Think Big grew out of a big idea. Progressive advocates, organizers, and funders who came together to talk about communications strategies to challenge austerity thinking in the face of an economic shutdown, voiced the need for a space to collaborate and share high-level strategic thinking and practical applications to counter conservative narratives across geographies and issue areas.
These collaborators realized that so many of our progressive fights run up against the same ingrained ideas in our culture that have power to influence thinking, feelings, behavior…and voting. Think Big is about taking on these broader worldviews and working for wins today while keeping our eye on the long-term win – a vision of transformation, of reimagining a just and equitable America.
Building on the organizing efforts around this year’s high stakes midterms and the fundamental fights over democracy at the US Supreme Court, our October Narrative Learning Community meeting will take a look at how Americans think about their relationship to government, current threats to public control, and the ways a Will of the People framing is being deployed in campaigns to set up these immediate fights for long-term wins that realize an inclusive, equitable, and thriving democracy.
Our conceptual guide star should be an electoral system with the most active, most engaged and most participatory electorate as possible. Setting our sights on that goal, holding voting and elections policies accountable to that goal, and measuring reforms by whether they help or hinder that goal, allows us to move the debate onto our terrain for the long term.
That’s a big idea. And though this model is certainly in advocates’ hearts and minds, conversations around voting rights and elections often get trapped in smaller battles. Communications about voting and elections run up against a number of cognitive models that undermine support for real, lasting reform.
- Voting is typically seen as about individuals; we need to advance a systems lens. Voting is viewed as an individual act, right, and responsibility. It is up to the individual to exercise that right or not. If we don’t shine a light on systemic considerations, people struggle to see how election rules sway participation and outcomes.
- We have to co-opt integrity. We need to redefine voting integrity as being about the number of people who engage, not fears that someone votes who shouldn’t. The vote is more accurate, more representative, when more people vote. We have a better democracy and a better government when more citizens participate.
- Elections need to be about the people, not the parties. For instance, people confuse “the actions of the parties” and “the actions of the party in power.” Since most people don’t understand how the party in power can shape election rules, they assume we are talking about the things political parties do, not the rules that get set.
We can win today while laying a foundation for bigger, bolder change to come. Here are just a few examples of work contributing to this foundation:
In pushing for a broad suite of policy reforms including a state Voting Rights Act, pre-registration for 16 and 17-year olds, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration, WA Voting Justice Coalition shifted the message focus from partisan gamesmanship (a story the public hates) to a competition to be the first state with 100 percent participation and modeled this approach in an interview with Mother Jones magazine:
“’We want to have the highest participation rate of anywhere in the country,’ says Spencer Olson, communications director for the WA Voting Justice Coalition, a network of groups that lobbied for the bills.”
The national press corps latched on to this concept of rivalry and trailblazing for full participation:.
Imagine that—a series of laws based in the fundamental philosophy that the way to improve our elections is to make it easier for as many people as possible to vote. A revolutionary moment.
In the wake of Virginia’s historic slate of voting rights bills, including a repeal of the state’s voter ID law, automatic voter registration, and no-excuse absentee voting, an editorial by Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director of New Virginia Majority, touched on inclusive themes while making the case for full participation:
This year, the Virginia legislature took giant strides toward fuller participation in governance by eliminating obstacles to voting. More than a dozen bills were passed by the General Assembly that will move Virginia into the forefront of voting rights in the United States. The cumulative effect of these and other laws will make it easier for every eligible Virginian to vote…
People know what they need. We must take the time to listen. The more young people, working-class, multilingual and formerly incarcerated individuals have access to the ballot, the greater our chances of enacting good policies. Our democracy performs best when there’s equal access to the ballot box. Come November, it will be Virginians’ turn to exercise it.
This year, the stakes are undeniably high. State legislative sessions have been witness to an alarming trend of election interference bills that, often justified by baseless claims of voter fraud, allow interference with election operations and directly impact the ways election results are determined. In addition, well-funded, well-organized attacks on the ballot initiative process continue to directly threaten access to this direct democracy tool and include efforts to repeal measures after they’ve already passed. On this Fall’s Supreme Court docket, Moore v. Harper, a case out of North Carolina, could give state legislatures a path for election subversion by creating limits on state courts’ oversight and Merrill v. Milligan, involving a redistricting plan in Alabama, could further gut the already limited power of Section II of the Voting Rights Act and further dilute Black voters’ power.
Let’s build on the ongoing organizing efforts this Fall, and help lay a foundation for bigger, bolder change. Join us on October 27th to hear from advocates working on the front lines of this year’s democracy fights as we talk about the role of narrative and ways that our immediate battles can set us up for our collective long-term wins.