Grassroots Bicyclist Advocacy
Avid cyclists are aware of the need for legislative and local changes to promote bicycle safety. This article is a primer on organizing as modeled by the author's experience with the San Diego County Democratic party's efforts. While the entire cycling community may not be on the same side of partisan politics at the national level, we can still come together around some key state and local issues to inspire change and make our roads, paths, and recreational trails safer for bicyclists.
The obvious issues include advocacy for better lighting, more bike lanes, repair of potholes and other dangerous conditions, and lobbying at the state level for public entity immunity reform, giving cyclists a right to sue when they are injured due to dangerous conditions on government land. There are other local issues around which the cycling community can unite, such as the preservation of open spaces and trails and protecting or gaining access to trails.
There are a number of local organizations devoted to different bicyclist issues. It is my hope that the proposals in this article will translate effectively into unifying these various organizations as a voting bloc that can be effective at the state and local level in identifying and supporting candidates for office who support issues that matter to all of us. The most effective way to make the roads and trails safer for bicyclists is to have a voice in the policy making process. With that in mind, we reflect on some basic principles about how that is done.
Grass Roots Organizing 101
Many Democrat activists in San Diego participate in grass roots organizing. This is also known as the "Go Team."
Historically, Go Teams have been known to increase voter turnout by up to 10% in a precinct. This is why they are a valuable tool. By contrast, advertising, mail, and phone banks increase turnout anywhere from 1% or more. As our San Diego Party chair, Francine Busby said, "Personal contact is the most effective way to increase voter turnout."
The critical issue on which this article will focus is what factors specifically increase the conversion ratio, or voter turnout, in a party or precinct.
First, start by selecting quality Community Coordinators (CCs). CCs are based on a geographic area. For example, there is one CC for the city of Carlsbad, one for the city of Oceanside, etc. These CCs, in turn, train Precinct Leaders (PLs). As the name suggests, the PLs are responsible for smaller geographic areas within the larger community.
An ideal Community Coordinator will be a "people person." That is, they will be someone who gets along with others—a person who is open-minded and has real life experience dealing with people. These personality types are usually drawn to professions such as social workers, teachers, customer service, trial attorneys, health care professionals (treatment more than research), and the like. So it's a good idea to seek out recruits from among these professions. On the other hand, the personality types such as engineers, computer programmers, IT professionals, and elite members of the social structure may lack the "street level" understanding of how to connect with people from varied social, economic, cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds. These personality types are useful in other campaign roles (such as data analysts, etc.). But the Community Coordinator position should draw from those who enjoy working with the public.
The ideal CC is a person who has actually walked the ghettos, barrios, apartment complexes, trailer parks, and retirement homes, getting to know the people who live there. Because they understand the dynamics of your community, they understand the nuances of grass roots organizing.
Moreover, the CC who actively connects with their PLs is likely to increase turnout. Here's some tips for CCs on how to actively connect with a PL:
Hand pick PLs who are "people persons.
Train the PLs in a hands on manner, in an intimate setting. This is the best way to connect, and in turn, the best way to communicate the important details on how to connect to voters. You have to get to know people before you can understand what's important to them, and communicate the issues in a way that motivates them to vote. One highly successful CC, Betty Ball, of the Lake San Marcos Democratic Club, developed tapes to effectively train her PLs. These training sessions were so successful, her voter district conversion ratio skyrocketed from about 46% to 87% among Democrats. This astounding increase gave the Democratic candidates a real advantage.
Yes, we all know there is a 18 minute Democratic training video that walks the PLs through the Go Team basics, like interpreting a precinct list. The criticism I have with the video, however, is that it doesn't aim high enough. It's a well done video, but it's missing how to actually "connect" with the various voters. As Betty Ball would say, "It's about the people." And she's right. I know this because I've worked in several elections, watched the training video, and been a Central Committee member for over four (4) years, all while studying the election process. I've attended countless Central, Area, and various Club meetings. I've been a trial lawyer for over 38 years, with over sixty (60) jury trials under my belt. I study people. My training involves the careful use of psychodrama to connect with people, develop a consensus, and deliver an impactful message. I think I get it.
3. Constant training of PLs is essentially a form of "follow-through" by a CC. A PL can't expect to get results, or even know how to achieve results if not properly trained. CCs who merely hold an initial PL meeting, hand out voter lists with door hangers, and check back with a PL after the election will fail to improve their precinct voter turnout. There should be ongoing training and communication throughout the process, to ensure that the resources put into PLs are being maximized.
4.CC voter turnout must be tracked for progress from election to election, and if results don't show improvement, they should be inspected to determine why they failed to increase turnout. Their work, activity, and numbers must must be scrutinized in order to identify ways to improve. It's like a job performance evaluation. The "sales numbers" don't lie. (And don't think Republicans aren't doing this).
5. If a CC's statistics remain low or static, they should be respectfully replaced.
6. An effective CC gets to know their PLs.
7. An effective CC is trusted by their PLs.
8. In turn, the PLs are empowered to "be there" for their voters, who will reach out and count on them. The PL becomes a real neighborhood Go Team leader. Go Team members must be given training and door hangers a month ahead of the ballots being sent out. Then the PLs are primed for the job.
9. Too much control by the Democratic Party Administration will stifle the energy and creativity of the people connecting at the grass roots level. Oversight and accountability for results are a positive thing. But CCs and PLs alike need to be free to decide how best to reach out to their unique communities.
10. Perhaps, incoming Community Coordinators should be selected by consensus at a meeting of other Community Coordinators who have the experience and success, as opposed to the Administration.
11. In this information age, the "Data People" (who do data mining and analytics) are an essential support component for a CC. This is where those engineering and tech-oriented people I discussed earlier have a very real role to play on Go Teams. These people compile the voter data and lists via the Vote Builder program, and provide field workers with important demographic information and insights to help them focus the campaign message. This sort of information is often thought of as being most effective on a macro-scale (say, a statewide or nationwide election). But in reality, having the data advantage can make an even bigger difference at the local level, because it enables highly specific message targeting that is not possible in a larger scale campaign. Our hats are respectfully tipped to our "data" brothers and sisters.
To recap, the Go Team's job is essentially to "teach" voters how to vote. We should be open to new ideas, continuous review of our results, new strategies, and independently networking with Democratic candidates to share information and support.
I realize CCs and PLs are volunteers. But they volunteered because they want to make a difference. They want to win. Our leadership is duty bound to ensure that we put them in a position to be successful. Political campaigns are analogous to war. We must train, educate, and equip them to win the battles.
Giving our field workers the right resources and training will instill confidence in the candidate that the party "has their back," while they invest their own time, money, and reputations on a campaign.
Call to Action
This article is intended to make us stronger, not to criticize or attack our leadership. This is a call to action to hire, and immediately review all "Go Team" activity before election day. As you know, sixty percent (60%) of voters return their ballots in week four. The days leading up to the election are critical.
Secondly, I propose that we form an immediate, countywide Yahoo group or private Facebook group for Club Presidents, Council of Clubs Leaders, Community Coordinators, and Precinct Leaders throughout the county to exchange information. (This includes CA DEM canvasser and Hispanic Outreach Programs). Social media is the fastest tool at our disposal to make an impact at this late stage in the game. And as James Carville, Bill Clinton's campaign manager said, "Speed kills."
Applying these principles to the bicycling community, this all begins with unity and communication among the various organizations that represent cyclists' issues. Once these groups are united and the lines of communication are open, we can begin to develop a community wide understanding of what is important to us. Once this happens, we can begin to identify candidates and initiatives that we can rally around as a community. Then, the activism begins and we can start taking our message to the broader community.
Let's get to work!
Richard L. Duquette
Attorney at Law – Since 1983
AD76 SDCDP Central Committee Member (2013-2016)
© The Law Firm of Richard Duquette, 2016, All Rights Reserved.
Author: Richard Duquette
October 31, 2016