San Diego Organizing Group Report Shows 'Potential' Of Underrepresented Voters
April 1, 2013 1:09 p.m.
Chris Wilson, Director of Civic Engagement for Alliance San Diego
Mychal Odom, UC San Diego graduate student in the Department of History who researches civil rights and political history of San Diego.
4/1/13 Program Transcript
ST. JOHN: Okay, so today is a holiday for many Californians in honor of Cesar Chavez. His legacy as a labor leader and organizer giving voice to the underrepresented remains strong. Today we are talking about a trend that he would be very happy to see. Community organizing groups and San Diego energizing people who have never voted before to learn our reps and get involved. Alliance San Diego is a group that's been around since 2007 and a new report shows that its effort to engage citizen voters and citizen voters of color resulted in an 11% increase voter turnout this past summer in the city of San Diego. Joining us to talk about how they did this and why it's important is Chris Wilson, Director of civic engagement with Alliance San Diego. Chris, thanks so much for joining us
WILSON: Thank you. Glad to be here
ST. JOHN: And we also have Mychal Odom, a UC San Diego graduate student in the department of history who researches civil rights and political history of San Diego. Michael, great to have you in.
ODOM: Thank you.
ST. JOHN: So Chris, let's start with you. You just achieved one of the largest community engagement campaigns by a nonprofit in San Diego's history. What did Alliance San Diego set out to do and why?
WILSON: Well we set out to engage 5% of San Diego's electorate and the reason we did that is because most close elections here especially on issues are won or lost by less than 5%.
ST. JOHN: So you're looking to actually change the outcome. So why do you think that this initiative happened last year so strongly? What was the gauntlet was thrown down as it were?
WILSON: There were a lot of progressive battles, a lot of progressive battles in the city San Diego election. And people care deeply about what San Diego's going to look like in the future so we thought after the 2008 Obama bump, here's opportunity to show that these are one-time voters or this is not a one-time occurrence. We can mobilize these voters again to have an impact on the election.
ST. JOHN: Your kind of techniques what kind of technique did you use to reach out to people who are eligible to vote but just never have for whatever reason.
WILSON: We took a lesson from Obama in 2008. Obama you state-of-the-art equipment to do grassroots organizing things like the predictive dialing system, a phone computer mashup that allows a computer to dial more accurately and faster than a human can which allows us to have a higher call volume over period of time while we are phone banking.
ST. JOHN: So you did a lot of phone thinking that the traditional way of getting out the vote.
WILSON: We also did a lot of door knocking. We used a paid team instead of depending on volunteers who are great, we used up a team that was dedicated everyday to knock on so many doors and that helped us to increase our effectiveness as well.
ST. JOHN: From the study, the research you did after-the-fact looking back at it, you found that the door-to-door contacts were much more effective.
WILSON: Yes, door-to-door contacts are much more effective simply because there's a person speaking to another person. And what we really try to do was. Two. Gauge which means a person from the neighborhood or a person looks like the people so stores they are knocking on having these conversations from the same perspective to explain to people why their participation in the election is important especially given that we were knocking on the doors of voters of color, young voters and low propensity voters who typically are not representative in San Diego's electorate.
ST. JOHN: So what was the outcome in this whole effort? Did you measure how many people actually voted who would not have voted otherwise or have not historically voted?
WILSON: Yes and I did not, I want to make a correction we did not necessarily increase the turnout by 11% what we did was mobilize 11% of San Diego's turnout.
ST. JOHN: That is a significant distinction good, I'm glad you made that. That's 11% is significant when you look at some of the results that happened last November that could be the deciding factor
WILSON: If you look at most of the races in San Diego most of them are won or lost including some candidate races by less than 5%.
ST. JOHN: The most significant one that comes to mind I guess is the mayor, Bob Filner, how much do you think that the efforts you make contributed to the outcome?
WILSON: I have to say that we being a nonprofit organization 501(c)(3) organization we did not participate in any candidate campaigning whatsoever but we do know that when people turn out to vote the first thing on the ballot are candidates, so the people we turned out to vote on the issues, the propositions that were on the ballot also took part in the Canada elections on the ballot.
ST. JOHN: I'm glad you made the point that you are a nonpartisan group. I've got questions for you later but what the Republicans need to do to step up to the plate as well. Michael I want to bring you in. You are studying civil rights and San Diego's political history for years now, when you think was the last time that we saw a voter turnout in San Diego like this that changed the outcome of the elections?
ODOM: Well, one would suggest, my research suggests that we haven't seen something like this going back 40 to 50 years and San Diego's history. Now, it's important to understand that 50 years ago, the national political situation was definitely a lot different than they are now which I think actually makes this turnout a lot more significant. As well, locally, organizing people of color was a lot different since the majority of people of color probably lived in less than a 10 mi.² radius within sort of Logan Heights in San Diego and now they are spread throughout all of the city Council districts. So, I would actually suggest connecting this to the historical moment is what makes these numbers from Alliance San Diego so significant. I would suggest that Alliance San Diego's ability to form a multiracial coalition as well, students and San Diego's working-class really takes us back to a period in San Diego like I said that San Diego hasn't seen for 50 or more years so like I said Alliance San Diego, organize around candidates, but if we go back 50 years we know that that was the only time San Diego had seen two progressives to serve in office. Consecutively.
ST. JOHN: Give us some examples
ODOM: That's also the period in which Lynn Williams and George Walker Smith and Tom (Ham) broke the racial barrier in San Diego politics but it's also a period in which we saw expansion in employment education and other forms of politics and economics here in San Diego and that is what makes this period so important. And I think as a historian asks us to understand this period possibly as the growth of a new progressive movement here in San Diego.
ST. JOHN: It's interesting because on the one hand we've got a political situation where the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling has done untold millions of dollars into the campaign war chests might cause a lack of power for these groups, you know? And at the same time you know we've got this phenomenon happening that you guys represent really of energizing the base and particularly the new communities here in San Diego. I guess I would be remiss if I didn't ask you where does the money come from for you to pay that canvassers?
WILSON: We are a 501(c)(3) so we receive charitable donations from foundations and individual citizens and the like.
ST. JOHN: Can you give us an example of a couple of the foundations that are supporting your work?
WILSON: I would prefer not to simply because I don't go out and raise the money I don't want to misspeak about who donates and who does not. We do have a website
ST. JOHN: Can we find out some of that?
WILSON: www.Alliancesd.org. But again, I'm not familiar with the fundraising part of it. I get out and energize and mobilize people to vote. My executive director raises the money.
ST. JOHN: Where you are operating is mostly in South San Diego, is that right? Is there anything like this happening in the North County? I know in Escondido there is quite a bit of community organizing going on.
WILSON: Escondido saw a lot of community organizing and so did Vista, the city of Vista. We did some organizing and Mira Mesa to mobilize the Asian vote in that area. We did a few operations north of the eight, Clairemont Mesa, Linda Vista and Mira Mesa.
ST. JOHN: So Alliance San Diego was involved all of the county in fact not just South County. So talk to me about why it is that people do not vote in this community. People who are eligible, people who could vote and maybe could have voted for years but maybe never vote, why is that?
WILSON: I would say the best answer is that they feel disaffected. They don't feel like there is a system in place where their voice can be heard and we definitely know that when it comes to resources some of these Council districts, counsel for inside the San Diego Council District 9, they do not seem the investment of resources in their communities the way they are interested in other communities, so they really feel the system that is in place is not one that represents them and the second reason I will say is that these people are overlooked in the electorate. They do not get things mailed to them. They don't have candidates knock on their doors. They don't have commercials designed to talk to them or speak to their lifestyles and so they don't get the information and the last thing people want to feel when they step into the booth is dumb.
ST. JOHN: Mychal you have something to add to that.
ODOM: I think it's important to understand the way in which many people especially when we are talking about the African-American population arrived to San Diego.many people are transplants here by way of the military, other forms of labor migration. And what happens is because of that different disenfranchising people have historically retain political connections to the place they came from, but what that has done is create political situation in San Diego in which everyone is engaged. So what we see for example is that traditionally 70% of the voter turnout in San Diego are Caucasians but Caucasians only make up 49% of the voting eligible population. 51% of the voting eligible population in San Diego are actually people of color. So when we talk about what Alliance San Diego has done, like I said it really is a throwback to many of these really grassroots movements to mobilize people and like I said I think that's why specifically focusing even on mobilizing students is an important part of the legacy of progressive organizing here
ST. JOHN: Because it is sort of educating the community and the education kind of grows over time? It's not something you have to do fresh every year
ST. JOHN: We had Ruben Barrales in studio here not long ago he's the former head of the Chamber of Commerce and he left that to join an organization called GROW Elect which is an organization working to recruit candidates from underserved populations to run as Republican candidates. But I wanted to ask you what kind of advice would you give him, what does he need to do to reach the communities that you are working with, the under represented communities?
WILSON: I would advise Ruben to take a more progressive stand. The people who we have reached are people who don't hear a message in the partisan politics of San Diego and that is not just directed at conservatives it's directed at some of the liberals or progressives who are Democrats. People need to hear that their lifestyle will be impacted or influenced by the politics or the policies that come from downtown. Many of the people we reach out to we have to explain to them why their voice is important to make the changes that will impact their life.
ST. JOHN: And Mychal do you have an opinion about this because presumably the campaign you are engaged in will also create people that will be interested in running for office. So if Republicans Democrats you are a nonpartisan organization was looking to try to energize the community to represent their party, what do you think they need to do?
ODOM: Well, another grassroots effort which has proven successful throughout San Diego's history that Alliance San Diego did was the creation of the leadership Academy. I'm thinking this is specifically in the legacy of community activists going all the way back to the 1960s where (inaudible) Brown created something called a self-help through neighborhood leadership where they specifically sought out students and young adults and engage them in the political process and that is something that Alliance San Diego did with as much as 250 students often times people who were the disaffected or unengaged but eligible voters in San Diego and put them through leadership training, turning them into canvassers in the community which, and what we see is that this has a reciprocal process if you engage 250 people and they engage 20 people in your family, what we see is the possibility of at least 5000 people being engaged by this one program, so I would actually suggest to him to do something some sort of Summer Institute for students to get them engaged in this political process and the grassroots, I think that is what makes this so important. 2000 it was largely national. But what we see with the gains of 2012 on a lot of different issues related to Alliance San Diego and other sort of issues was the fact that a national movement was then able to be successfully organize locally. Which I think is extremely important and what people didn't think was going to be able to happen but Alliance San Diego was able to do it.
ST. JOHN: One last question for you, Chris, as political candidates are seeing more money flowing into the campaign war chests why should they pay attention to the voters that you are mobilizing if the campaign money is coming from somewhere else.
WILSON: As we engage more and more of these voters in the past the candidates have been beholden to the people who donate to the campaigns, right? Those people donate money but they cannot donate votes. So as we see more of these people get engaged with voting soon their voice will have to be heard and politicians may actually to represent the communities they were elected to represent.
ST. JOHN: That's a good point to end on. I'd like to thank you both for joining. Chris Wilson director for civic engagement for Alliance San Diego and Mychal Odom who is a UC San Diego graduate in the department of history who researches civil rights. Thank you both very much.
BOTH: Thank you.