In October, 2014 I spent a weekend in North Carolina helping with voter registration. I went down with a nonpartisan coalition of church groups. New laws restricted voting rights there for the working poor, students, and the elderly, erecting obstacles in their path. I’ve already explained the new face of Jim Crow elsewhere – how those in power are now using data and statistics to ease the onramp for some people while raising the drawbridge for others, so I won’t revisit that here. This is about how we fight injustice, how we choose the course of action, and what results we choose to measure. My experience this weekend sharpened for me the contrast between what a scientist sees and what a lawyer sees.
The Reverend William Barber and his Moral Mondays movement inspired me to spend the weekend fighting voter discrimination. Reverend Barber is a passionate and impassioned pulpiteer with a sharp understanding of the battle between the few and the many, the strong and the week, of what makes evil Evil and good Good. Few alive today can fire up a congregation to go out and march for Justice like he can. In recent months over a thousand went to jail in protest against the new laws. In October the North Carolina state attorney general threw out the indictments as being unconstitutional.
Public Protests got people organized and moving, but internally we argued over what the next tactic should be for a broader, more geographically diverse coalition. As a scientist impassioned about civil rights and not about politics, I felt like an outsider. The lawyers and activists wanted to replace leaders through voting to achieve justice. Looking at things, I didn’t think we had the leverage to do that, and moreover, new leaders in a broken system would not ensure a plural democracy, no matter how good their intentions were.
In his sermon that weekend, Barber said he drew his inspiration from Father James Groppi – an Italian priest in 1960s Milwauki that organized African Americans to march every night for 200 nights for fair housing laws. And later, he led a thousand welfare mothers in a twelve-hour sit-in of the Wisconsin state house. Their arrests were later thrown out by a judge who said, “You can’t arrest people for sitting in their own house!” Protests led by those most affected forced those in power to change.
The Reverend Barber is the spiritual leader of the movement, but he doesn’t control the process. This coalition of church groups is dominated by shrewd political advisors who practice the party machine politics that propagate the part-time-representation problem that plagues American democracy more than any other in the rich world. Here more than in Australia, Japan, Germany, UK, or even India, elections are an exercise and subtraction, not addition:
Only half the people vote in US midterm elections, so parties discount what the other half cares about and pander to the few. Politicians choose their constituents and run get-out-the-vote campaigns for their chosen people, rather than people choosing their politicians. This is what the “party machine” does, and it is antithetical to true democracy.
The people who DO vote have historically had more privilege and power than those who don’t, and this is still true today.
What you notice is that striking down the laws that bar people from voting does not actually increase the percent of the people who vote. Citizen engagement is stuck at 40-60 percent in America because, even with legal protection, the party machine shapes who is encouraged to vote. And at least in my lifetime, both political parties (and their machines) have pandered to a different quarter of the population and ignored the rest. A lawyer dreams of a country where laws are enforced to allow everyone an equal opportunity to vote. But to a scientist, no calculus of success can be defined by “access” alone. Everyone’s views must influence the country in an ‘opt-out’ system in order for 21st century democracy to work.
Democracy should be an ‘opt-out’ system, like in Australia and 10 other countries. Australia fines citizens up to $170 for NOT voting and has a 92% participation rate. US democracy has always been a ‘opt-in’ system, giving rights to those with the most power – originally land-owning Christian men over age 18, and no one else. If voting was created today, it would be based on all the preferences you express daily while using the internet and your ballot would be cast automatically unless you intervened to change it. Cameras and computers track every aspect of our lives already. They know what we do and will soon infer how we feel and what we believe. Better to have a government that represents the plurality of life’s emotions than the paucity of one single page of paper every two years. Last week when I voted I found that most people on the ballot had no website and left little trace of their views on the Internet – so I was voting blind for some of them. Facebook and LinkedIn’s algorithms would have better match me with candidates that reflect my values. But for the immediate future, we have to fight to fix the system we’re stuck with, and that fight requires an honest appraisal of whether our efforts were successful.
The coalition was tasked with finding work for the hundreds of volunteers that Reverend Barber and our local Minister Rob Hardies inspired. In February our church sent three bus loads of people (over 200 in all) to attend a weekend of protest, spiritual gatherings, and strategy discussion in NC. I believed we needed to be send people door to door in poor areas and talk directly with those most affected by the new laws. First we gather stories, then we use their accounts to design approaches for getting them valid IDs.
I know that getting a photo ID is not easy when you have only 10 vacation days a year, live paycheck to paycheck, and have an employer that would fire you for missing a day. The process took three visits for me and seven visits for my wife, and we already had a valid birth certificate and social security card. All told we wasted parts of 12 working days over six months to complete a name change and get new drivers licenses. Spending those 12 working days in government offices is a luxury poor people cannot afford. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to spend your precious few days off taking care of sick children or elderly parents or fighting for food stamps and healthcare, not a voter card. If, on the other hand, we ran an opt-out voting system like we run the census, the government would issue you a new, valid photo ID and verify you received it – free of charge – before imposing any new restrictions on voting.
Instead, the church groups opted for phone banking and a modest amount of door-to-door engagement. Houses and phone numbers were a ‘convenience sample’ pulled from inconsistent voters in Charlotte, NC. No one who was actually excluded from the system was part of the effort or on the list.
During a summer church meeting about the campaign many of the volunteers wanted to talk about their feeling that phone banking wasn’t reaching the right people. “I think I might have made 50 calls and only talked to 3 people,” one said. He wasn’t exaggerating. A recent PEW survey found that the number of people who respond to phone calls has been steadily dropping. It was around 36% in the mid 1990s, 18% in the 2000s, and is around 6% today. The trend is a straight line down based on PEW sampling every three years. So whereas cold calling lists of people to get out the vote worked 15 years ago, it has no leverage in 2014. 19 out of every 20 people will hang up on you or not answer, and those that do hear your voice are probably not going to listen.
Face to face meetings were also ineffective. Last month I knocked on 133 houses over 8 hours in one Charlotte neighborhood. I talked with dozens of people and got about 30 of them to fill out a pledge card to vote. We only signed 5 people up to vote, and 3 of these were people already signed up to vote but weren’t sure if their address was correct. Voters with a mismatch between their voter information and their photo ID will not be allowed to vote in 2016. Therefore we only definitively facilitated two people voting in the 2014 election. And even worse, I don’t believe we encountered a single person who would have been denied a vote for the reasons the Reverend Barber was preaching about. Nevertheless, the church leadership put on a good face and touted its success using vanity metrics, holding up a stack of 150 voter cards as success. This is faux success if none of those cards came from the people we aimed to serve.
To counter voter suppression, we need to find the oppressed and really listen to their stories. Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi both understood that social change begins with good documentation. Take this example:
In 1916 synthetic indigo made local indigo farms unprofitable, so the European planters extracted money from the Indian peasants. The English landlords,who had permanent leases on the land, offered the Indian peasants an out from the tinkathia system, but only if they paid higher rent. When they refused, the planters beat the peasants, placed them in prisons, stole cattle, looted houses, and prevented the peasants from entering and leaving their homes. The planters also imposed numerous illegal taxes on marriage, homes, oil-mills, or even collecting special taxes when the planter wanted extra money for personal uses.
In December 1916, Rajkumar Shukla, a Champaran farmer no longer able to stand the oppression, went to see Mahatma Gandhi at an Indian National Congress meeting. Shukla insisted that Gandhi move a resolution condemning the situation and treatment of Champaran tenant farmers. Gandhi declined by saying he could not give any opinion without having seen the condition with his own eyes. Instead, Gandhi promised to spend a day or two in Champaran during his tour of India.
After seeing the conditions himself, Gandhi concluded that courts would be slow and impractical. He led a very detailed study of the 2,841 villages in Champaran, an investigation of the conditions of the peasants. The European Commissioner advised Gandhi to leave the district, because governmental inquiries were being made already. Five days later, they arrested him, but the surveying went on. As members of his team were arrested, other outsiders took their place, continuing to interview peasants and document their grievances against the landlords.
Aggravated by Gandhi’s popularity and the way he stirred up the peasants, the European planters began a “poisonous agitation” against Gandhi, where they spread false reports and rumors about Gandhi and his co-workers. Gandhi sent information to the newspapers, but they were never published.
By June Gandhi’s team had recorded over 8,000 statements. They filed a petition, held meetings with between 10,000 and 30,000 people attending, and by October, the Government accepted their recommendations. By March 1918 the government enacted new Laws against the corrupt landowners.
They were accused of being outside agitators because their volunteers went where they were not wanted, took testimony, and broadcast to a global audience. The people whose rights were denied, whether in India or the Deep South, were not welcoming at first – nobody likes going into a fight – but joined and later led the movement by gathering stories from the affected. Storytelling – inclusive data gathering – launches a successful campaign.
When I tried to make my case about this to the leadership, I was cautioned that as an outsider I could only follow what the local leaders wanted. They would be in charge of the tactics, and they had told our church that they wanted people to make phone calls and go door to door. Here I disagree. As insiders or as outsiders, those of us lucky enough not to worry about securing our own voting rights have the power to listen and tell the stories of others, giving their words an audience. Instead, the 2014 election came and the people who will be sent away from the polls in 2016 remain faceless, voiceless.
After the election the leaders sent out an epilogue email to the group, excerpted here:
I want to thank you for your astonishing commitment… over 8000 calls… registered 186 new voters… But I know it is hard to feel good about that when the news stories suggest our work was in vain. Turnout sunk to dismal levels, particularly among the groups we reached out to who are most affected by voter suppression…
I can offer a few glimmers of hope…. In Mecklenburg County, more people voted in 2014 than in 2010. Another bright spot is the astonishing levels of participation in the Reeb Project…
That last part concerns me the most. When over 200 volunteers pool their resources to do thousands of hours of work and yield less than 200 new voters (60% of whom are not “new” in my case), we aren’t on a trajectory to change a system. And change will elude us until the people being suppressed have names and faces. We need to return to the drawing board and focus on storytelling, if we want to sustain this effort.
A scientist looks at data and measures against the end goal. A scientist wants more data, embracing storytelling as a means. A lawyer, on the other hand, wants to see large numbers of people involved in the fight, because numbers give them the greatest bargaining power in back room legislation. Our democracy has been dominated by this kind of lawmaking for too long, and it is time for scientists to step up and teach activists about data. Getting thousands of people to show up to a protest or make phone calls or knock on doors is not success. Getting people to vote who would have otherwise been denied is success. Converting our opt-in democracy to an opt-out democracy would be even greater success.
Along the way I realized I am passionate about protecting others’ right to vote, but am turned off by politics. Putting the “right” people in power will not fix things – not without a tested means of ensuring everyone’s opinion shapes future law whether they actively participate or not. Abroad I work on these systems to fix international aid by letting those affected give feedback. We need the same thing at home. I’ve lost faith in a pure political strategy because it still keeps the lawmaking behind closed doors, under control of yet more lawyers. The only solution is flipping the system to be ‘opt-out’ for all voters, so that the political process is about changing voters feelings and values, rather than convincing them to (not) show up to the pools.
If we don’t change, we’ll be no different from the demographic politics of Kenya. In 2010 I heard Kikuyu leaders telling their tribal supporters to have more children so “we can be more people and win elections.” If the only way you can grow is to grow more people like yourself, your ideas have no merit, and you deserve to lose elections. It is an observed fact that opt-in elections put more extremists in power, and it gives all leaders the power to do whatever they please without any real threat of being thrown out. An opt-out voting system driven by algorithms that mine what people really think and feel every day would sooner elect a good third party candidate than give your vote to whomever has the most money. At least that’s how this scientist sees it.
In my other essay, The Anatomy of a Protest Movement, I explain how changing our framing of an issue does more to change minds than anything else. Are voter ID laws about stopping fraud (as Republicans claim) or about restricting access to the ballot box (as Progressives see it)? Is Gay Marriage is a special right or about recognizing all the ways that love is expressed? In July, 2016 an appeals court struck down NC’s restrictive voter ID law, claiming the law was “passed with racially discriminatory intent.” The decision was much easier to make, given the NC legislature’s string of subsequent discriminatory laws, including striking down Charlotte’s ordinance that allows LGBTQ the freedom to use whatever restroom they choose. In striking down the NC voter ID law, Judge Diana Motz wrote on behalf of Judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd:
“The [NC] General Assembly enacted it in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented African American voter participation in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting. The district court clearly erred in ignoring or dismissing this historical background evidence, all of which supports a finding of discriminatory intent.”
Justice prevailed here only because the racists in the legislature tried to change too many laws too soon, making their intent obvious. God help us where other racists are undoing equal protections with a more cautious, scheming hand.