2013 Grants Challenge

Increase Voter Turnout Neighbor to Neighbor Communication and Govt Responsiveness

We will increase voter turnout in City elections by creating online engagement tools and opportunities for citizens to 1. communicate with and understand one another 2. build community that creates a stronger sense of ownership, connectedness and rootedness 3. hold elected officials accountable

We will use the latest proven online tools, and create some new ones, to leverage the power of the Internet and social media to turn make a lasting improvement in the city's social engagement and a replicable model for municipalities throughout the country.

Voter turnout in LA City elections is alarmingly low, at 21% in the last City election. Four out of five eligible voters in Los Angeles did not vote. (One get into the run-off for a Council seat with fewer than 2,200 votes.) Citizens are not engaged, and social scientists debate the barriers to collective action. For instance, citizens may not believe their votes make a difference. They may not believe that elected officials are responsive to specific voter needs. City residents may not consider themselves part of a community that values voting. In some cases, citizens may not know there even is an election or where to vote if they do know about it. More than likely a combination of these factors is at work. Key to a more socially-connected city, a brighter future, is increased voter participation and turnout.

We will begin by targeting and communicating with voters who registered online to vote. Our expertise is in online organizing and mobilization that results in offline action. We know that those who registered online have experience and interest in participating on line. Moreover, social, economic and political indicators clearly suggest that over time, an increasing number of people will be active and engaged on line. So the tools and systems developed now will have increased value and impact in the future, right into 2050.

What will we do? First, we will create a tool that gives citizens a means to amplify their voices and concerns and to learn what their neighbors are concerned about in a fun and measurable way. This is an online petition tool in the manner of signon.org, but hyper local. Individuals can create a petition and ask neighbors to add their voices. It could relate to traffic, environmental, health, commerce, education, public-safety, almost anything. Through this process citizens can share their concerns and learn what is on their neighbors’ minds. Communicating with and understanding one another creates greater engagement and improved quality of life.

Petitions can then be brought to the attention of traditional media and elected officials. Concerns and responses can be monitored as elections occur. Petitions may even lead to ballot measures. At the same time, an often-overlooked constituency – public workers – can benefit by knowing citizen concerns and being better enabled to meet their own professional and civic goals of solving public problems. Secondly, we’ll help create involvement, engagement, and concern about City election outcomes. We will ask citizens to “rank order” the list of petitioners’ concerns. The goal here is to urge citizens higher on a ladder of engagement with public policy, and to provide public education about some of the stakes in City elections. Results of the ranking will be communicated to respondents and publicized through online and traditional earned media.

Third, we’ll create social pressure for voting, and help establish a sense of community around participation, using an online tool with which we found success in 2012. In the last LA City election, more than 40% of the votes were cast by mail. To address these voters, our plan includes a Facebook tool that simply checks the names and hometowns of ones friends against the publicly-available records of who has mailed in ballots, updated each day. If all of one’s friends have voted, the tool shows it. If a few have not, it will tell the user who, and provide an opportunity to gently encourage them to vote. It's not too invasive, could hardly be simpler, and it gives voters a civic-minded excuse to log onto Facebook!

Finally, each communication will include basic logistics: the date of the next election and a link to a tool for finding one’s specific polling place. Also, we’ll hire an organizer to implement the project and we’ll advertise in traditional and new media to promote the tools.

Social connectedness will be enhanced by increased voter participation as citizens become more engaged with one another. As elections are understood more personally, and the impact of participation can be seen, citizens will become more rooted in the community where they play a role. As their ideas and concerns come to distinguish Los Angeles, citizens will more likely engage in volunteer activity, contributing in tangible ways to the place that reflects their values and includes their voices.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Double Bubble: Courage won an unprecedented voting-rights victory after thousands of LA voters were disenfranchised by a flawed ballot design. As the LA Times highlighted in a front-page article, Courage uncovered the flaw and leveraged 32,802 petition signatures, and grassroots pressure to force the Registrar to count 47,153 ballots previously discarded. As a result, the County Registrar replaced the double-bubble ballot with a new ballot for DTS voters & the California Secretary of State revised ballot documents to clarify instructions statewide.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Courage Campaign provides the permanent progressive online organizing infrastructure in California. That is, after an Election Day, candidate and ballot-initiative committees fold, but Courage Campaign remains. In addition to informing, organizing and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of California voters, our offline organizing includes holding quarterly “convenings” of more than 65 progressive groups in the state, most with a strong presence in Los Angeles. We do not have a specific commitment from our partners for this project since we are in the process of applying for this funding opportunity, but we are confident that once underway, we can count on the participation of a significant number of our associates and their constituencies.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

We will look at this main metric: did voter turnout improve? Did it improve, controlling for confounding variables, within targeted segments of the voting-eligible population, and specifically among those using the online tool set?

Prior to the next City election, when we can look at these figures, we'll need success indicators for periodic evaluation. Up through the end of the calendar year 2013, success will be measured by creation and use of the online tools: how many people use the petition tool, how many sign the petitions, is there media coverage or awareness among city residents or public officials regarding the content of the petitions, do citizens engage in the rank-ordering of petitioners’ concerns? In 2014, we will have the chance to measure the success of the set of tools and the organizing in an actual City election.

In just about three weeks, the Los Angeles City Clerk’s office will have compiled figures to indicate how many of those who registered online to vote did in fact vote in the City election of March 2013. We can set the specific success indicator for that group once those figures are released. In any event, increasing the turnout will indicate success. Moreover, we will be able to evaluate, based on public voter files, whether those who use the tools turn out to vote.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

First, citizens will have a useful tool through which they can communicate easily & clearly with their neighbors, & understand one another’s concerns, eliminating some of the disconnectedness that can characterize city life in LA. While online social media exist, as do online petition tools, the key to this project is combining the tools & organizing them to focus on a specific public goal in order to make use of their potential for improving quality of life & for creating a sense of community.

The current system of Neighborhood Councils in the city is a great idea and plays a vital role, but is not always easy for all citizens to access since meetings are held at specific times & places when not everyone is available. Using the online tools improves accessibility.

Secondly, city officials will have access to a means for understanding public concerns and ideas & will be able to improve responsiveness.

Third, voter turnout will increase. City residents will have a stake in the local elections since they can play a role in bringing issues to the ballot or informing candidate positions.

Fourth, as residents know their voices are being heard, & are able to witness their own impact, barriers to collective action will be reduced and other civic benefits will accrue such as increased levels of volunteerism and community participation.

Finally, public policy will be improved in the sense that it will be more responsive to public needs.Only time will tell what specific policy initiatives and legislation will ensue to improve the lives of Angelenos, but a historical example provides an illustration of the power of public communication.

Forty years ago residents in an area of Niagara Falls, NY, experienced higher-than-normal rates of miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, and other illnesses. Families suffered in silence, their struggles known only to their physicians and to close family or friends. When one family mom told a town meeting of her concerns about the environment near her home, other families chimed in with similar stories of illnesses. As they shared, they realized they were not alone, & that the high incidence in their neighborhood of sickness could not be a coincidence, but must point to a larger problem. The neighborhood came to be known to the nation as Love Canal and before they were finished, a committed group of housewives gained national attention for their concerns and forced into being some of the most important environmental-protection legislation of the 20th Century. And it only happened once neighbors began to communicate & discover they were not the only ones with a particular set of concerns or experiences. If they had not talked to & heard one another, they might have simply continued to suffer in silence. In today's “town square,” the Internet, citizens can share, ideas, voice concerns, better understand one another, & ultimately organize for action outside of the town square.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

In 2050, we'd see dramatically increased voter turnout and increased overall participation in the electoral and civic process. Citizens would share their ideas and needs and find out what ideas and needs their neighbors have. City officials and civil servants would be eager to take advantage of knowing the public's concerns and would create a more responsive and relevant government, from essential services to regulations and revenue.

At the same time, city residents would have a strong sense of ownership over municipal government and policies. There would be an enhanced level of participation in civic life including volunteering to serve the community. Owing to this increased ability to be heard, participate meaningfully, and have a role and impact on the city, families would deepen their roots in the community which would yield cultural, economic, public-safety, and environmental benefits.