Taking Back Democracy: Relational Organizing and Political Engagement

Event Recap

Friday, April 27, 2018

On April 27 UC Berkeley Professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla provided the final talk in the Research to Impact series, which focused on the benefits of community-based relational organizing and political engagement as new solutions to the persistent problem of low voter participation. Beginning with an overview of the overall low rates of voter turnout in American elections, she then went on to describe the exceptionally low participation rates among marginalized voter groups. In 2014, for example, less than 48 percent of eligible voters from immigrant-based groups voted, only 39 percent of African American voters participated, and even the 48 percent participation rates for whites remained relatively flat between 1978 and 2014. For Garcia Bedolla, the overarching trend in low voter participation suggests a structural problem in American politics characterized by only a small number of eligible voters being engaged to vote.

Democracy is eroded when increasingly small numbers of people are able to influence major policy decisions, and this is a particularly salient problem in California where non-Latino whites are over represented in the voting group, and Latinos are over represented as unregistered eligible voters. The lack of outreach to certain groups of voters helps to explain the indefensible and ongoing problem of inequitable voter engagement: compared to whites and Blacks, fewer eligible Latino voters report having been contacted or engaged in campaign conversations. Because political campaigns are complex and steeped in information, targeted voter engagement is key to making voting accessible—people need to be perceived as valuable contributors to the political process, and they need to be politically educated.

Through her research, Garcia Bedolla makes clear the need to frame voter participation in terms of political structures, power, and issues of inclusion rather than simply individual choice. History, politics, discrimination, and policy all influence which communities are deemed relevant in electoral campaigns. Low voter propensity and high numbers of unregistered eligible Latino voters is perplexing, consequential, and the result of structural processes that shape how people interpret political processes and opportunities.

In order to increase voter participation in marginalized communities, Garcia Bedolla contends that we must substantively engage and educate communities beyond the election cycle and conventional marketing campaign approach. Her research suggests that campaigns that can build community relationships and capacity by talking to people about issues they care about are most effective. Established coalitions need to be in place before this community building work can happen, and sufficient investments to sustain both coalitions and campaigns must be made early. Furthermore, local knowledge and expertise needs to be valued and incorporated into tailored campaign strategies that reflect local environments and issues.

Reframing low voter participation in structural terms has multiple implications. Power imbalances have to be directly addressed in order to facilitate equitable political participation, and community engagement must be in service of deeper political education. Relational organizing—deep, ongoing community capacity and relationship building—can positively affect political engagement. And it is hard work that, according to Garcia Bedolla, requires less  “magical thinking” and more critical and substantive investments in popular education, coalition sustainability, and diverse forms of political engagement. Fortunately, both the social movement organizing tactics of the past, and the media and information technology of the present provide viable tools for us to engage in this critical work. 

Lisa García Bedolla is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at UC Berkeley. Since its inception, ninety-eight years ago, García Bedolla is the first woman to direct the IGS. García Bedolla is the author of four books and dozens of research articles. Her works Latino Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity 2014), Fluid Borders: Latino Power, Identity, and Politics in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); in addition to, her co-authored text, with Melissa R. Michelson, of Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) have earned five national book awards.