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Election 2020: Oakland organizations drumming up engagement early

on October 9, 2019

It’s a Wednesday night and the crowd at the Oakland Public Library in the Dimond District is buzzing. The facilitator rings a green cowbell. “Get ready for your first date. You have five minutes,” she says over the PA in the corner. The daters rush to their assigned tables, some stopping to lift a last cookie from a table in the middle of the room that’s piled heavy with pastries.

Though eager, these daters aren’t looking for love. Tonight, this mostly-retired crowd is hungry for civic discourse. The League of Women Voters (LOWV) of Oakland teamed up with the Dimond Improvement Association for this Meet Your Public Officials “speed dating” event, and there are 15 city officials here ready to talk to citizens of District 4 about their neighborhood concerns.

This fall, organizations like this one are ramping up the number of civic engagement events and voter registration efforts they will host in advance of the 2020 election and census in the hope of boosting voter turnout, reaching minority populations and encouraging more people to be politically engaged.

Peggy Graybill is the director of voter services at one of four Oakland chapters of the League of Women Voters. She said the organization is best known for registering voters, but that they are also informing people about the importance of getting counted in the census.

“We are telling [residents] how important it is to make sure they sign up for it and that they get counted,” Graybill said. She said the league makes sure the people understand how important accurate census numbers are in terms of making sure that Oakland is allocated federal funding for crucial economic and social programs, and is politically represented in Congress. 

But at the league’s speed dating event, the focus is primarily on getting residents in contact with the officials they chose in the last election. Each of the officials will have five “dates”—or time slots for a short face-to-face conversations—with a resident. The daters race around the room clamoring to sign their name to the list for each official. Other daters are welcome to listen in on any conversation, but when the cowbell rings, it’s time for residents to make room for the next date. Throughout the evening, league volunteers rush around, ensuring each date is in the right place.

Other leagues have used this approach during election cycles, calling it “candi-dating,” and focusing the discussion on particular hot topics. But for this event, it’s a free-for-all. Some of the officials were elected last November, like District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao—her dating card fills up first. And some were appointed by the mayor, like Deputy Chief of Police LeRonne Armstrong. 

Each citizen has only five minutes and these daters have a lot to say. 

Lou Katz (center) at the District 4 Meet Your Public Official event. Katz is on the Alameda county Privacy Advisory Commission, which is a citizen watchdog group concerned with surveillance and privacy rights.

Gen Katz, an Oakland resident of 40 years, wants to speak to Thao. “There’s a new fire ordinance that says I must clear the underbrush 100 feet from my house,” she says. “It’s going to cost me a very pretty penny. I’m willing to do that. But I want to make sure that if I do that, they’re not going to change it and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry we didn’t really mean it.’”

Her husband Lou is also hoping to speak to Thao for different reasons. He’s the District 4 representative of the Alameda County Privacy Advisory Commission, a volunteer position, and he says he wanted to tell her about it. “Our job is to review things,” he says. “To make sure that privacy is being protected and also basically to make sure that we’re not setting up the surveillance state. Which means largely, we’re involved with OPD. And so far that’s working quite well, by the way.”

Across the room, Dale Baum is waiting for his turn to speak to Dimond Park Recreation Center interim director Alonna Mellion about the illegal dumping going on near the dumpster at the park. He says he walks by there every day and sees everything from broken swing sets and ancient TVs to busted-up cement and medical waste. “Today, there was a toilet there,” he says.  

But Baum’s got a solution. “There used to be a sign that said, ‘This area is under surveillance,’ but someone took it down,” he says. “A group of us in the neighborhood agreed to pass the hat to pay for a dummy surveillance camera with a little blinking red light for the park managers to install.  We’re also asking for a replacement of the former sign.” Baum says he and the rest of the anti-dumping squad would take responsibility for buying the new batteries on the dummy cam.

Baum also has his sights set on his next date, Oakland school board District 4 Director Gary Yee, to talk about charter schools. “All they do, of course, is suck away the money from the taxpayers. And don’t perform any better than public schools, anyway,” Baum says.

Meanwhile, resident Anne McSilver is here to tell Yee just the opposite—and to advocate for the board to renew the charter for her kid’s school. “Right now is a very contentious time for the future of charter schools. So I’m here to lobby on behalf of Oakland School for the Arts, which is a very successful arts magnet charter school,” she says. “A lot of people come out to see their government officials to talk about things that aren’t working. So I’m here to talk about something that’s successful, not broken, and no one needs to fix it.”

Around the room, the officials are sympathetically listening to the gripes and questions of their electorate. Baum doesn’t get a clear “yes” on his dummy cam proposal, but Mellion says she plans to remove the dumpster from Dimond Park, in hopes of discouraging dumping. Thao tells Gen Katz that she will get the latest updates on the fire safety issue, so she should check back in with her office in a week. Lou Katz gives Thao a business card and says he will be scheduling a meeting with her spokesperson.

As citizens talk politics and trade neighborhood chit-chat while waiting for their next date, the mood feels hopeful and cheery, except for when it comes to talk of next year’s presidential election.“It’s probably the fate of American democracy in the balance here,” says Baum. 

Lou Katz agrees on the high stakes. “Right now we have a mad man in the White House,” he says. “I think people are treating it like, ‘Oh well, it’s just politics.’ No, it isn’t … This is not a game.”

He says he’s always been politically aware, but not active until recently. “It’s much easier to become politically active than I would have thought. All you have to do is show up to one of these things.”

District 4 citizen Dale Baum talks to Councilmember Sheng Thao at the Meet Your Public Official “Speed Dating” event hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Dimond Improvement Association.

On the whole, Oakland voters tend to go to the polls. According to the website of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, there are currently 247,062 registered voters in Oakland and 897,496 in the county. In the 2016 general election, 75 percent of Alameda County’s registered voters cast a ballot, besting the national average by 17 percent. In 2018, 67 percent of the county’s voters voted in the midterm elections. And in 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president, 78 percent of them cast a vote.

But civic organizations that lead voter registration and “get out the vote” efforts still think Oakland could do better, especially when it comes to encouraging young, first-time or minority voters to participate. Graybill says this year her organization is focusing on younger voters and under-represented ones in Latinx, African-American and Asian communities.

As of March, 2017, 16- and 17-year-old California high school students have been allowed to pre-register to vote. So this year, the league has been setting up booths at BART stations and working with Oakland high schools to register students. Graybill said that California high schools have a mandated two-week period in the fall and spring for a civic engagement and young voter education program, which can include inviting recently elected officials to speak and staging mock elections. Graybill said the league takes advantage of that time to pre-register interested students and highlight the importance of democratic engagement. 

Earlier this month, Graybill also teamed up with middle school students from Yu Ming Middle School, a Mandarin immersion school, to help Mandarin-speaking citizens register to vote outside of Oakland’s Asian Cultural Center. “We have also been collaborating with organizations like [Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs], Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center and Urban Strategies Council to provide voter education and registration,” she said. 

And around the same time that the league was organizing its speed-dating event, Headcount, a nonpartisan voting activist group that registers voters at concerts and music festivals across the country, had been trying to reach a different set of voters at the Fox Theater. A crowd in their twenties and thirties, clad in every variation of plaid and fleece, was lining up to see garage-glam shredder King Tuff and indie rock stalwart Jenny Lewis.

Inside the lobby, Headcount volunteer Ethan Khanolkar was standing behind a table lined with clipboards. As concert goers walked by or made eye contact, he asked if they were registered at their current address. “That’s the basic ask line,” he said. If they said no and didn’t walk away, he offered them paperwork so they could register on the spot.

Headcount volunteer Ethan Khanolkar helps register voters at the King Tuff and Jenny Lewis show at the Fox Theater.

Khanolkar first volunteered with Headcount about a year ago at a Dead and Company show in Indiana. They liked what I did at that first show, and they said, ‘Now we need a team leader out here,’” he said. “It’s a really great way to engage with the community, to not only just get people registered to vote, but to get them engaged with the idea of being involved in voting and in government.”

Headcount has registered over 600,000 voters so far. The group has affiliations with touring artists like Jay-Z, David Byrne, The Black Keys, and Ariana Grande. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sits on the board. The organization staffs 20,000 volunteers across the country, fanning out in droves at concerts and music festivals. 

Communicating by email, marketing manager Sarah Frankel said the organization’s main goals are “to get people registered to vote and then to have them show up to the polls on Election Day.”

“This means keeping up to date with all elections, showing up to vote, and encouraging others to do the same,” she wrote. Frankel said Headcount’s biggest goal is to register 200,000 voters in the 2019/2020 election cycle.

On this night, Khanolkar was the only volunteer, and most people seemed more intent on grabbing a beer before the show started than talking civics.

Khanolkar said, in general, most people who walk up to his table tend to be interested in registering. Occasionally, though, he gets pushback. Sometimes people just want to enjoy the show and not think about politics, he said. Some “are pretty dissuaded by how little their vote seems to matter,” he said. “You can’t really hold anybody accountable with it because it has to be a personal choice, but all you can do is bring awareness to the issue. It’s about the right and exercising that right and doing it for the benefit of yourself and it and your community and in general, the nation.”

Jenny Lewis fan Megan Steffen walked up to the table. 

“Are you registered to vote at your current address?” Khanolkar asked. 

“Actually, no,” said Steffen. And two minutes later, after filling out a form, she was.

“Actually, one of the reasons I broke up with my fiancée and called off my engagement was that he didn’t fucking register to vote. Can you believe that?” continued Steffen. “We walked by a registration booth every fucking day on our way to work and he had never registered. He can vote in Canada and the US and he never registered. Ladies, dump him! Political engagement is a must.” 

And with that, she walked into the show. 

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