If the leaders Gamaliel affiliate Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE²) have their way, Kansas City, Kansas, will become a model for voter engagement all over the country.
Demographically, it’s a unique place. Kansas City is situated in Wyandotte County, which has no racial or ethnic majority. Although its population is approximately 30 percent Black, 30 percent Latinx, and 30 percent White, the majority of elected officials are White, and people of color in the county are less likely to vote than their White neighbors.
According to MORE² Executive Director Lora McDonald and Kansas Organizer Marcus Winn, these patterns make Kansas City and Wyandotte County an ideal case study for the future of progressive organizing in other American communities whose demographics are rapidly shifting.
“Because there’s no racial majority, it’s a really interesting place to experiment with around voting,” McDonald said. “If we can get voter engagement right in Wyandotte County, we can really blaze a new trail in the nation.”
McDonald said that a primary focus of MORE²’s Integrated Voter Engagement (IVE) efforts in the Kansas City area was changing the narrative around voting in communities of color, with particular emphasis on the importance of voting even when a constituent’s preferred candidate is unlikely to win.
“Voting is claiming power, and forcing the people who do win to pay more attention to the other side because now they’re a visible part of the electorate,” McDonald said. “The only way to change it is for lots and lots and lots of people to vote.”
But efforts to disseminate this message for the 2020 election were nearly hamstrung by the pandemic before they began. When COVID-19 cases spiked in March, MORE² was about to begin a door-knocking campaign to promote the census in historically hard-to-count neighborhoods. With door-knocking out of the question, a partnership with the Wyandotte County Board of Health presented an opportunity to try out new methods of virtual phone banking that provided both census information and wellness checks and referrals for COVID-19 services.
Winn said these efforts resulted in approximately 9,000 call attempts, 70 referrals to non-emergency case workers, and 600 household commitments to complete the census. Although this effort was not directly related to voting, it allowed MORE² to refine its approach to remote community engagement ahead of the election season.
MORE² leader Erin Sawyer’s experience in IVE work reflected many of the efforts undertaken in the Kansas City area. Sawyer, who has been involved with MORE² since she was a high school student in 2013, was in charge of organizing the Missionary Baptist Churches throughout Kansas and worked primarily with the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Kansas (MBSCK) and its youth department.
“Voting has always been a real passion of mine,” Sawyer said. “When the opportunity arose [to get involved with IVE], I thought I could combine two of my favorite things, working with MORE² and working with my church.”
Sawyer found that getting people excited to vote was often a matter of ensuring they had the information they needed to vote with confidence, but that information could be difficult to distribute remotely. Although she had hoped to reach more people, Sawyer was impressed with the high-quality interactions that took place through social media campaigns that offered information about voting, recorded messages for congregational use, and high-impact phone banking.
“The most exciting part was getting other people excited and seeing people step out of their comfort zone,” Sawyer said. “One of the deacons from my home church was phone banking…he was a little bit nervous at the beginning, but as he got started, he was so excited about phone banking. And now he wants to do other phone banking things because he just really enjoys it. He was able to help so many people.”
As with MORE²’s other IVE work in Kansas, Sawyer said her ability to tailor outreach to the demographics of each congregation and district is what ultimately helped her get people onboard. With the 2020 election behind her, Sawyer said she is working to maintain her relationships with congregations around the state, get them to join MORE², and find ways to build even more power ahead of the next election cycle.
“I’m a big believer that people make time for things that are important to them,” Sawyer said of the pastors and districts she worked with. “So I’m making sure that this is important to them so that they give us the time.”