Impact Series

Voting justice group Widespread Energy turns to tech in time of COVID to reimagine outreach

Pre-coronavirus social distancing, Common Power sent volunteers to communities across the country to do get-out-the-vote campaigning. Common Power founder and director David Domke (center back) and director Charles Douglas III (far right foreground) emphasize community as essential to the effort. (Common Power Photo)

When Charles Douglas III showed up for a meeting for a newly formed voter empowerment group, he nearly turned around and walked out. Douglas, a Black man in his mid-30s working in corporate leadership, faced a sea of retired white people. He didn’t feel he belonged.

“I almost left, but another young volunteer said, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but stick around,’ ” Douglas said.

He did, and was won over by David Domke, the group’s organizer, a University of Washington communications professor, and a powerhouse of persuasion. Domke was starting a boots-on-the-ground battle to make sure Americans everywhere — and particularly those who are disenfranchised — could exercise their constitutional right to vote. While most of the volunteers were older and white, he was committed to building a staff that was diverse in race and age.

“We have had a mission, an organizational mission from the beginning, that is focused around voting justice,” Domke said. “It is not just about voting, it is about voting justice.”

Charles Douglas III (left) and David Domke help lead Common Power. (Common Power Photo)

That was more than two years ago. The Seattle-based organization, which started as Common Purpose, is today officially rebranding as Common Power. With the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on voting and voter outreach, combined with the death of George Floyd and the nationwide calls to action to support Black Americans, the group’s goals are even more timely and critically important.

“That is the most common power that we have as a small ‘c’ citizen — the power of our individual votes,” said Douglas, who joined Common Power in 2019 as director of brand and big ideas, leaving Starbucks leadership after 13 years.

But that power is threatened by organizations and leaders waging renewed campaigns to stoke unfounded fears about voter fraud. They’re taking legal and political action to subvert efforts to boost voter participation. President Trump has led the call to limit mail-in ballots.

And just as its work is needed most, Common Power has had to rapidly adopt digital communications due to COVID and social distancing, jettisoning in-person volunteer training sessions and face-to-face contact with voters through door-belling and public events.

Legions of senior-citizen volunteers are for the first time navigating Zoom conference calls. Voter outreach now includes calls, emails and Twitter. A group of young musicians — “brassroots activists” — is organizing monthly online performances to accompany and cheer remote phone bank work.

COVID-19 required a rapid pivot into digital communication and organization, thrusting many of Common Power’s older volunteers into online conferencing for the first time. (Common Power Photo)

Common Power’s more than 2,000 volunteers are working two main fronts: they’re contacting election officials to lobby for the widespread use of mail-in, absentee ballots and keeping polls open longer; and they’re connecting with voters to inform them about upcoming elections, make sure they’re registered and help them request absentee ballots.

With concerns about racial injustice, the government response to COVID and a U.S. recession, people are more aware of the importance of who’s elected, say members of the Common Power team. “Your vote is your voice, and it will impact you,” said Laila Kent, a university student and intern with the group.

Where can we be helpful?

Common Power’s get-out-the-vote efforts aren’t entirely novel, but its other features set it apart.

To reach his goal of building a diverse staff, Domke, the group’s director of field work and learning, offered full-time, year-round jobs that don’t stop and start with election seasons, making them viable for younger, diverse candidates who need economic security. The group has 13 workers (nine are full time), 10 of whom are Black, indigenous or people of color.

The organization is also unusual for its approach to working in partnership with grassroots groups nationwide. Common Power takes the Pacific Northwest’s abundance of civic energy, trains and funds volunteers, and directs them to strategic elections around the country.

Pre-coronavirus, a Common Power volunteer helps a Florida resident register to vote. (Common Power Photo)

Pre-coronavirus, Common Power was active in 15 states, sending volunteers to Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere to help out. This year, the organization is supporting voting efforts in 20 states, with limited travel.

“It’s not often an organization from a progressive state shows up and says, ‘We have extra capacity. Where can we be helpful?’” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a national effort that has successfully mobilized Black voters. “It’s a totally unexpected wind at peoples’ backs.”

Common Power puts an emphasis on building community and making sure volunteers are working in teams. People aren’t just handed off to out-of-state campaigns, but carefully prepped for the jobs. That system of support is what sustains volunteers and brings them back, the organizers said.

“This work is too damn hard alone,” Domke said.

Pushing back against voter suppression

The organization is not affiliated with the Democratic party or candidates, but its objectives generally align with the Democratic platform.

“We are pan-partisan. We stand fully prepared to support any candidate that supports our core issue, which is voting justice,” Domke said. But the reality is, “there is only one major political party in America that is in favor of voting justice, and it’s Democrats.”

Republicans continue to take steps to uphold or create new voting policies that disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color. That includes requiring photo IDs at the polls; purging voter rolls; limiting polling hours, which can make it difficult for working people or those without transportation; reducing the number of polling places; restricting who can get mail-in ballots; removing voting rights from formerly incarcerated people; and other rules.

Common Power interns Laila Kent (top) and Kylie Knowles are college students helping lead the organization’s youth programs. (Photo from Zoom)

Washington has had all mail-in voting statewide since 2011. Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii and Utah also offer universal vote-by-mail. Other states allow people to request absentee ballots, but 16 of them require people to have an excuse such as being out of town or a health condition that prevents in-person voting, according to Common Power data. Of the states without universal absentee voting, only 20 allow for early voting at the polls.

These voting restrictions become not just inconvenient but possibly life threatening during a pandemic. U.S. COVID infection rates are on the rise and there are growing concerns about the disease come fall — just in time for the November elections. Forcing voters to cast their ballots in person, sometimes after standing in line for hours, could threaten their health and others.

And the barriers to access will continue past 2020. That’s why Common Power has initiatives to recruit and train millennials and the Gen Zs behind them. With the activism sparked by Black Lives Matter protests as well as the cancellation of many internship programs, the organization this summer is launching a leadership program called Action Academy to reach high school and college students.

Kent and Knowles are helping organize the effort. They know it can be hard to convince their peers to get involved, that it’s intimidating to call strangers or knock on their doors to urge them to vote. But they believe deeply in the cause.

“If your vote wasn’t that important,” Knowles said, “then why would people work so hard to take it away from you?”

Editor’s note: Common Power is not a nonprofit but partners with the 501(c)3 Fuse Washington. The story has been updated to correct Common Power’s status.

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