Effective Democrats is a campaign begun by Washington State Democratic Central Committeeman Andrew Villeneuve to develop best practices for Democratic partybuilding.
Any Democratic activist who wishes to help make the party more democratic and effective is welcome to join the campaign, either as a steering committee member or as a supporter. The campaign seeks to improve the Democratic Party at the state, county, and legislative district levels in Washington.
Why work within the system? Why not just start a new party?
For better or worse, American democracy, since the the beginning of the nineteenth century, has been a party system dominated by two major political factions.
In the 1800s they were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans; today, the parties are the Democrats and the Republicans.
Under the prevalent two party system – which isn’t likely to go away if history is any indication – the Democratic Party is the only viable electoral vehicle available to the progressive movement and the netroots community. Why bother with the creation of a new party when there is an existing apparatus ready to be reformed?
Over the last few decades the Democratic Party has struggled to keep pace with the Republicans, repeatedly losing presidential elections and even control of Congress in 1994 – a defeat which would not be reversed for twelve long years.
Elected Democrats at almost every level – federal, state, and local – have all arguably become less effective as well, as a consequence of their willingness to retreat from core progressive values, coupled with unyielding Republican obstructionism.
On the campaign trail, Democrats appear less authentic than Republicans, fail to appreciate the role emotion plays in tapping into the political mind, and mistakenly pretend that voters will be won over if they just understand the facts (namely, that supporting Republicans is not in their self-interest).
Many of these problems will have to be solved through the development of progressive infrastructure, which is needed to supply ideas, tools, microphones, and training to Democrats running for office. But it is imperative that the Democratic Party itself be strengthened too, and made more accountable to its roots.
A political party, in its true form, is not an office of professional fundraisers or a committee of insiders; rather, it is an organization of people from many different backgrounds who care deeply about their country.
Political parties are the lifeblood of democracy, but the Democratic Party cannot be successful if it itself is not democratic.
There is nothing more disillusioning to an activist than to toil away on behalf of a party organization that claims to be bottom up but is really managed from the top down.
Building a better Democratic Party means encouraging participation at the neighborhood level, making politics social again, entrusting new members of the party with responsibilities, and electing party leadership that listens.
Thoughts on helping legislative districts
In Washington State, the most important work happens within the forty nine Democratic legislative district organizations, which field candidates for state Legislature, provide volunteers for the campaigns of federal and statewide candidates, register new voters, mobilize entire neighborhoods to get out the vote at election time, put on the precinct and legislative district caucuses in even-numbered years, and (in most cases) meet monthly to conduct business.
The best LD organizations are characterized by strong human resources. Most LDs don’t have a large treasury or the financial wherewithal to pay for communications such as television advertising and glossy mailers, which are produced by consultants and used by larger campaigns to get out a message. The success of an LD thus depends on its human resources, which can be divided into three important parts:
The chair. The chair is the democratically elected executive of the LD. He or she is normally responsible for conducting meetings, managing the organization, and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard (which isn’t always easy). The chair is a conduit for information, serving as a vital link between the party’s members and the party’s central office. A good chair facilitates lively and productive meetings that ultimately become better and better attended over time. A good chair is also creative, acts on constructive feedback, and responsive when something is going wrong.
An LD without a good chair moves too slowly and has difficulty getting through an agenda at meetings, because there is no one wielding the gavel and ensuring that meetings start on time and end at a reasonable hour.
The executive board. The executive board is the chair’s support group (because one person can’t run an effective organization all by his or her self). It is typically comprised of a secretary, treasurer, vice chairs, representatives to the state committee, and representatives to the county committee. There may be other special positions as well. The executive board is the engine of the organization – it keeps the LD on track and in motion. If the LD chair is comparable to a train conductor, then the executive board is the crew – engineer, brakeperson, and switchperson. They are the face of the LD in their communities, to neighboring LDs, and to the county and state parties.
Vice chairs are often assigned specific jobs, like overseeing events or communications, so that their roles match that of the treasurer, who manages the money, and the secretary, who keeps minutes and records, and often prepares the call, or summons, to Democratic voters for a caucus or special event. When each executive board member is doing his job, the chair becomes truly free to do hers.
Executive boards usually meet monthly in addition to the general or membership meeting to plan ahead and prepare for special events.
The volunteer corps. The third component of a strong LD is the volunteer corps, which include the precinct committee officers, or PCOs. These individuals may not even hold party office, but are just as important to the organization as its leadership. They are the ones who work between the meetings to get things done, whether that’s walking a precinct (a basic PCO responsibility), phonebanking, running errands, preparing mailings, printing literature, or any other critical task.
In a strong LD, the most energetic and committed volunteers are recognized by the chair and given temporary positions of responsibility. They may lead a committee that produces endorsement recommendations, for instance, or provides resources for new members, or puts on training for PCOs, or supplies refreshments at meetings. In that capacity, those volunteers themselves serve as chairs, supervising fellow volunteers who may need guidance and encouragement.
Without a vibrant volunteer corps, an LD organization is just a shell. And without an effective executive board and a chair, an LD is rudderless.
It is much more common, however, for an LD to be a shell than to be a very large group of people bereft of leadership. This is because great leadership creates an environment where people are motivated to be involved.
An LD with each component is naturally well positioned to take advantage of the excitement and interest generated by a presidential election campaign, when a greater percentage of Democratic voters make the leap and express a desire to volunteer.
Retaining Democratic volunteers
Volunteers are critical to LDs, campaigns, and the state party as a whole, but are often taken for granted and don’t receive the support and inspiration they need to sustain their interest. People lead very busy lives, so anyone who has made the decision to volunteer must feel appreciated. Volunteers should always be tasked with meaningful work that suits their talents or skills and frequently reminded that their participation makes an immense difference to the success of the Democratic Party.
Effective Democrats encourages the Democratic Party to adopt the following basic recommendations which are mandatory for ensuring a great volunteer experience:
- Staff the front desk of the office at all times during working hours. Locked doors, intercoms, and empty foyers are impediments to the volunteer, especially first time volunteers. The person staffing the front desk should be able to answer questions, give directions, assuage concerns, and engage visitors. It may be necessary to have two people so that one person can answer the office’s main telephone line and route calls.
- Ask visitors and volunteers to sign in. Unless it is done electronically, new volunteers should be entered into a database so that the party or campaign can easily get in touch with them in the future. This database should be reused year to year so that there is a base of experienced volunteers to draw on.
- Require volunteers to track who they call. A universal data system, shared by the entire Democratic Party and its nominees, is needed to track contacted voters so that people aren’t called twice. Calling the same households repeatedly annoys voters and wastes precious resources. Volunteers lose morale when voter after voter irritably reports that another volunteer has already called them.
- Request feedback. Volunteers should be asked to evaluate their experience and share ideas that could be used to improve operations in the next election cycle.
- Save and record messages submitted by the general public. Email, U.S. mail, and faxes sent to the campaign or party office should never be thrown away. Many of these are inquiries from possible volunteers. Rather, they should be read, organized, and saved. There is no good reason to throw away valuable information. Anything of value should be forwarded on…to the campaign manager, field director, communications director, etc. Since staff time is valuable, a volunteer could be assigned the responsibility of reading, tallying, and sorting messages. People have amazing ideas – we mustn’t let these thoughts be lost.
Volunteers must be assigned to do meaningful work. Not everyone wants to phonebank or lick envelopes. Here are other possibilities:
- Assign teams of volunteers to attend events, fairs, campus activities to register students and the electorate at large.
- Assign volunteers to observe the tabulation of ballots after the close of voting. Match new volunteers with experienced ones.
- Assign volunteers to do data entry, and explain how the data will be used, so volunteers understand why the task is important.
- Assign volunteers to scout locations for yard signs (including bigger signs that can be seen from further away) and deliver yard signs and bumper stickers to supporters. Many people will gladly put up a sign or a bumper sticker but won’t go to the campaign office to get one themselves.
- Assign volunteers to stand outside the office or on a nearby street corner, holding signs and passing out campaign materials.
- Assign volunteers to go into schools, colleges, and universities to talk about the campaign. Many teachers and professors even award credit to students who volunteer to work on a campaign.