The results of the 2020 election defied the predictions of many professional pundits. Though the margin of victory was too close for comfort amidst the highest voter turnout in over 120 years, very few predicted that the Democrats would flip Georgia blue — claiming victory not only in the presidential race but also both Senate races. The Democratic Party reaped the rewards of long-term organizing by groups like the New Georgia Project, Fair Fight Action, and Black Voters Matter.

The way these movement organizations work — organizing 365 days a year with staff and volunteers rooted in their communities to build relationships that last beyond one election cycle — contrasts starkly with Democratic Party-driven efforts to organize voters. Party-led campaigns often rely on staff imported from out of state whose work ends once the ballots have been counted. 

But should deep canvassing work be left exclusively to organizers outside the Democrat Party? While independent organizations are critical to increasing turnout for elections and organizing communities for the long haul, some of that organizing power duplicates the efforts of Party-led campaigns. Meanwhile, local Democratic Party organs are often under-resourced and lack professional staffers with experience in labor, movement, or electoral work to direct armies of eager volunteers rooted in their communities. Nearly two decades ago, Democratic National Commmittee Chairman Howard Dean put in place a fifty-state strategy that revitalized the Party; in 2016, candidate for chairman Keith Ellison one-upped Dean in pushing for a 3,143 county strategy. 

To build that kind of local power, the Democratic Party must abandon the transactional model of organizing and create relationships that last beyond one campaign. That work should start at the township and ward level. Township or ward-level Democratic Parties are the ideal vehicles for deep canvassing and hyper-local organizing. They are often the most direct connection between constituents and the Party apparatus and thus already serve as centers of organizing in many communities. How effective would local Democratic organizations be if activists across the country took them over, turning them into tech and media-savvy micro-machines that contributed to the betterment of the community through direct action and mutual aid? 

If you’ve ever served as an electoral organizer, then you are familiar with the local Democratic Party apparatus as it currently exists. Inside a rented meeting hall, around a potpourri of homemade baked goods and store-brand sodas, partisans mix and mingle. Within these smaller structures, constituents not only have a chance to be heard but to call the shots, making crucial decisions over resource allocation and project management. Much of the money to fund the township or ward organizations comes from the bottom up: backyard fundraising parties, rummage sales, and hat passing. This makes township or ward-level Democratic organizations inherently more democratic than the county or state-level parties that work with them.

The township and ward systems also serve as the point-of-command for small armies of precinct captains. Facilitating voter registration and GOTV is just a part of this elected position: getting to know the neighbors and addressing their concerns is the other half. A typical precinct captain’s walksheet could contain as many as six hundred doors in a suburban district; that’s six hundred relationships that can be built on a deeper, interpersonal level. There is considerably wide latitude for how a precinct captain may address a voter’s concerns, so long as doing so does not come with the expectation of a vote attached. Their official obligations should include distributing PPE and COVID-related resources or other forms of direct assistance. Yet because of the cycle-centric outlooks of many of the people who control these structures, the precinct captains often only come around before an election is imminent, duplicating the efforts of campaigns and movement organizations. That must change so that the township and ward organizations make off-cycle work a priority. If they do, then the face of the Democratic Party will not be Chuck and Nancy but local organizers who come around just to see if their neighbors need a little help.

These neighborhood centers of party activity can also serve as launching points for progressive political careers. Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval was elected ward leader before he challenged the incumbent state Senator earlier this year and won. In Illinois, Aaron M. Ortiz, a former college counselor, used his regular attendance and popularity in the 14th Ward Democratic Organization to topple one half of Chicago’s storied Burke dynasty in a race for state Representative. His margin of victory was only 662 votes, overcoming a three-to-one money advantage by spending “six to eight hours every day hitting the streets and knocking 5,000 doors.” He later defeated the other Burke in a race for ward committeeman, which controls election operations and nominates replacements for certain political offices. 

A nationally-coordinated network of strong township Democratic organizations would certainly be a better vehicle to invest in than the doomed candidacies of astroturfed cause celebrés. The Democratic Party managed to raise $200 million combined for the races of Amy McGrath and Jaime Harrison. That money could have gone towards building up local organizations that already do the hard work of recruiting and supporting candidates. To better serve Democratic partisans at the local level, let’s make sure that the locus of partisan activity is community-oriented and hypermodern.

Unlike Super PACs, township and ward-level Democratic organizations are allowed by law to share their resources with campaign committees, materially and otherwise. This ability to collaborate on how to tackle the turf is what separates township Democrats from an organization like Indivisible and the candidates it (independently) supports. 

Typically, after the end of a campaign, the Democratic Party closes campaign offices and lays off staffers. Staffers then collect unemployment while waiting for another campaign job; their former bases of operations are converted into law offices and nail salons. When these “operatives” are imported into brand new campaigns in brand new states with brand new rolodexes of relationships to leverage, their relationship to the community is inauthentic and transient. Campaign hands lack skin in the game and working with the state party or the DCCC/DSCC becomes fraught with tension as professionals compete in a battle of who knows what the territory needs best.

Why not reorient the way the Democratic Party does politics so that campaign operatives’ ultimate loyalties are not to the candidates but rather to the communities they serve? Establishing permanent homes for organizers within the several thousand active township and ward Democratic organizations would offer stability and security for organizers and improved relationship-building and community ties for the Party. 

That is a hard sell to folks who don’t believe that power comes out of a plate of warm cookies being passed around a living room as a group of neighbors discuss the issues. Inside the warnings of people like John Kasich and Rahm Emanuel that the far-left almost cost them the election is the threat that if we embrace a community-oriented mode of organization, we will lose. Their warnings are based on the belief that most Americans want nothing to do with their neighbors, that there is no social ethic, that the only space for the ordinary citizen to engage in public political life is behind the curtains of a ballot box. The people in power want to build campaigns, not movements, and in order for them to start seeing things the other way, we have to continue to establish the connection between strong movements and strong candidates. We have to win on our terms, and keep winning, to prove to those who only understand the language of victory or defeat that building long-term solidarity is in the best interests of the candidates who run, the people who staff them, and the people who vote for them. Remaking party machines in the mold of community organizations and labor unions should be a party-wide directive.

When we abandon person-to-person relationship building and rely heavily on tactics that feel intrusive and bothersome to the very people we are trying to empower, then we are organizing poorly, and we reap what we sow. There is an old saying in politics: “Volunteers come for the person, but they stay for the people.” If we are to build strong communities through electoral organizing, then we have to start viewing electoralism through the same interpretive lens as movement work and utilize permanent structures for permanent revolution. The simple suggestion that activists focus their efforts on revamping their local Democratic Party organizations will take patience, time, and a lot of hard work, but if we don’t try, then the centralized, top-down, money-vampire model will prevail, and we will all suffer because of it. Above all else, we have to let our communities know we are here for them, even when there’s nothing left for us to ask for.

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