The most basic premise of electoral work is grounded in breaking. Campaigns must draw a line in the sand between themselves and their opposition, providing a firm “us-and-them” distinction that is crystal clear. In the elections themselves of course, there are winners and there are losers. The question is whether, within this “us vs. them” contest, those carrying forward electoral work can simultaneously create bridging that endures in the long run. Or does electoral work simply aggregate voters to win the campaign without anything deeper being built, and while encouraging a pattern of breaking? What are the bridging opportunities in electoral work that can build and sustain durable, inclusive “we” identities across and among communities, organizations, and social movements?
Bridging is defined as addressing tensions or “breaking” dynamics and narratives that sustain division in order to develop a new “we” that is not only more inclusive, but cohesive, durable, and consistent with bringing about belonging and greater social justice. It is distinct from simply winning over different demographics or constituencies to get to a 50%+1 “win number.” While bridging can be important to winning elections, election campaigns can also be means for building bridges that are themselves “wins” of a much bigger kind. We believe that that should be an aim of community organizations’ electoral work. But it is not always that way.
The Electoral Context, Breaking and Bridging
Sometimes we approach an electoral season in which we are set up to “break” (rather than bridge) by opposition campaigns that are grounded in dehumanizing and othering our communities. In 2003, for example, California had a recall election that removed then-Governor Gray Davis in a Republican power grab to take advantage of multiple fissures and wedge issues facing California. The Davis recall effort came on the heels of an explosion of private prison development and anti-immigrant ballot initiatives in the midto late-nineties. Republicans succeeded in promoting breaking narratives that pushed communities to divide against one another around ideas of who was deserving and who was not. Meanwhile, progressive organizers lacked a bridging narrative that could challenge this division head on, and unite communities around an alternative story of a broadly shared “us.” After losing the recall, community organizing groups and organized labor responded strategically, with a massive push for citizenship and voter registration, as well as increasing focus on voter engagement, education, and mobilization in Latinx and Black communities.
We can compare this recall to the 2021 effort to recall another Democratic Governor–Gavin Newsom–which failed in epic proportions. The difference between 2003 and 2021 is substantial growth in electoral power in communities of color, and a major swing in voter sentiment. None of this was by accident. As the push to enfranchise communities of color gained traction, our state politics began to change, and conservative, nativist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Black elected officials began to be replaced.
The fundamental electoral logic of getting to 50%+1 can impede the work needed to bridge in a number of ways. One is that it can call on us to write off certain potential voters that prevailing campaign strategy says are not worth the investment. Voters today are assigned voting “propensity scores,” and most politicos and consultants will tell you that you only win by engaging high-propensity voters, who skew whiter, more highly educated, with a higher income, and less likely to move homes than most Californians. Winning and winning quickly comes at the cost–so we are told– of leaving low-propensity voters behind.
However, strategies, like those of the Million Voter Project, CHIRLA, PICO California and other groups, reflect a commitment to turn out low-propensity voters across California.1 This necessarily changes the way electoral work is done. There is a commitment to deep canvassing at the doors and through phone banking, as well as to moving slower in order to include more voices and draw in more voters.
Indeed, speed is another barrier to bridging across communities through our electoral work. Bridging takes care, intentionality, and with these, it can often be time intensive. This is a challenge for high-speed electoral seasons. Breaking can occur at the beginning of campaign and electoral work in coalition spaces where important and critical decisions must be made quickly. Stakeholders who are at the table are often thinking in terms of serving their own constituencies. So while those voices are represented, not all groups are directly involved or even considered in decision-making processes. This usually results in constituencies that are not plugged into civic infrastructure or organizations being left out of planning. Again, these constituencies disproportionately include people of color, younger or elder people, those who do not speak the dominant language, etc.
There are a number of ways to bridge to constituencies that are disconnected from civic infrastructure during campaign seasons. Community town hall gatherings, deep canvassing and qualitative research that includes listening sessions can help to include their voices. Additionally, campaign cycles are a time when compelling stories, language, and visuals that unite voters across differences might be seen and paid attention to, with lasting effects. Through storytelling and bridging portrayals, videos like “Can You See It?” allow people to identify across different communities to tackle the key issues that extend far beyond the campaign cycle. The conversations that can be sparked in the context of not only general elections, but also compelling primaries, can be the opening to creating shared identities as voters that expand what is possible.
California’s Proposition 47 of 2014 provides a good example of the bridging that can take place in electoral work when people and relationships are put at the center. The purpose of this proposition was to reclassify a number of non-violent offenses (including drug charges) as misdemeanors rather than felonies, and to give individuals formerly prosecuted for said offenses the opportunity to no longer have felony convictions on their records. Through intentional relationship building, community organizations supportive of the initiative brought together people from different communities in spaces where they could share stories and experiences with one another on how the ballot measure could change their lives. As a result, these different communities voted not only in their self-interest, but also discovered their shared stake in one another, and acknowledged the interests of one another in thinking about how to vote. Achieving this required an intentional slowing down of the process, and a people-centered approach to organizing voters. The relationships are a strong example of bridging, as they have in turn outlasted the campaign season, and have led to deeper organizing work within and across communities.
Bridging Lessons Through, and Beyond, Electoral Campaigns
Sometimes electoral seasons show us places that we didn’t realize we needed to build a bridge, and expose inadvertent ways our organizing is breaking with parts of our communities. A case from Alameda County in 2018 offers an example. The county was facing a historic opportunity to elect a progressive district attorney, and part ways with a decades-long conservative prosecutorial culture that had led to mass incarceration of Black and Brown community members. The 2018 electoral season was a critical one because of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM and Movement for Black Lives organizers began strategizing about how to elect progressive candidates who would be responsive to the mass demonstrations across the country.
Organizers knew that the challenge in the DA race was that the position was a county position–not elected by residents of Oakland alone, where the largest footprint for DA activity occurs. Voters from less populated, suburban, and whiter communities would weigh in as well, though they were less impacted by crime. But what turned out to be most egregious was that the conservative DA campaigned to represent families impacted by community gun violence, pitting their interests against calls to defund the police and end mass incarceration.
At a candidates forum hosted by Faith In Action East Bay, the incumbent, conservative candidate asked for all the mothers impacted by community violence to stand. She messaged that her commitment, if reelected, was to partner with law enforcement to ensure their cases were solved and those guilty were punished to the full extent of the law. In doing this, she weaponized the pain of the Black mothers of murdered children against the pain of Black mothers of incarcerated children. This splintered our communities, and with them, the movement’s effort to elect a progressive district attorney. While we had a well-developed civic engagement strategy, we did not have a narrative and messaging strategy that could build a bridge between two impacted constituencies in the Black community. Because our electoral strategy didn’t include bridging these groups, the conservative DA won the election in the middle of an insurgent political season. But the loss taught a lesson by helping us identify this critical place where bridging was needed. It shone a light upon the need to bridge within Black communities, and we have taken up that challenge in our work ever since.
But also in 2018, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition taught us a valuable lesson on how to build long bridges. FRRC accomplished what most people would have thought was impossible. Using a bridging strategy, FRRC organizers mobilized voters across political and racial lines to pass Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that restored the right to vote to returning citizens (formerly incarcerated people). Because it was a state constitutional amendment, the initiative had to garner 60% of the vote. The final tally was an amazing 64%. The victory was accomplished because the leadership of the coalition had a broad vision of the “we” that was impacted. The FRRC organized impacted Black, white, and Latinx people and reached out to a wide spectrum of voters–progressives, liberals, and conservatives. They were able to shift the narrative from an image of undeserving Black criminals to a narrative of people of all races who had served their time and deserve a second chance–and with it, full recognition of their rights. Furthermore, as they organized across all of these lines of difference, they cultivated a new political identity of “returning citizens” that has outlived the stunning Amendment 4 campaign itself. FRRC’s organizing continues under this banner, putting at its center this new bridging identity.
The 2020 Presidential Election had some big-ticket issues on the ballot in Los Angeles County. There was an attempt to replace District Attorney Jackie Lacey with a more progressive DA, George Gascon, and a County Supervisor race that had a status quo politician and a progressive named Holly Mitchell. There was also an initiative on the ballot, Measure J, which sought to allocate 10% of the county budget to direct services to invest in helping people and not merely incarcerating them. C4 community organizations and some labor groups collaborated on their getout-the-vote efforts to get a win for everyone. The electoral work came on the heels of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Street heat was thus parlayed into electoral power. The end result was that these progressive candidates won and the ballot initiative passed. The case was made, consciousness was raised, and all this activity set the foundation for the voter call to action. What was deemed impossible became possible.
The lessons from the last electoral cycles since 2014 is that a bridging strategy is essential for short-term electoral victories and for the longer-term goals of creating momentum for transformative relationships, laws, and policies. If our organizations and social movements are to build power in the electoral arena, they must bridge across organizations, communities, movements and ideologies.
- 1 See also Michael McBride, “Ending Electoral Sharecropping: Black Legacy Institutions Win Elections,” Othering & Belonging Institute, September 9, 2019, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/ending-electoral-sharecropping.