Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Urban conditional: Why Do Democrats Lose Elections?: It may be by design

Nov 8, 2018

Why Do Democrats Lose Elections?: It may be by design

by Zack Barowitz

If there still is one widely held truism among professional campaign operatives it is that Democratic voters need more, um, encouragement to get to the voting booth than their republican counterparts. While Democratic voters outnumber Republicans, it is almost as if divine intervention has cursed the Dems with low-voter turnout in order to level the playing field. Thank you God for your infinite wisdom and fairness.

Roughly half of the population does not bother to vote — ever. Among those that do, a sizable number need more than a little encouragement, but the nature of that encouragement varies tremendously between political parties. Democrats' Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns are complex field operations. Republican field operations are much less elaborate. Increasingly, their GOTV efforts come down to blowing dog whistles.

While the Republican party leans on Cambridge Analytica to rile up hunters, Gab followers, and the Fox News faithful, the Democrats' ground game relies upon McGovern-era demographic data collection. This method targets likely voters in blue-leaning precincts; unfortunately it ignores the majority of doors and leaves a lot of fruit on the trees. I’ve worked on campaigns around the Northeast. No matter where, the protocol is essentially the same.

A low-level staff person will cut a series of walksheets based on a set of targeted voters. Volunteers are given a “turf” map and lists of voters organized by street alphabetically. At first blush, this seems like a perfectly reasonable way to organize a walk list. But in the field the flaws become evident almost immediately. For starters, unless you are in the Back Bay section of Boston, most streets are not aligned in alphabetical order, so the list of streets are in the wrong order. Were it just a matter of reordering the list, that might be a simple matter. However, it is not.

My recent walksheets — supplied by the Maine Democratic Party — separate the addresses by odd and even. Again at first thought that seems to make a lot of sense. Hit the even numbers when walking up and then the odd ones on the way back. However, if you have only three houses on a street (often the case), it means that you are walking twice as much, impeding any geographical progress that you had hoped to make. Hopefully you’ll get to start at the low-numbered end because if not, you’ll need to work backward on the list in order to work forward. Aside from assuming that you'll always begin at the low-numbered end of the street, this organizational method assumes that you will not be walking around a block (which is, of course, the way people walk) but if you do, you’ll be walking ten blocks to circle a block instead of four. Your fitbit will love you, but fitbits don’t vote.

Every political cycle, I politely express these concerns to the people in charge and ask that they “send it up the food chain.” Naturally they don’t. Canvas leaders are generally political campaign rookies, chosen for the job more for their esprit de corps than their experience. This raises the question why the sheets are so poorly designed in the first place. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, few people in contemporary politics have much of a sense of space in any sort of architectural, design, or planning capability. Were the lists devised by a team of human geographers, cartographers and graphic designers, the results I daresay would be a lot more user-friendly.

But one shouldn't need a PhD in Geographical Survey Systems (or be a Fellow of the American Institute of Architecture) to design a better walk sheet. When I was a canvass director on an issue campaign in rural New York State, we organized turf in a way so that the routes were laid out in a logical path and the voter lists were placed in corresponding order. We also defied campaign HQ and hit every door. These little improvements added up to a big help. We blasted through our goals and the campaign was successful.

At recent campaign event for Janet Mills, I had a chance to finally send this message up the food chain myself. Tom Perez, the national DNC Chair, was speaking to a large group of volunteers. After a rousing speech, I approached Mr. Perez and told him that I’ve been asking for improvements to the physical and geographic design of walk sheets for years. The Chairman took a moment to hear me out. Then referred me down to a subordinate.