How Can We Make Local Elections Matter to ALL People in Saint Paul?

My Platform in one sentence: I want to solve systemic failures in our local election/politics with a transformative/feasible solution that connect inter-generations with a message that resonates and activates the vast majority of people. 

The primary reason that I’m running for city council in Ward 1, is that I’m tired of politicians using poverty as an excuse to not engage disenfranchised communities. In 2015, only 13% of registered voters voted in Ward 1. In part of the Saint Paul Data Initiative,  I did a thorough analysis breaking down the Minnesota voting records from the past city council elections highlighting the voting inequities/discrepancies respect to age/poverty, and how the actions of our leaders reinforce the status quo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my campaign, for the last three weeks prior to election day, I made a pledge to myself to spend everyday door-knocking in Ward 1, this involves reaching out to disenfranchised communities whom had been ignored for decades. Though it may not equate to much votes directly, I hope you spread my message to others that can vote. Let’s address each of the inequities, and I provide the solutions via campaign platform. 

Inequity #1 Age 

The following chart above shows the age distribution of voters in Saint Paul, and notice the discrepancy between the mayor and national races. Older people vote in greater volume and proportion in the city council election. In addition, if we look at the voting rate for young people from age 18-20, the numbers for Ward 1 was around 1% of registered voters.

So what explains the discrepancy between local and national elections? Does local elections matter less than state/national elections? I would claim that it is self-evident that local elections matter more than the state/national elections because it impact people’s daily lives, but it may not be necessarily perceived this way by the general public for several factors.   

From my own experience, and talking to residents across the age spectrum  there seems to be two factors: technology/information gap, and to a lesser extent, maturity/experience gap. In regards to maturity, there is a clear connection that homeowners/landlords have greater awareness of city policies than compared to younger renters because they have greater responsibility in navigating those systems, and paying various taxes and fees. For example, we are oblivious and take for granted on all the activities/services our parents provide us, until we have to do it on our own. This maturity can take longer for some than others, but usually sped up when living on their own. Student housing has insulated many students from interacting with locales from different lived experiences. They are effectively living within a bubble. Though it could be argued that the vast majority of people preside in a bubble of some sort. I digress.

I think the most pronounced effect is the technology/information gap. Different generations of people get information through different mediums.  A marketing analysis from Nielsen, have shown that older people get their information from printed newspapers, TV, and radio whereas younger generations are getting information from social media, internet, and other streaming services. For younger people, social media content is easier to access, and there is bias toward state/national news/ entertainment because it is more relevant to a bigger audience, and there are underlying algorithms promoting it.

For example, I do not personally watch/own any local TV/entertainment. Though I get my information on local issues through different activist friends and Facebook pages. The participants on these forums are not young people. When I talked to college-age students, the vast majority were completely clueless on what is happening at the local level and/or how it can impact them, even though organized trash was going to impact them directly (i.e. maybe a maturity gap for not paying?). I don’t blame these students as I was oblivious as well during their age. What we do know is that young people are politically active given their participation of numerous movements. So it’s not apathy, its exposure.

We can place the fault on our education system (definitely civics!), adults, and politicians, though I think the greatest causal impact is making it easier to engage civically. One of my campaign lines is, “why are we using technology of 200 years ago, when we live in the modern digital age?”. The simple answer to this is that it keeps the current power intact. In fact, many young people are depressed and feel powerless, as a result of their inability to influence state/national/global politics. By obtaining local victories, they can shape the world around them, and create a collective force to transform our community. 

Inequity #2 Poverty 

Both voter registration AND voter turnout is low in disenfranchised communities, but why what are some possible explanations?  The first communities that I doorknocked were in the isolated and disenfranchised communities within Ward 1 including Rice Street, Frogtown, and North End. I was mostly listening because people the people had a lot to say (in comparison to wealthier counterparts). There was common themes that came up: community safety, belonging, isolation, and pride. Each community/block area can have unique situations/partnerships then the block near them. Even though I will be sharing the negative themes on the report, it is important to take a moment to dispel the myth that people in poverty are by default, lazy. Some of these people are working hard everyday, and want to be a good role model to their kids and community around them. In third-world countries, the poor people are not able to adequately rely on local governance for support, so residents have developed their own communal support system, which are relationship based.

For lower voter registration, there are many direct, and indirect factors why residents don’t vote. For direct factors, 1) there are greater concentration of felons that cannot vote. Some are unfamiliar with opportunity to expungment. 2) there are greater concentrations of immigrant whom do not have citizenship and/or face language barriers to be effectively engaged in the process. 3) there is a higher concentration of renters and/or other temporary housing arrangements. There is less affinity to register if just moved in, and/or will be temporarily staying or moving out of the apartment. The indirect factors is that there is cultural expectations of civic engagement associated with social class.

For low voter turnout, which are people that are registered to vote, but choose not to vote in local elections. I’m able to synthesize their responses into two categories: lack of government responsiveness and overall alienation/isolation in their community. Long-time active residents have endured being ignored by city government, and the change in leadership both at city council and mayoral election has not amounted to any change, as the everyday violence has continued to rise in these communities. Several residents have explicitly stated their frustration on why they do not vote. In response to community safety, residents are frustrated that local government is speaking on their behalf, and ignoring their voices. In some cases, when residents expressed their complaint to the district planning councils, they are personally attacked and called racist for expressing their concern.

There are several structural factors that exacerbate isolation in disenfranchised communities: 1) These communities are often diverse with different cultures and ethnicities, which creates language and cultural barriers that make it harder for residents to connect; 2) Their community is NOT SAFE; if residents and their kids are inside and/or don’t get to play outside, they lose meaningful opportunities to build friendships outside their culture. With the introduction of charter schools catered to specific ethnic minorities, the division between neighbors may expand; 3) Lack of authentic outreach of neighborhood organizations and doorknocking in these communities to understand their needs; 4) Finally, we are in the digital age, so we can meet our emotional and friendship needs through digital forums, and/or media; leading to loneliness as the essential basic need for connection are met.. I contend, we cannot build community pride if we do not build relationships within our community.

In summary, residents in disenfranchised communities have been systematically ignored by the government, which lead to disillusionment toward elections, and these communities face isolation due to many structural barriers. The most noteworthy is community safety because it prevents the opportunity for residents and kids to interact with each other and support local businesses in their area.

Case in Point: The Trash Referendum


I have been an advocate for the ‘Vote No’ campaign since after reading Judge Castro’s legal memorandum. I’m aware of the initial supporters of the lawsuit/referendum and the citizens supporting it. They are predominantly white and older residents. Since the referendum has expanded on the ballot, the scope and race of supporters has expanded; though not necessarily younger votes. While I was doorknocking, I’ve noticed it was older people that had much stronger opinion on the issue and, I predict, the reason behind this is that the maturity/experience gap is much greater for older folks as they have repeated interactions with trash service, and follow the locals news more deeply. On the other hand, I suspect the turnout for the Vote Yes campaign will be disproportionately younger people because younger people are less involved in local politics and the message is communicated and delivered in the medium that they commonly use such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. (i.e. the information gap). An effective tool to get young people within progressive circles to get out to vote is outrage toward an injustice; there are many organizer books that will state this. I’ve noticed that some current political campaigns manufacture outrage to get people out to vote. This may produce immediate results in increasing the vote; this is deceptive and in the long-run it can lead to disillusionment because nothing has truly changed. Many of the admins in the neighborhood groups in social media place a rigid lockdown on discussion on the trash topic; preventing a generational exchange on what the trash referendum is truly about… You can view my position here

Solution:

To effectively solve the inequities presented above: we need to create a platform that addresses in the information gap across generations, and create strong enough message to get people actively engaged.

My assessment of the current issues is that we using centuries-old technology for civic engagement even thoguh everyone especially young people are using digital tools. Let’s design an app/ digital service separate from existing social media services that facilitates civic engagement and community engagement for all ages, INCLUDING youth. Being a local frog superhero,  I can connect with children on the importance of local community. Often young people look up to superheroes on tv,  and the movies, though it will be important for them to see what a local superhero can do. In addition, it will be a positive role model as I am spreading love, and joy, while deemed as an important person.  

From talking to residents, we need to simplify the role of government that every single person can understand AND would want to participate.  How can we improve the quality of life for ALL residents? Here are three qualities that resonates with people more readily:

  • Community Safety: Create a safe environment with residents taking an active role… so adults and children can play outside
  • Belonging: Residents foster friendships with each other… so they feel loved and have community pride
  • Civic Engagement:  Simplify access and remove barriers… so peoples’ voices can be heard.

For accountability, I’ll be advocating that the district planning councils actively engage the community as they receive $1.4 million of taxpayers money for the Community Engagement Fund. There are some other creative options to reform the district planning council. You can read them here

Final Remark:

I want give power to the powerless. This can be only achieved by building the infrastructure for community members to engage, and  support each other. Ultimately, it is the individuals members of the community that hold the power to make collective action, not the politician nor the special interest groups.

Campaign Lit (Summary):

 

 

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