photo: Theresa Thompson
by Andres Reyes
With National Voter Registration Day, Sept. 23, quickly approaching, community organizers in Merced are working hard to register as many citizens as possible — enticing potential voters with history lessons on the importance of voting, showing them how voting can help address issues that they say they care about, and by explaining this year’s ballot measures.
The mostly volunteer-led voter registration drives take on an added importance in Merced County, which ranked last among California counties for registered voter turnout in the last general election of 2012, with only 63 percent of those registered making it out to the polls. In 2013, with only state and municipal matters on the ballot, only slightly more than 11,000 cast ballots, out of the roughly 147,000 that were eligible to vote in the county.
Christy Gallardo works as an organizer for Merced Organizing Project (MOP) and is spearheading the local leg of the “Let My People Vote” campaign, which started registering voters this week. The nation-wide campaign strategy is to focus on ballot measures that are most likely to motivate local voters to get out to the polls.
This year, one of those ballot measures is Proposition 47, which would reclassify some low-level felonies, such as drug-related felonies, as misdemeanors, and potentially even reduce sentences retroactively for people currently serving a sentence. Gallardo said many of the community members she works with have family or friends who would be positively affected by Prop. 47 if it were to pass. Informing potential voters about Prop. 47 will be a key part of the strategy for Gallardo and her team of volunteers when they hit the streets of Merced this October in their effort to turn out the vote.
Still, said Gallardo, increasing voter turnout in Merced is difficult for a myriad of reasons, among them reading materials and instructions that can be difficult for many potential voters to process, which makes her team’s style of high-touch community outreach and education integral.
“Community members have told me that they don’t understand anything on the ballot,” she said. “The wording is confusing… [they] read it and they still can’t understand.”
Daniel Abril, a youth mentor with Mentoring and Odd Jobs Organization (MOJO), is also working to bring Merced voters to the polls this November, and his strategy is focused on raising awareness of the historical importance of voting.
MOJO recently held a public event dubbed “History of Voting” to educate community members about the struggles African Americans and women endured in the U.S. in order to attain their right to vote. The lessons recalled how in the past, some counties practiced voter suppression methods such as literacy tests at polls, to prevent certain Americans from voting.
The goal of the event wasn’t just to impress upon attendees the importance of voting throughout history, said Abril, but also to convey to residents the breadth of ways voting impacts their communities today. “It’s not just about voting for the presidency,” said Abril. “You’re also voting for mayor, city council, (local) laws and policies.”
And the long-term goal of the organizing, added Abril, is less about getting people to perform a one-time act of voting than it is about igniting a lifelong commitment to civic engagement.
Gallardo agreed: “Beyond just getting folks to go out and vote on November 4th we want to really make it part of our culture here in Merced.”