Strategy creation

Why We Need To Connect Electoral and Issue Organizing

Photo: Mycatkins via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Mycatkins via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When I think of electoral campaigns supporting a particular candidate, I think of all the energy used to outreach to the community, fundraise, and communicate values/vision.

Then I wonder what happens to all that energy after the election?

In most cases that energy disappears and those involved in the campaign don’t apply their skills to pushing ahead issues they care about. The people the campaign outreaches to in the community cast their vote and then that ends their expression of “making their voice heard.” The newly elected leaders then tend to wait until the next election cycle before exerting the same level of energy.

Shouldn’t the time after the election be when the real struggle begins?

I believe the issues we care about would have moved farther ahead of we had kept activating and building momentum.

On the other side, how many of us focused on issue organizing ignore electoral campaigns?

We spend all this energy trying to get new policies implemented and working with elected politicians, but where are we when the election is going on? We allow people to keep getting elected year after year, even though they resist the most basic issues for justice. We often avoid putting in the effort necessary to support those truly working for justice.

Shouldn’t the time during the election also be a moment for us to contribute our energy?

If we had also made sure to get strong candidates elected who are responsive to issues, then we would have had much more success in making change.


What tying together electoral and issue organizing would look like


So if you’re like me and think we need to better combine these two types of organizing, we need to figure out how to do so effectively.

1. Use electoral campaign infrastructure to support an issue

A few months ago I heard Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota describe how during one reelection cycle he focused his campaign on defeating voter ID policies, rather than campaigning for himself. At the beginning of his effort, even his allies thought voter ID was inevitable, but he mobilized his resources to a surprise defeat of voter suppression.

He did this by emphasizing heavy field organizing (rather than ads) and voter turnout. In order to accomplish this his campaign really had to train and support new community leadership.

This example of focusing on an issue and building community capacity that will keep pushing issues after an election is a model to follow.

2. Getting those supporting issues to come out for progressive candidates

Rishi Awatramani writes we need to involve “people in conscious political action, winning office for progressive candidates (including those that emerge directly from our base), training communities in direct accountability of elected officials we put into office, and sharpening our skills at running campaigns.”

We who focus on the community side need to demonstrate the importance of ensuring strong candidates get elected.

3. Support the growth of community capacity

Both electoral and issue based often just ask for a “vote” or “sign this petition/become a member/etc.” which greatly limits the involvement of people to impact change.

Instead of just asking them to support our single issue or candidate, we should find ways to engage them in developing their own skills and abilities (e.g. training programs, coaching, creating or connecting them to leadership roles, etc.).

4. Build a culture of cross-organizing among candidates and organizations

From the earlier example of Rep. Keith Ellison, he said he worked with state and local politicians/communities as a coalition. Right now many candidates work in silos (other than the occasional canvass/phone bank for each other), but they could be working in coalitions to support each other.

Organizations do this as well and fosters an environment of competition rather than collaboration. We need to build momentum to enhance all of our collective efforts.

5. Engage in mass political education

In our organizing we often think what can win this issue now or get this candidate elected, but we also have the opportunity to discuss deeper issues (e.g. dismantling oppression, working for intersectional justice, and the role of institutions) rather than just “blander” issues (e.g. “middle class,” “go vote,” etc.).

This takes time to really sit down and have the right space to have constructive dialogue; however, if we’re in this to make lasting and long-term change we should be using every opportunity we have to foster a culture of mass education.

6. Recognize the limits and potential of each type of organizing

Another good quote from Rishi Awatramani specifically about one limit with electoral organizing where he says “We must not mistake the political power we might win through this process as analogous to the power people might win through deeper forms of political change”

He goes on to describe the potential in that “It is equally important that we recognize the potential to create real benefits for oppressed people in the US and beyond through this type of political work. And more than anything, we have to build new organizations for the new emerging majority in this country that can build towards deep, lasting social justice.”

As for issue organizing, one limit is the shorter and reduced lens through which we see our work. We normally don’t work on grand platforms, so we can get stuck thinking of only “what’s realistic.”

However, one potential of issue organizing is we can make specific positive changes in people’s lives. Issue campaigns can stay focused on one thing until it finally becomes a reality.

7. Get out on the streets

Lastly, we all need to be on the streets more and go to people’s doors. It can be really easy for advocacy organizations working on particular issues, just to rely on their particular network.

For electoral campaigns this more applies to after the election. It can be easy to get caught up in campaigns (e.g. Obama’s) and then stopped organizing to the same degree after our candidates get in office.

This connection between issues and elections takes more time and thought, but may prove a better use of our collective energy.

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+