Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes Talks Voter Outreach

Sobering Statistic

Despite major pushes to encourage voter turnout, a statistic that might alarm LGBTQ activists is that 21 percent of LGBTQ adults are not registered to vote. According to an Oct. 2019 survey conducted by the Williams Institute, that's a significantly higher number than the 17 percent of non-LGBTQ adults who are not registered. The same study revealed that 50 percent of LGBTQ voters identify with the Democratic Party, 22 percent identifying as Independents, 15 percent are Republicans and 13 percent identify with another party, did not know or refused to answer.

With those factors in mind, Between the Lines caught up with Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes to learn about the party's voter outreach efforts. Here are some highlights.

Help for Voters

With so many recent improvements to Michigan's voting laws that make it easier than ever to vote, the first thing Barnes wanted to promote was their voter hotline: 833-MI-Votes.

"We usually put up a hotline just before the election and take it down after, but we recognized the new laws and changes in the ways folks can vote [and] we want to give folks access to something early," Barnes said. "So we're excited to have this up and running now, with our volunteers and our voter protection team."

Voters can call 833-MI-Votes to find out where polling place are, how to sign up for the permanent absent voter list, what to do for changes of address or with any other voting-related query.

Organizing Corps

Organizing Corps, a program that trains college students as organizers, is new for this election cycle.

"The DNC [Democratic National Committee] recognized the need for us to have well-trained folks ready to go for the 2020 cycle," Barnes said. "So [they] started this partnership with the state party to recruit college students and train them over the summer, give them a taste of what it's like to be an organizer on the ground and then keep in the loop during this school year."

When the students finish up school this spring, they'll be brought back as organizers for the coordinated campaign through the summer and fall.

"It's a terrific program to get folks active and involved," Barnes said. "We really focus on women and people of color because that's the place we struggle to find folks to take some of these organizing jobs. And so many times these internships aren't paid, which means a lot of folks can't take them because they need to make some money over the summer."

She said they were thrilled the DNC offered to pay for the training and internships.

Among the Organizing Corps 2020 cohort, 61 percent are people of color and 28 percent identify as LGBTQ. Barnes said this is intentional.

"So proud of that," she said. "That was definitely part of our outreach. We recognize our communities don't get the kind of access to this kind of information or these jobs. You and I both know who knows about jobs first and who finds jobs first, so often. So it was important to reach out to these communities and get folks on board who wouldn't ordinarily get touched by the traditional ways folks usually find out about these jobs."

In addition, all members of Organizing Corps are from, or go to school in, the state.

"I want a staff, a team, that reflects Michigan," Barnes said. "It was really important to me that we build this in a way that attracted and kept folks from the LGBTQ community, from the black community, from the Latino community — because these are communities that are so often underrepresented in our campaign staff."

Outreach to Minority Communities

The MDP hired a new Director of African American Outreach, as well as two full-time organizers in Detroit to educate and engage this critical community on election readiness. BTL asked what they've learned from this initiative that can apply to other minority communities that typically vote Democratic but have low voter turnout, such as the LGBTQ community.

"The things that we find most successful are starting and continuing conversations and starting them early," Barnes said.

That's why Eddie McDonald, their Director of African American Outreach, has been on board for some time, talking to the black community about the importance of this election.

She added that she wants to push that to other communities.

"The thing that we can't do, that has happened in previous cycles, is show up sometime in September, October and say 'please vote,'" she said. "These conversations need to be ongoing all the time … that's number one."

Number two, said Barnes, is helping candidates understand that while talking about the global and national stories is important, "What really resonates with voters here in Michigan are the Michigan stories, the local stories."

Empowering Voters

Barnes talked about what she called the MDP's "aggressive voter education campaign."

Beyond going door-to-door to inform people about no-reason absentee voting and getting them registered on the permanent AV list, the MDP has grander plans.

"We're also doing a lot of work on social media to get the word out; we're thinking of getting some radio ads out perhaps," Barnes said.

Barnes added that while many voters have everyone in their family, our elected officials and others joining us and getting the word out about the new voting laws, "We need everybody to understand that everybody can vote from home now. You no longer need an excuse to do that. And that anybody can register to vote right up until Election Day."

In terms of what prevents people from voting, Barnes enumerated the various barriers.

"The Republicans will continue to run … versions of voter suppression programs that convince our voters either that their vote doesn't count or that they won't be able to vote when they show up at the polls," she said. "So it's part of our job to educate them about the facts. Also, a lot of time folks run into a situation on Election Day that stops them from getting there. It can be the weather, it can be that you can't get off work, it can be that you don't have childcare or that you or your child are sick. And these things stop people from voting all the time."

That's why Barnes said it's essential voters are made aware of no-reason absentee voting. Now, "you can get that vote taken care of, get on with your day, get on with your life, not worry what might happen if you on Election Day that might stop you from getting there," she said.

Michigan's Presidential Primary Election is March 10, with absentee voting happening now.

From the Secretary of State website:

"Requests to have an absent voter ballot mailed to you must be received by your city or township clerk no later than 5 p.m. the Friday before the election. You can request an absent voter ballot in person at your clerk's office any time up to 4 p.m. on the day prior to the election. If you're registering to vote or updating your address by appearing at your clerk's office on Election Day, you can request an absent voter ballot at the same time you register. If you request your AV ballot the day before the election or on Election Day, you must vote the ballot in the clerk's office."

Key Upcoming Election Information:

Primary: Aug. 4

General Election: Nov. 3

Click here to learn how to volunteer with the Michigan Democratic Party, find voting info, search for events and take action in other ways.

The MDP State Endorsement Convention is March 21 in Lansing. You must be a member at least one month prior to the convention to attend.

The LGBT and Allies Caucus aims to provide the LGBTQ community with a voice in the decision-making process of the MDP, increasing LGBTQ participation in the electoral process and ultimately improve the lives of LGBTQ Michiganders by achieving full equality. Attend the meeting of the LGBT and Allies Caucus at the State Endorsement Convention to meet LGBTQ Democratic candidates and voters from across the state. To answer any questions contact Chair Roland Leggett at [email protected].


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