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In most election years, October is a time for civic organizations to be out in the community—knocking on doors, setting up voter registration tables, throwing events, and phone banking to get out the vote. But with coronavirus grinding most of those activities to a halt, and with one of the most important elections in decades looming, local groups have been forced to find new ways to reach untapped voters—those residents who are eligible to vote but are either unregistered or don’t cast a ballot.
In Oakland, the greatest opportunity to mobilize new voters lies in West Oakland and the East Oakland flatlands, where both voter registration and voter turnout are significantly lower than the rest of the city. Geographically, the voting gap correlates with other disparities, including income level and educational attainment, which divide the Oakland hills and the neighborhoods south of Interstate 580.
According to an analysis of official elections data from 2019 commissioned by the League of Women Voters of Oakland, only 54% of eligible voters were registered in District 5 (which includes Fruitvale), the lowest percentile of any district in the city. By comparison, 85% of eligible voters were registered in District 1, which includes Temescal and Rockridge. This disparity grows even wider when taking into account voter turnout: Of the registered voters in D5, only 62% actually voted in the last midterm election. Whereas in D1, 80% of registered voters cast a ballot. Voter turnout in East Oakland’s District 6 (62%) and District 7 (62%) were only slightly higher than in D5.
The Oaklandside spoke to four organizations doing voter outreach in Oakland to see how they’ve adapted to the pandemic, and to get their view on how it could affect voter participation this year.
Californians for Justice
Californians for Justice is a statewide youth organization with an office in Oakland that encourages civic engagement, activism and leadership in teens. This year, the group’s local members are organizing around Measure QQ, which will lower the voting age for Oakland school board elections to 16, and Prop. 15, which will tax commercial properties and provide funding for schools and community colleges.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic, youth and staff with Californians for Justice would canvas areas in Oakland with high foot traffic, like downtown Oakland and Fruitvale. But the group has since switched its focus to using the internet to host online events.
“We have young people who had a hard time coming out for evening events, but it’s way more accessible now that everyone’s at home and you just have to jump on a link to do something,” said Justine Santos, who leads the Oakland organizing efforts for Californians for Justice.
The pivot to virtual engagement has also made it easier to collaborate across the state. Volunteers throughout California can contribute to voter engagement outreach in Oakland. Santos said that restrictions on in-person gatherings and events have motivated more young people to get involved in whatever way they can. In addition to advocating for the Measure QQ ad Prop. 15, Californians for Justice has also been working to rebuild trust around the voting process.
For youth who aren’t old enough to cast a ballot, that advocacy also means encouraging the adults in their lives to vote. This election will have lasting ramifications on young people’s relationship with voting, and not just because of Measure QQ, Santos said. With rampant misinformation sowing distrust in the voting process, it’s important that newly enfranchised voters maintain trust in the system.
“Our top priority in this moment is to get as many young people as possible involved,” she said. “Spreading the word about what’s possible with voting, and getting people to volunteer for phone banking are the biggest tactics right now to get people to the polls.”
The League of Women Voters of Oakland
The League of Women Voters may be a century old (the civic organization was founded in 1920) but it’s still discovering new ways to educate voters. For the Oakland chapter, one of the largest in the country, in-person candidate forums and “pro-con” community discussions about candidates and ballot measures have given way to virtual events during the pandemic. But far from engendering less engagement, organizers say the online outreach is paying dividends unseen in previous election years.
“We’ve increased our attendance at our events,” said Deborah Shefler, president of the League of Women Voters of Oakland. “We gave a presentation on our advocacy and we did it by zoom and we had twice as many people attend as we did in the past—and that’s been the case. Part of it is there is a tremendous amount of interest in this election.”
The volunteer-run organization has hosted over a dozen candidate forums online and continues to produce “pro-con” events with community partners, virtually. “It’s been done smoothly. It’s gone well,” said Shefler. “We’ve managed to do all of this because our volunteers are so incredibly dedicated.”
One of the group’s volunteers, Viola Gonzales, wrote to The Oaklandside about a new series of online voter education roundtables that they’ve named, “Oakland Votes Collaborative.” The forums are a way for the league to engage with community-based groups working directly with disenfranchised voters in Oakland and, in the process, share informational materials about the election and what’s on the ballot. “We had no idea that it would be met with such enthusiastic response,” said Gonzales.
The Unity Council, Centro Legal de La Raza, Faith in Action, various local churches, and service agencies like Meals on Wheels and the Alameda County Community Food Bank have participated in the league’s forums.
The pandemic also spurred the league to overhaul its website, where they regularly post news, local event announcements, and election information. With shelter-in-place laws curbing in-person events, said Shefler, the Oakland chapter understood that their website “would become more of a community resource than it’s been in the past. We’re very proud of it.”
Despite the success of their online events, league members didn’t abandon physical voter outreach entirely. They partnered with community organizations to attract volunteers, including 25 young people from the MLK Freedom Center, who’ve been going door-to-door every Saturday in low voter-turnout areas, distributing door-hangers with the message “Your Vote Counts.”
“We decided we really wanted to make an effort in D5, 6, and 7,” said Shefler. “Because the issue in these districts is disengagement.”
Carmen Murray, head of student outreach and voter registration with The League of Women Voters of Oakland, said the organization used to facilitate in-person educational workshops for first-time voters at Oakland High Schools. Now they give these presentations online, although reaching students has been a challenge. Some teachers, said Murray, have declined the workshops this year, citing the fact that they’re overwhelmed with distance learning and barely have time to teach their mandated curriculum.
Still, Murray said she’s encouraged by what she’s heard from community members. More people appear to be casting their ballots early, she said—an indicator that voter turnout may be up this year in Oakland, despite all of the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“Lots of people are telling us that they’ve already voted. Our postal service person has told us he’s never seen such an influx of absentee ballots at this time,” she said. “I think we’re going to see a big upswing, and I hope that’s true also in the districts we’ve been giving attention to. That’s our big hope.”
Oakland Gay Men’s Chorus
When Fred Rogers joined the Oakland Gay Men’s Chorus four and a half years ago, he hadn’t sung for 50 years. He’d just lost his sister and was feeling “a little afloat.” He was looking for community and ended up finding it with the dozens of other singers who comprise the group. “It’s an activity that brings me great pleasure,” he said. “Now, I feel more a part of Oakland than ever before.”
So when the coronavirus forced the group to cancel practices and performances last spring, Rogers, now a board member-at-large with the chorus, again found himself looking for ways to connect with other Oaklanders. He knew the Gay Men’s Chorus had partnered with the League of Women Voters to do voter registration work during the 2016 and 2018 elections. Aware of how important this year’s election is, he decided to reach out.
“This time around, I took the initiative to contact them. I just felt very motivated,” said Rogers. “Things came to a grinding halt in March and we’d been unable to sing. I just thought, what can we do to be part of the community?”
The Gay Men’s Chorus in Oakland isn’t as big or as famous as its San Francisco namesake, and Rogers said many of the members are either retired or “at the upper end of the age bracket, like me.” Nevertheless, when he put out the call for members to get involved in voter outreach, the response was swift. “I posted a request on our bulletin board online and received lot’s of enthusiasm and encouragement from lots of guys,” said Rogers. “We ended up getting six, but that was all we really needed for what we were doing.”
The volunteer chorus members were soon at work, walking a voter precinct in the San Antonio neighborhood near Fruitvale in teams of two, distributing door hangers with information in Spanish and English encouraging people to vote.
“I gave my guys gloves to wear, sanitizer, sunscreen, and we hit the streets,” said Rogers. “Pretty much everyone we encountered was enthusiastic and glad to see us. We even got to talk about music because we were wearing our new t-shirts, which happen to have a new logo that’s quite festive, and people were interested. So we also won some good PR for the chorus.”
Rogers and his team distributed more than 500 door hangers over a two-day period.
“Those precincts were selected because they‘re low voter turnout precincts,” said Rogers. “In the early going it seems we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm, despite the chicanery being promoted [by the White House].”
The chorus also distributed voter guides to senior centers in residential areas around the city. That effort, said Rogers, required a lot more driving and “a lot of teamwork.”
Although Rogers always makes a point of volunteering in some form or fashion during elections, he said he felt a greater sense of urgency this year to conduct voter outreach.
“I feel so strongly about this election for so many reasons, and the pandemic just seems to amplify the whole importance of it,” he said. “It was important to drum up as much support as possible and also get info out about how to vote. And that’s important because there are a lot of people who aren’t as clued in to politics and the election—and they need to be.”
Oakland Rising Action
Another local voter education group, Oakland Rising Action, promotes civic engagement, particularly in the flatlands of West and East Oakland. The group used to host big events to educate and mobilize voters.
“It’d be difficult to mobilize 150 folks like we usually do,” said Liz Suk, the political director of Oakland Rising Action. “We shifted to doing solely phone banking and text banking and moving much of our political education to virtual spaces.”
Like Californians for Justice, Oakland Rising Action has seen that online voter engagement can actually reach many more people than in-person events. The group recently hosted a virtual “ballot party,” where they went over each of the ballot measures and viewers were encouraged to fill out their ballots at the same time. During the live broadcast earlier this month, about 45 people tuned in at any one time, Suk said. Around 500 people have viewed the archived video since then.
Instead of doing in-person voter registration work, Oakland Rising Action has been sharing information about how to register online. Suk said they focus on Oakland’s flatlands, where the most disenfranchised communities are.
“We have a lot more income disparity and unhoused folks,” she said. “Folks who are living in the flatlands are less likely to have services coming to their communities, and are the most impacted by gentrification.”
Oakland Rising Action also recruits volunteers from East and West Oakland to participate in voter outreach drives and to talk to their neighbors. Suk said she thinks the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on civic engagement work for the group. Alameda County COVID rates are the most severe in Oakland, especially in East Oakland, which could drive up evictions in the months after the pandemic subsides and the eviction moratorium is lifted. Policies around rent, development and other housing issues are largely decided locally, Suk said, and it’s essential that the most vulnerable communities are knowledgeable about those decisions.
“The policies by which we are governed impact people’s lives directly. They’re not things just happening way off in the distance. They’re happening in our backyard,” she said. “We can really harness people’s ability to engage that system through their vote and civic participation.”