came in dead last.
"If she'd have worked her precinct alone, she would've come in second!" Akhere exclaims. That's the type of knowledge she tries to impart — how to take control of your community through the power of votes on the ground. WVOV saw gains in the number of early voters compared to the last midterm election in 2010, and increases in voter registration on the West Boulevard corridor, the east side and off West Sugar Creek.
"We really felt good about that," Akhere says. The way forward, Akhere believes, is to forge coalitions with other women who are trying to make Charlotte better. Her group is reaching out to women in the AFL-CIO, the Housing Authority, city government and more, creating a group of stakeholders to come together and develop a platform to present law- and policy makers.
"Women want the same thing: better lives for ourselves and our children. Charlotte looks brand-new, sparkling and clean, but people don't know these values are being trampled here," Akhere says.
That's why the election results are not a barrier. "North Carolina is full of mobilizing potential. We've barely scratched the surface," Le says. And 2016 is right around the corner.