Posted by Haley Arata on November 29, 2018 in Blog

By Ibrahim Diallo and Haley Arata

On Tuesday, November 27, the Arab American Institute (AAI) was invited to participate in a panel discussion at Common Cause'sBlueprint for a Great Democracy Conference. The topic, Preparing Election Administration and Election Protection for 2020, was also addressed by speakers from Common Cause, Vote@Home, and the Brennan Center for Justice, who each shared important takeaways from the 2018 midterm elections and strategies for 2020. Elena Nunez, Director of State Operations & Ballot Measure Strategies at Common Cause, moderated the panel discussion, which featured Myrna Perez, Deputy Director of the Democracy Initiative at the Brennan Center, AAI’s Field Organizer Heba Mohammad, and Executive Director of Vote@Home Amber McReynolds.

To begin, Perez offered four reflections from the 2018 midterms. First, that anticipating various technical and registration issues prior to election day can mitigate voter purges and secure the vote. Second, we need a better way of talking about voter suppression. For example, inadequate election administration and racial impact should not be treated as mutually exclusive. Third, no single political party is the answer to voter suppression. And fourth, litigation will not fix everything. Rather, advocates should litigate immediate obstacles and open space for longer case reforms. Perez concluded with a look toward the 2020 election, in which she identified improving our approach to provisional balloting as an important goal.

Next, Mohammad discussed AAI’s work to promote voter engagement and other efforts to protect democracy. A central component of AAI’s work is the grassroots voter mobilization and education campaign #YallaVote. With a focus on 12 states and members in all 50 states, AAI is empowering Arab Americans to run for office, vote, and become advocates for their communities. She also noted that for the first time ever, AAI endorsed ballot initiatives in the 2018 midterms: Florida’s Second Chances Amendment, which restores voting eligibility to people with prior felony convictions who fully complete their entire sentence; and Michigan’s  Proposal 2, which creates an independent citizens’ redistricting commission, and Proposal 3, a package of democracy reforms that will expand ballot access in the state. Furthermore, AAI hired four organizers in four different states to register/re-register voters and get the word out about voting, registering over 700 voters in the process on one day, National Voter Registration Day. AAI also collaborated with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to provide resources and assistance for both Arabic- and English-speaking voters on election days through the #YallaVote hotline. Reflecting on the 2018 midterms, Mohammad said that many issues persist, including those relating to language access, voter intimidation, and discrimination or harassment of Arabic-speaking voters and poll monitors. Looking ahead to 2020, Mohammad pointed to AAI’s work on the 2020 Census, which has implications for voting and numerous other democracy-related issues.

McReynolds, who ran elections for 13 years in Denver, Colorado, said there is a “miscalculated system” in U.S. elections that deprioritizes voters. She also stated that when it comes to passing voting rights legislation, the enforcement of that legislation is just as important. Similarly, registering voters is half the battle—getting folks to actually turn out to vote is key. Reflecting on other takeaways from the 2018 midterms, McReynolds said “convenience is key,” noting that vote-at-home states were among the highest in voter turnout in 2018. Looking ahead to 2020, McReynolds concluded the segment with a discussion of voting infrastructure and election security, advising that advocates should consider Colorado’s voting system, which she claimed represents the “right comprehensive model in weaving together all the issues” that occur in the voting process.

The following day, AAI participated in a panel discussion at the Democracy Initiative’s 2018 Annual Meeting Discussion, Power Comes from the Ground Up: Mobilizing for Big Fights. Wendy Fields, Executive Director of the Democracy Initiative, moderated the session, entitled “What it Takes to Sustain Our Wins.” Panelists included Joanne Antoine of Common Cause Maryland, Haley Arata of AAI, Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project, and Brandon Jessup of Promote the Vote Michigan.

Panelists engaged in a pragmatic conversation about the successes and difficulties of grassroots organizing leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. A panel of organizers from recent or ongoing campaigns, each panelist highlighted gaps in the field, funding needs for mobilization infrastructure, and challenges of race and gender, and offered their insights into how to best strengthen and sustain large-scale, grassroots-led mobilization on the local level.

To start, Antoine recounted the success of Maryland voters passing a ballot initiative that gives eligible voters the right to same day registration for every Election Day in the future.  A pro-democratic reform, the passage of this initiative was a major victory for Maryland and Common Cause Maryland, which put a lot of effort into a campaign educating and encouraging voters to vote yes on this initiative. However, as Antoine pointed out, this campaign was severely underfunded; future campaigns supporting pro-democratic ballot initiatives and reforms will benefit from increased and earlier access to funding that supports resource development and staff. Ufot and Arata reinforced the need for more funding for resources and field staff, even further emphasizing the need for funding year-round instead of solely in the weeks and days leading up to an election day. Reiterating Heba Mohammad’s points from the panel discussion the previous day, Arata highlighted #YallaVote’s successes – AAI’s support for ballot initiatives, management of the Election Protection hotline, and the hiring of longer-term Field Organizers in four states—and challenges – the inability to hire field staff in more states, the bigotry and hatred targeting Arab American and allied candidates, the naturalization backlog that will keep hundreds of thousands of potential voters from voting in 2020, and the lack of comprehensive language access for ballot assistance. Ufot and Jessup reiterated these points, going further to highlight the need for coordinated campaigns, for there is real strength and momentum when organizations and grassroots leaders maintain consistent messaging and strategy, and share resources.  

As we look to 2020, the advocates in the room were left with a sense that, if we are to remedy the issues we saw in this year's election, a collective effort utilizing both short- and long-term solutions must begin today.

Ibrahim Diallo is a 2018 Field Intern at the Arab American Institute. 

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