Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission. Because victory for Louisiana requires you.
I'm your host Lynda Woolard. We hope you enjoyed season three of Louisiana Lefty. We're on summer break for the next three episodes, but we'll still be turning out mini-pods in the meantime. This week, I've asked Professor Handwerk to return to the podcast to talk about the difference between civic engagement and electoral engagement. We focus heavily on the role of voter registration in elections, on who should do it, and when. And since we like to have an action element to our mini-pods, with the midterm elections coming up this fall, I'm going to recommend everyone go now to iwillvote.com and check to make sure your own registration is active and up to date. If you need to make any changes to your registration, take advantage of this time and do it now. You can also post the iwillvote.com link across your social media accounts and suggest to your friends and followers, regardless of which state they're in, that they check their registration status, too.
Stephen Handwerk! Thank you for joining me on Louisiana Lefty.
It is always a pleasure, Lynda.
Well, I appreciate you joining me once again as Professor Handwerk.
I so enjoy that title.
We have you on occasionally, because you have a lot of really good information about Democratic infrastructure and general activism. We're here to talk today about the difference between civic engagement and electoral engagement or issue advocacy in just a real top line overview of those things. I'll just start by saying that we're not doing a full podcast with you, because we've already done the full podcast with you. So people can go back and check out the original Professor Handwerk podcast, I believe that was on party endorsements, if I'm remembering correctly, was the initial one. So we've already got your bio, and your political origin story and your favorite superhero. All of that is already on the record for you.
But I wanted to talk today because ultimately I felt a little bit like a jerk because someone was talking about doing voter registration as a way to help push back against some of the stuff that's happening right now with the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and the gun safety stuff. We've heard a lot about that. And sometimes I am a wet blanket about voter registration but it's at very specific times in the election cycle. Because if you were to just ask me, "When should you be doing voter registration?" My answer would be, "Always." But the next part of my answer would be, "It depends." Because it ultimately depends on A) what your goal is, and B) what your capacity is.
Yeah, look, I think that this is a really important question. And I also am a frequent, as you've probably heard me, say, more than a few times in our almost decade of working together, you know, it's the right tool for the right job, as well. And so you have to realize the implications of who is doing the voter registration. So I think timing is incredibly important. You know, I really have never been a fan, and I don't think either you are either, of spending all of those time and resources to do voter registration in like the three months leading up to an election. That's GOTV (Get Out The Vote) time, that is getting people out and we - certainly in Louisiana, especially, but many other states are the exact same way - we have a situation where if all voters turned out and voted, this world that we will live in would be a much better place
To your point Stephen, in Louisiana, we actually have a very high rate of people who are registered, it's in the high 80% range. I don't have that exact data, but the Secretary of State hadn't updated that in a couple of years. So I don't know what we're at right now. But I would imagine it would be very similar and not have changed radically in the last couple of years. Now, that doesn't mean that we should not always be trying to register to get to 100%. That does not mean that the people who are registered are the voters, we necessarily want to make sure are voting. But also, the bigger issue is that we have an awful lot of people who are registered to vote who do not vote.
And that is a far bigger issue for us. So the Get Out The Vote piece you mentioned is a really big deal.
Yeah, I think so. The one really good thing is we do have such high registration numbers. How we find that percentage, obviously, is you take census data, and you overlay the voter registration data, and that Venn diagram shows you who are in both. You also can figure out who those buckets are. But oftentimes with voter registration, I frequently am talking about all of our allies that work in the nonprofit world that do such a better job of voter registration, and don't have to go through the extra hoops because, apparently, to the larger topic here, civic engagement versus political engagement, we have a situation where they've over politicized voter registration to a place where it doesn't have to be. Louisiana does enjoy a motor voter program. So that means when you get your driver's license, or when you get a state ID, you can automatically become a voter. And that is something that certainly has helped our numbers. It's not solving our all of our problems, but it certainly goes a long way.
Well, the other thing is, in Louisiana, voter registration, anybody can do it. You don't have to be deputized or trained. It does help to have at least some minor training so that you know you're doing it correctly so that those voters you're registering actually do get registered, and not thrown off the rolls. So that's kind of important. But it matters, too, who you're trying to register how you go about doing it. So we've seen kids at universities registering their fellow students who like to do it with a tablet or a laptop, because they don't want to sit there and fill out those forms. That feels very antiquated to them. So having like a Turbovote, or something that can help you register to vote online is really significant. And I'll just say from having done voter registrations for so many years, that high schools and universities can be where it's at, to get those big numbers of registrations really quickly. If you can get a social studies teacher to let you go into their classroom, or come for lunch period and register kids as they're going to the cafeteria at a high school, you can get 100 new voters like nothing. Whereas if you're trying to go out to a festival or something like that, where there may be a lot of people and a lot of adults, the reality is, most of those people are going to already be registered or they don't want to take their time to register at a festival. So it's just a harder slog. You may go there and spend three or four hours and get 12 registrations.
If that! I would see that as a hugely successful event. Because you know, we've been there. The reason why I say some of these nonprofits are really doing amazing work and that we should be supporting them is because they also have invested in some technology. So they're taking that census data, and then they're combining it with a voter registration data, and they're saying, "Okay, tell me all of the doors in this neighborhood that have someone that lives behind the door, but is not registered to vote." It's so much easier to find them. So instead of looking for a needle in a haystack at a festival, you're actually going to where the voter is. You're hopefully meeting them where they are, and you're able to engage with them then and get them involved in the political process. And so that to me, you know, getting them involved civically is such a great idea and such a better use of time.
Well, and look, I actually am one of those people who does believe it is worth the effort to register every voter. In no way am I downplaying the importance of that civic responsibility of making sure everyone can vote. It's just a matter of what your goals are. So if your goals are to try to get enough Democrats out to elect a statewide candidate, you're not going to hit the numbers of registrations you need doing it in a piecemeal way with volunteers. I, frankly, am of a mind that you need a paid program at that point, if that's really your goal.
That's absolutely right. And also too I think that it's important, like you said, I mean, I want to do it dig into that just a little bit. And that's the question of what are you trying to accomplish? If you're trying to accomplish a change in leadership in your city, that's one thing. If you and on the other hand, are just wanting to get more people civically involved, well, that's another thing. All of the seasons, you know, have their time. And the one thing that I'm thinking is, if you're running for office, or if you are trying to get a candidate elected, spending your time on getting people registered, is probably not going to be the most useful time for you to spend, solely because the amount of effort that it takes to take that person from a non registered voter to a registered voter who actually votes, that's a lot of work to get there.
Right, because we see voting behavior being people don't do it regularly, unless they've done it three times in a row. So if you've registered someone, you need to be thinking in terms of, I'm going to call that person when it's time to vote and remind them it's time to vote for the next three election cycles, at least. And that's something we did when I was actively involved with registering voters, which I will say, I have not done since the pandemic hit. That's been a big deterrent for a lot of the registration groups, for a lot of reasons. But we would actually keep the names and numbers of folks we registered, and call them and let them know, "Hey, it's time to go vote," not necessarily "Go vote for a candidate," just "It's time to go vote."
Right. Yeah. And that's, again, why I sing the praises so much of a lot of these nonprofits because they've adopted those sort of best practices. In order to be able to do that they kind of put them inside their network, and they invite them to community meetings that they may be having, they invite them to learn about the candidates, they can point them to those resources, they can involve them in a relationship. So then when they get that text message to say, "Hey, an elections coming up," they're expecting it.
Now, I do want to say, one caveat here, because when we elected Barack Obama president, part of the reason he did get elected was he sent people out registering voters in places like North Carolina, that he ended up winning by fewer votes than the number of people he registered. So that's significant. But it's also significant that they started that effort two years out.
That's exactly right. You know, and that's the point that can't be lost on all of this. There have been little marked increases and some bettering of the process before it became even more hyper partisanized during the Trump years. So I will say that things have changed a bit since that time, but the lesson that should not be lost is that that work began so early in order to begin to do that movement.
That's right. And even with voter registration being such a significant part of that campaign, the closer we got to election day, the more we pivoted away from it. So there came a moment, certainly by the time we were at Get Out The Vote - I mean, it was too late to register voters to vote in the election at that point anyway - but we were not focusing on that at all at some point. We were focusing heavily on it initially. And the nice thing about Louisiana is that there is no law - or there wasn't at the time and so I would like to check this before I say it unequivocally at the moment - but at the time, we could actually wear our Barack Obama t-shirts at events or going door to door and registering voters so people could know who we were there to represent.
Yeah. And I don't believe that there's been any change to the laws on that. For example, if you are out canvassing for a candidate, one of the things you should always have with you, even if you're doing it all electronically - which I'm a big fan of, no more old sheets that you sweat on and can't read what your responses are, do it digitally if you can - but the one thing that you have to carry with you, I would hope, is a voter registration form to be able to do that at the door if you find individuals like that. But at the end of the day, I don't believe that there's any prohibitions on doing that. Now, if you are a partisan person, and then you show up as a partisan person with a stack of registrations to your local clerk, I think that could be problematic. If I'm not mistaken with some tweaks that they've made to the law.
You're saying you can't go into the clerk with your Barack Obama t-shirt on?
I would not recommend it.
You can register voters with it on but when you have your stack to go into the clerk of court, you want to go in as a regular person?
I would highly recommend that. Yes.
That makes sense. Because we never left the forms with the person registering, because then we knew they would never get back to the registrar of voters. Now what I will say is, you are not allowed to tell them, when they're filling out that form or when you're filling it out for them, you are not allowed to recommend to them which party they should register for. That is something that you have to refrain from doing. I often had people ask me what the different parties were because they didn't always know, and my way around that usually was just trying to name some politicians and saying. "Barack Obama is a Democrat... John McCain is a Republican... George W. Bush is a Republican." That was a way for me to explain to them if they identified with someone, that would help them know.
I will add, if you will, though, the one reason why I don't put a lot of this pressure on state parties to be the sole responsible party in registering voters is solely because - if you go into election code, and in the FEC, and I know that this is deep into the weeds, but it's a very important - we need to understand any voter registration work that you do as a state party is actually considered FEA (Federal Election Activity), which means that you have to pay for any of those resources with your federal dollars. The reason why that's so important is because those federal dollars are harder to come by, we call them hard dollars for a reason, because they're harder to raise. And because of that sort of a situation is those dollars then that you're using, to our earlier point about the right tool for the right job, those dollars are dollars that could actually be going to support your individual candidate, they could be doing work that actually goes to getting out the vote, which again, for a state party seems to be a lot more important work for them to be doing. Those soft side partners, those nonprofit organizations that can go out there, get into the community, they have better resources to be able to go out and and register those voters. So that's why it's oftentimes where I will quickly push this off and say we should be talking to our nonprofit allies in this, because it's so incredibly important to reserve those federal dollars for the actual work that we have to do as a party.
It's a really good point, Stephen. Because if all you're doing is voter registration and community advocacy, that can be nonprofit money that you're bringing in, and that's tax deductible for the donor. Whereas your party work is never tax deductible.
Correct. That is so incredibly true. And so that's why it takes a bit of sophistication to do this. It's not just as easy as saying, "Well, they should be doing that." It takes a community, it takes a village, as we've heard, and it truly does in this situation, and that's why it's important in non-election times. So this is what I'm talking about: mark on your calendars in January that you should be doing outreach to your different 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations to be able to have those conversations with them to find out how are they engaging with voter registration. Is there a way that you can help them? Is there a way that you can steer some of your volunteers that are political in nature, but would like to volunteer to do some of this work in that off time? But I mean, we're getting to game time right now where it's incredibly important to be looking at the control the Senate and control of the House and making sure that we're investing our time and effort in winnable races that we could be putting our time towards.
That's right. And, look, I don't want to say that the party should never do voter registration. Because as you were saying about candidates, you should always have those forms with us, you should always be ready to register someone when that opportunity arises. Additionally, it's a great visibility thing to do for the party. So if you want the party to have a table at an event, so that the party has representation, and people see that you're actually doing things in the community, that's a good thing to do. Well, so we've got civic engagement, which is a noble thing to do, but doesn't necessarily win you elections. So that's something to bear in mind. Civic engagement and movement building, which can go hand in hand, movement building is sort of an in between space, like there's an in between space between civic engagement and electoral engagement. And then there's issue advocacy, which folds into all of those things. At the end of the day, it's important to define what those are, define what your goal is, and define what your capacity is. Because if you've got two people doing the work, you're going to have a limited capacity to register enough voters to swing an election.
I couldn't sum it up any better than that.
But if you have two people doing the work for issue advocacy, you actually might be able to do quite a lot.
Yeah, that's just it. And you can move mountains that way. I mean, think about, you know, trying to approve a renewal of a millage for your libraries. That is definitely something that two people could move a mountain on and persuade enough voters and educated enough voters that their vote is incredibly important. So yeah, you know, it is the right tool for the right job here. And that is something that you can see that, you know, huge, huge turnaround, in being able to improve the living conditions in your area of wherever you're at and for the things that you care the most about.
So we do try to talk on the podcast about how to plug into various things like this. So I don't have a debrief of everyone we've ever interviewed, to be able to say, here's where to plug in. But that's what this podcast actually exists to do, to give people a range of options of how to plug in to different issues, here's how to plug into different things you want to do. Certainly, if folks are interested in something we haven't talked about yet, I'm certainly open to that feedback, of having people say, "Hey, I'm really interested in this, and I haven't heard you talk about it yet."
That is super exciting, Lynda, and that's why I so love this podcast and the work that you're doing. It's because it's so incredibly important. You know, I've said this frequently, it's sometimes very difficult to watch the national news and see the things that are happening nationally. But it's so incredibly important for you to *do something* - it's no longer acceptable to just like something on a social media post or to retweet. It's no longer enough. We need more. Do something, and do what you're comfortable with. Okay? And that's why you provide all of these amazing on ramps, so I highly encourage folks to listen and find out where their on ramp is. What works for me and what I'm comfortable with may be completely different than someone else. But the great thing is, we've got a whole lot of opportunities here on Louisiana Lefty, that will show you a whole bunch of different on ramps that you can jump on board, and actually learn from folks who've been doing it for a while. And you've really done a good job of creating a community, like you said, anyone that has questions, they can engage with the folks that are actually talking to you right now through this podcast. So it's a great way of being able to level up. And I think that that's what we should all be aspiring to do.
I appreciate your saying that Stephen. The other thing is there are folks who already have found their on ramp to their political advocacy or their community engagement. But I want to make sure that they have the opportunity to network with folks across the state who may be doing something they're interested in or that their organization might want to also plug into. I just want to make sure they have ways to connect to each other. So that's the other piece that we're trying to do, not to say that people aren't already doing work, because I know a lot of folks who listen to the podcast are already doing their thing.
But thank you so much, Stephen, for helping me sort through some of this stuff. And I know we'll have you back because I've got many more topics that I want to talk about. Really appreciate you always.
Always a pleasure. So much fun to be with you and I'm always happy to be a guest.
Thank you for listening to Louisiana Lefty. Please follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thank you to Ben Collinsworth for producing Louisiana Lefty, Jen Pack of Black Cat Studios for our Super Lefty artwork, and Thousand $ Car for allowing us to use their swamp pop classic "Security Guard" as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.