Taking Stock of Liberty Vote!
This past year, Liberty Hill Foundation relaunched the Liberty Vote! Initiative, which aims to build power at the grassroots level by supporting nonpartisan electoral engagement in L.A. County’s most disenfranchised communities. Now that the results are in and the data has been gathered and analyzed, Liberty Hill held a virtual convening to review and draw lessons for moving forward.
Attendees heard from organizers on two of the major initiatives which were backed by Liberty Vote!, including state Proposition 15, a measure to raise commercial property taxes that lost narrowly, and county Measure J, which reserved a portion of county revenues for non-carceral community care and won a resounding victory at the ballot box.
Some common themes emerged. In particular, the organizers all highlighted the importance of communities in southern and eastern L.A. cities, as well as the Antelope Valley. Communities such as Inglewood, Compton, El Monte, and Lancaster were strongly supportive of the initiatives backed by Liberty Vote! partners, but they turned out at significantly lower rates than other parts of the county. Not coincidentally, these same communities were among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and have historically been low-income, heavily BIPOC communities which have experienced under-investment, over-policing and over-incarceration. Organizers agreed that long-term organizing in these communities will be essential for the success of future initiatives, and to build political power.
“There is nothing — no digital tool, no fancy ad campaign, no really cool mailer — that can take the place of a strong, robust, year-round field program to actually start to close that [turnout] gap,” said Karla Zombro of the Million Voters Project.
The backers of Prop 15 were able to make a significant difference with their outreach. Organizers targeted low propensity and new voters, and those voters they were able to contact turned out at a rate roughly 11-12% higher than equivalent voters who were not contacted.
However, the public health restrictions in response to the COVID pandemic caused strains for numerous organizations. The pandemic disrupted traditional campaigning methods and diverted energy and resources to emergency aid response in affected communities.
In the case of Prop 15, which lost by 4 points statewide, corporate-funded opposition and an inability to unleash their “major secret weapon” of door-to-door in-person canvassing, may have made the difference between success and failure. While Prop 15 enjoyed majority support in LA County, both margins and turnout were too low to put the initiative over the top statewide.
At the same time, the pandemic also fueled the development and adoption of digital campaign tools for outreach. The organizers of the successful Measure J campaign, which yielded 2.1 million voters, drew on strong digital expertise from their coalition, built during previous campaigns. Justice LA’s Virtual Action Network, developed during the pandemic to support people being released from incarceration, became the nucleus of an online base of about 9000 people at the start of the Measure J campaign. Organizers Eunisses Hernandez and Ivette Alé estimated that their campaign was able to build up to running as many as 2 or 3 virtual phonebanks per day.
Especially critical was the difficulty of raising enough money amid opposition from police and law enforcement unions, highlighting the necessity of building and expanding upon Liberty Vote!
“We had to beat $3.5 million from law enforcement,” said Eunisses Hernandez, the campaign co-chair for the Measure J campaign. “The culture of donating was harder to get across in LA County — it was much easier to get money from the Bay Area.”
Neither fight is over. The Measure J organizers are now working to ensure that L.A. County sufficiently funds the 10% of unrestricted funds for the measure. Despite the defeat of Prop 15, the need for adequate funding to invest in services and support for California communities has not gone away. There is always another election up ahead, and Liberty Hill looks forward to standing alongside our partners in growing grassroots power in the communities where it can make the biggest difference.