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Increasing Voter Participation in Montgomery County

Posted on by Barnaby Zall

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Last night’s debate between the Republican and Democratic candidates for the At-Large seats on the Montgomery County Council was interesting. The host, the Citizens League of Montgomery County, www.mococitizens.org, did a nice job gathering all the candidates for the forum; it was the only time all the candidates appeared together before the election on Nov. 2.

But, frankly, public participation could have been better. Lackluster public response has been a problem this entire political season in Montgomery County. So I thought I would cross-post something I wrote for the Citizens League site on how to increase participation:

A Quiet September Shift in MoCo

October 14, 2010

Montgomery County Council

The most enduring image of September’s very quiet primary election may be this middle-finger-raised text message, reported by the Washington Post:

“It was the Unions that put Duchy in office n it was the Unions that took her out. Justice served!” read a text message forwarded at 1:24 a.m. Wednesday by John Sparks, head of Montgomery’s firefighters union.

Among the comments was this:

“First order of business, the council doubles all pay raises for union members.
 Second, raises property taxes to afford said raises, and closes more facilities.
 They are burning down the house to stay warm in the blizzard.”

There was a predictable media frenzy over this tidbit. That’s unfortunate, not only because it undercuts the Council’s recent efforts to craft a six-year, no spending-increase budget, but because it obscures some tectonic shifts under the surface of the election returns.

One of the most important shifts was that the oft-underserved East County, which has always had more people but far less influence, has raised its head in the corridors of power. The media played up the addresses of the victorious Democratic nominees. But that was only the most obvious of shifts, and perhaps not the one that will make the most long-term difference.

A more powerful and long-term movement was demographic: the Council (assuming, as many do, that the Democratic nominees are likely to prevail in November’s election) is becoming younger and more diverse.

MoCo activism has always been regarded as the province of the old and the white. “That’s who has the time,” District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner said at a recent campaign debate. And anyone who has ventured into MoCo policy debates for the first time has generally come out reeling from the amount of detail, jargon and information flooding the discussions; again, a function of how much time activists can devote to studying and preparing. Not to mention the relentless vigilance of some Citizens, monitoring the most obscure governmental processes for side effects and unforeseen consequences. It’s not easy joining in the first time if what you hear is: “But you don’t understand the effect of County Ordinance 12.284b-14. If you do that, our beloved [fill in the blank here] will DIE!”

But does that mean younger and more diverse County Citizens can’t or won’t get involved? Are they just too busy? Too dumb? Tuned out? Or turned off? As the recent shift in seats demonstrates, clearly not. None of the above.

Those disincentives to participate are, in fact, the reason the Citizens League of Montgomery County was formed: to help less-experienced Citizens surmount the barriers to entry into the political discussion in MoCo. The idea is that providing an opportunity for participation without the dominance of older, more established groups will help all voices be heard. So . . . how do we do that?

Hans ReimerPhoto from Hans Reimer’s Facebook page

It likely will take some additional work – and perhaps different avenues – to mobilize these Citizens. They are more technologically-adept, meaning that traditional methods of reaching them aren’t as successful, but new ones are. President Obama successfully used new and social media to reach millions of young Americans in 2008, and activated them en masse. That outreach wasn’t the same in September, not in intensity and not in volume; people just haven’t figured out how to replicate the Obama new media success. It isn’t just putting up something on Facebook and you’re done. Doing new media campaigns right means the same thing it always has: message, targeting, and execution of a strategy.

But with a twist: one of the traditional methods of swaying voters has been, in the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Have the undecideds talked to by someone they know and trust.” If you’re dealing with a group of young or disaffected Citizens, who’s that trusted “someone?” In new media, that means looking somewhere untraditional (think Republican General Colin Powell endorsing President Obama in 2008), and relying more on collective voices, rather than Walter Cronkite-like baritones.

And activists can also use more traditional techniques, like looking for new voters in places where they are likely to be found, instead of where voters have traditionally congregated. A recent example is Rock the Vote.

Those techniques can work in MoCo. How do we know? Look at who got the most votes among At-Large Democratic nominees: Marc Elrich used good old-fashioned shoe leather to get the most votes. But newcomer Hans Reimer, who got the second-highest number of votes, is a veteran of Rock the Vote and was the Obama campaign’s Youth Vote Coordinator. Reimer, also a veteran MoCo activist with the Action Committee for Transit, used new media to good advantage, highlighting his community participation in areas often passed over by more traditional campaigns.

The low level of voter participation in September’s primaries may have had many causes, and there may be many solutions. But we know that at least some new techniques work here. And their use presages a new and different “power structure.”

Barnaby Zall

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