On a cloudy Friday afternoon in October 2018, North Memphis residents congregated outside of the Dave Wells Community Center on Chelsea Avenue. Rise Up North Memphis, a local advocacy group dedicated to achieving racial justice in Tennessee, had set up white tents and tables holding hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream. Children played at the nearby jungle-gym, squealing with glee while teens nursed ice cream cones. Some wore red-white-and-blue masks, crowns, or comically large glasses. Parents and other adults hung around and socialized, chatting about what candidates they supported in the upcoming elections. Trap music echoed throughout the area, drawing the attention of passersbys.
“It’s very important that people vote together!” organizers Pamela Moses and Steven Bradley told the crowd. The food and festivities were free: turnout, not money, was Moses and Bradley’s aim. The choice of location was tactical. The Dave Wells Community Center doubles as a polling place in a state with early voting. The fence lining the parking lot was decorated with yellow, red, and blue posters, each sporting the hashtags #RiseUpMemphis and #VoteTogether—the name of the nationwide initiative that helped Rise Up North Memphis plan its event.
“One of the organizers told me that only 40% of people turn out at this location,” said Robert Wilson Jr., one of the party’s dozens of attendees. “I think it’s a great idea to get people excited for voting, because a lot of the time when elections come around, people aren’t.”
In 2016, Civic Nation, a DC-based nonprofit, launched #VoteTogether to increase voter turnout by hosting festivals outside of polling places across the country. The project supports events organized in towns and cities by local groups such as Rise Up North Memphis. The parties are designed to be “events that are reflective of the communities that they serve,” as #VoteTogether Director Angie Jean-Marie explained. They tend to be barbecues, picnics, and festivals, but they include everything from a female-centric celebration at a sorority house for biracial women to a drag show at a college in Miami, Florida.
As a project, #VoteTogether aims to help solve one of America’s most talked about political problems: voter apathy. During the 2014 midterm elections, only 37 percent of registered voters cast ballots—the lowest percentage in 70 years. As is typically the case, those who did turn out tended to be whiter, more male, and older than the population at large. As a result, Republicans gained the most seats they have had since World War II.
On Tuesday, many pundits are expecting that a blue wave will wash over the House of Representatives. But even on the election’s eve, there is still some uncertainty. Recently, CBS News modeled a “Higher Turnout Scenario” election, which showed the Democrats winning by 235 seats to Republicans’ 200. Conversely, the network produced a ‘Low Voter Turnout Scenario” showing that Republicans could retain control of the House by just one seat. Voter turnout could make or break the Democrats’ chances.
In the nineteenth century United States, elections were held in a wide variety of public and private spaces. As a result, and unlike today, voting booths were often located in popular places that people frequented on a daily basis. Elections, for example, were sometimes held in saloons, allowing voters to hang around the polls drinking and socializing with other townsfolk, even after they voted. Restrictions on the franchise meant that eligibilty was usually restricted to white men, and rampant ballot stuffing skewed statistics. But even so, the popularity of polling locations helped ensure that turnout was very high. Over 80 percent of voters turned out for many elections.
This statistic inspired political scientists James M. Glaser, Elizabeth M. Addonizio, and Donald Green to explore whether creating a social electoral setting could help improve turnout. In the spring of 2005, the three scholars organized a festival in the small, middle-class New Hampshire town of Hooksett, held near the town’s polling place. A large tent was set up advertising free snacks, drinks, and raffles, while a DJ played family-friendly party music. It was a quick and instant success. “Elderly couples took advantage of the chairs around the tent to sit, listen to music, and eat the free sandwiches we provided,” they wrote. “The free food relieved some harried parents of dinner preparation that evening, and they mingled with their friends and neighbors.” Voter turnout increased by 2 to 3 percent.
Much of this success had to do with community outreach. The researchers met with the town administrator, election officials, and community leaders, and asked them to “publicize our poll party.” The researchers put up posters at local stores and hot spots, advertised the event through local newspapers, and sent two pre-recorded thirty second phone calls to 3,000 households on the Saturday before and the day of the election.
“You have to do outreach in order to publicize these festivals,” Green told me. “This is a combination of having a community event, and then having the outreach that publicizes the event.”
The researchers then took this experiment to inner-city New Haven “in order to see whether an analogous festival could be staged in a neighborhood that has none of Hooksett’s suburban attributes.” They repeated the publicity campaign and festival set-up. It also proved popular. An impromptu dance contest broke out among the kids, and the winner received $14, crowd-funded from the audience. After a dozen subsequent events, the researchers found a 2 to 6 percent increase in voter turnout in places where parties were held.
The findings caught Civic Nation’s attention. In 2016, while conducting research on civic engagement, a director at the organization came across Glaser, Addonizio, and Green’s paper and thought the results were promising enough to build a new initiative. As a result, #VoteTogether was piloted during 2016 election. The organization found that the events increased turnout by roughly 4 percent.
At the time, Angie Jean-Marie was working as the social innovation and marketing manager at the Goldhirsh Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides grants and resources for local projects. “I, separately, was working on an LA-focused initiative called LA2050,” she told me, “and we were all thinking about the question, what inspires people to go out and vote? And we piloted a very similar idea, completely by chance, called Party at the Polls at the same time Civic Nation had launched their initiative.”
#VoteTogether’s national focus attracted Jean-Marie. This past April, she became the initiative’s director. “I got this opportunity to take this work that was being done on the local level and think about what it would look like at scale across the country.”
So, how does #VoteTogether work? Mostly, representatives from churches or community organizations take the first step. Groups that are interested in collaborating with #VoteTogether fill out a registration form on the website. Civic Nation then reaches out with guidance and resources for the prospective event. “We do weekly calls, provide a really comprehensive guide and toolkit for them to use,” Jean-Marie explained. “We’ve been supporting them with some financial resources, as well as party packs to help liven up their events, but the events themselves are organized and hosted by local groups.” She told me that #VoteTogether delegates power to localities. “Communities that have been doing this work for decades know best the area that they want to activate,” Jean-Marie said, “So, we use a national lens, take the best practices and research, and combine that with the local conferences that the organizers have.”
#VoteTogether is a nonpartisan initiative, so they do not target specific areas or demographics. Organizations in states and schools with high minority populations, however, tend to disproportionately gravitate towards this kind of initiative for a simple reason: millennials and minorities don’t typically turn out in droves. As a result, #VoteTogether is partnering with over 150 colleges across the country for the 2018 midterms, many of which are historically black colleges and universities. Battleground states also see a lot of #VoteTogether celebrations. To date, at least 500 events are planned throughout Florida thanks to State Voices and Miami Dade College, an organization that looks to “engage and serve historically underrepresented and marginalized populations—including people of color, low-income individuals, single women, LGBTQ+, and youth.”
Overall, #VoteTogether has increased participation in their respective elections by up to four percent, according to Jean-Marie. Donald Green is working with Civic Nation to monitor the initiative’s success. There will be a lot to observe. According to Jean-Marie, #VoteTogether has partnered during the midterms with 356 local organizations and 45 corporations. It is supporting roughly 1912 events across the country. America has a long way to go before it returns to an era of high turnout. But for progressive activists worried about how low participation by young voters and minorities impacts national policy, #VoteTogether gives reason for hope.