Voter Registration As A Vehicle For Organizing And Mobilizing The Puerto Rican Community

Presentation by Richie Perez to the Second Chapter Convention Massachusetts Chapter - National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights Sept. 25 - 27, 1992


Twenty-five years ago, like most other Puerto Rican activists who came of age politically in the 1960's, I rejected voting as a tool that could contribute to Puerto Rican liberation. Today, the majority of activists from this period, myself included, recognize electoral participation as an important weapon in our political struggle. We are continuing to develop our understanding of organization building, leadership development, direct action, litigation, lobbying, and other tactics in combination with effective electoral participation.

This learning process is being accelerated by events which have their roots outside our community, especially the growing urgency of utilizing all methods available to combat the federal abandonment of the cities, the deepening urban crisis, and the growing right wing danger in the nation.

Nine years ago, I was hired by the Community Service Society to develop and run an experimental voter participation project in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Building on the successes of that pilot project, there are now three Voter participation projects, operating in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, the three NYC boroughs that are covered by the Voting Rights Act.

Over the years, we have registered approximately 120,000 people -- but voter registration is not the only focus of our efforts. Voter registration is used as the centerpiece of a community development/empowerment campaign that has as its goals the development and nurturing of: a shared political awareness; effective local organizations; and strong grassroots leadership.

Each of the Voter Participation Projects works with approximately 20 local organizations, training them in voter registration and Get-Out-The Vote techniques, disseminating voter education materials, providing workshops and training in grassroots lobbying, and collaborating on local issue campaigns (i.e., opposition to a medical waste incinerator in the South Bronx). Each project has as its goals: the development of a shared consciousness about local problems and solutions; a strengthened organizational infrastructure; and the support and strengthening of grassroots community leadership.

Information from registration forms is computerized; and periodic mailings are done to all voters. These mailings include: voter education materials; announcements of community activities and campaigns; and Get-Out-The-Vote information.

The Voter Participation Projects are non-partisan. We say "our candidate is community empowerment." Who is elected is less important to us than the ability of the community to hold whoever is elected accountable.

Defining Our Terms

Before I go on, I'd like to define some of the terms and concepts I'm using. It's important that we start to define the things we are talking about -- in order for us to move to a common understanding and a common language.

Empowerment is not a thing. It is a process. And we have to evaluate it as a process. It is not a commodity that you buy. It's a transforming process. It transforms people without power into people with power. And so, there is a beginning stage, and interim stage, and then a stage of being relatively empowered.

In order to go more deeply into this, we have to define some other terms as well. Please bear with me during this more theoretical part.

By power, I am using the definition that power is the ability to influence the thinking and behavior of others in your favor. Conversely, powerlessness is the inability to influence others effectively in ways furthering one's own interests.

Power belongs to those who possess the resources that enable them to influence or control the actions and beliefs of others. Power resources include: organization, not just numbers--numbers themselves are potential power--but until they are organized they are not power; various kinds of knowledge, including technical know-how, as well as theoretical knowledge; leadership skills; skills in manipulating the media; control of jobs, services, and essential goods; the ability to apply force and disrupt; and money, an ingredient that is very often used to buy other power resources.

Puerto Rican people lack power - and we lack accessibility to power resources. What that means is that we are less able to be effective in politics. And by politics I am using the following definition. Politics in its broadest sense is the struggle over conflicting interests carried into the public arena. Politics is the struggle. Look at the decisions that determine public policies and the allocation of goods and resources. Politics is the struggle over these decisions. The methods by which we struggle, the tactics we use, are varied.

Elections are one form of political struggle. Voting is one form of political struggle. Lobbying is a form. Litigation can be a form. Direct action is a form. Disruption can be a form.

Going back to "empowerment as a process." Empowerment is a process that individuals go through, organizations go through, and communities go through. It is a developmental process. It changes people's lives. It helps them gain a mastery over their lives. What does this mastery include:

1) It includes the development of a more positive self-image and sense of self-competency--that you "can do." Many of us who have been involved in political struggle know the feeling of exuberance when we engage our enemies and beat them back, when we successfully advance our people's interests. In NYC, for example, we saw this when grassroots people and churches built a coalition that was successful in stopping, at least temporarily, the firing up of a hazardous South Bronx medical waste incinerator.

One of the things that we need for this sense of self-competency to develop is that we need to know our history. Disconnected from our history, we are weakened, we are disoriented. Who are we? In a country where race is defined as Black or white, we are a multi-racial people. How did this happen? What does it mean for us? How did we come to be relegated to and locked into the bottom of the socio-economic ladder - the position we find ourselves in today?

This sense of history is especially crucial for integrating young people into our community's struggles for survival and advancement. Just as the young activists of the '60's were not really conscious that they were making history, today young people have to know that they are the continuation of their people's history; and their actions now will be the starting point for future generations. (In addition, when organizing youth for voter registration activity, experience has shown that it is important to embrace, not reject, their combativeness. Young people are angry -- and rightfully so, since in the main they have been written off by society. They understand and respond when voter registration is put into a historical context and is presented to them as a weapon, a tool for rewarding friends and allies and punishing enemies.)

2) This mastery includes the development of a more critical understanding of the social, economic, and political realities of our world. We need some political education. We need to know what's going on and we need to understand - - not in terms of personalities, but in terms of class interests in America, in terms of race realities, in terms of the economic system that we are functioning in, and the points at which class, race and gender intersect. So that when we see that four out of 10 families in our community are headed by single women, we recognize the intersection of poverty, ethnicity, and gender. And we recognize the implications for our whole people that Puerto Rican women are truly oppressed.

3) Finally, this mastery also involves the development of individual and collective resources for social and political action. Not only skills and understanding, not only a sense of history, but also a value system to guide us and the inner strength and operational unity, that will enable us to dare to challenge the more powerful--and win.

Note: Some additional words here on empowerment and political participation. Most studies have found that the least-empowered people will have the lowest rates of participation in social movements or community organizations. Conversely, participation is higher among those who are already more empowered. The wealthy or more dominant racial groups already feel that they can have an impact (sense of efficacy) so they participate more. Organizers have to find the ways to draw people into the process of struggle so that they can get that first sense of their own abilities and potential power.

Empowerment for the Puerto Rican community - what will it look like?

Flowing from the definitions we've already discussed, let's look at what political power is. Political power refers to the ability to influence decisions that determine public policies and the allocation of jobs, goods, and services in our favor. To the extent that we lack influence on what a government or public institution does or does not do, or what a private institution (i.e., a bank) does or does not do, we are said to lack political power. (i.e., Examine our ability to force the system to insure justice for victims of police and white racist brutality, to stop redlining by banks and real estate interests.)

Political power would mean being able to impact in a way that benefitted us on decisions like: low-income or luxury housing? affordable child care for all? spending for space exploration or spending to end homelessness on earth? declaring your city a sanctuary for those fleeing U.S. supported dictatorships - no cooperation with la migra? These are all public policy decisions. These decisions deal with how the power and resources of the society will be used. Groups with political power will be able to more readily insure that public policies favor them.

What will we need?

As I mentioned before, power belongs to those who possess the resources that enable them to influence or control the actions and beliefs of others. Among the resources that I think our movement needs are:

* collective consciousness or political awareness

This will give us orientation, link us to our history, help us understand our present situation and the interconnectedness of issues, and allow us to develop our vision of the kind of society we want. It will help us determine who are our friends and allies and who are our enemies.

* organization (including coalitions)

In addition to social service agencies, in order to progress, we must have independent organizations that can organize and focus our electoral strength, that can develop campaigns that utilize a variety of tactics (i.e., combining voter registration and turnout with lobbying and direct action). By "independent," I am referring to organizations who are not dependent on government funding and can therefore speak and act freely, not having their strings yanked by their funding sources, answering only to the needs of the community.

Building coalitions allow us to combine and maximize our collective energy and strength, gives a greater voice to our demands, and provides us the opportunity to learn how to negotiate with our allies. Special attention needs to be paid to the building of unity between communities of color, especially between Latinos and African-Americans.

*leadership (and a process whereby new leaders can be developed)

The traditional "old boy network" in our community stifles the development of new leaders, especially women and youth. It leaves us in a situation where we have only a tiny handful of publicly recognized figures (mostly men), a vast, untapped pool of potential leaders, and many actual leaders who are active at the grassroots level, organizing around specific issues (i.e., education) but who are not recognized and nurtured.

* technological know-how (including the use of computers and videos for mass organizing)

This will allow us to free people power from routine and repetitive tasks so that we can spend the majority of our time on people-to-people organizing.

The next question I'd like to address is: How do we use voter participation work to build each of these areas, to help us develop and accumulate "power resources."

Let me say, first of all, that the key is that while we use the form of struggle--voter registration--we have to struggle to change its content - what we actually do, our purpose for doing it, and our approach. Our goal is not participation as a barometer of "good citizenship." Our goal is community empowerment. We have to evaluate our efforts in voter participation activity by asking ourselves: As a result of this activity is our community on a higher level of consciousness, with more developed organization and leadership? Have we increased our fighting capability as a community?

Electoral participation

The question is: how do we use the components of the voter participation process to help organize and mobilize our community?

First, let's identify the components of the voter participation process: voter registration, voter education, GOTV, and follow-up.

*voter registration

Voter registration gives us the opportunity to talk to the people and find out how they see the issues--this is crucial for shaping the messages we will be sending. Our messages, to be effective, have to be rooted in the real-life experiences of the people.
Voter registration also forces organizers to sharpen their communications skills - to learn how to talk to people, in their language - to learn how to be an "ear" (a good listener). Voter registration provides an excellent training ground for organizers.

It provides us with an opportunity and incentive to analyze our communities--really analyze them--in order: to determine where to focus our voter registration efforts; to do a power analysis of our communities; to identify: power brokers, community organizations, important institutions, transportation lines and shopping centers where we should focus registration work.

*voter education

Here we need to once again broaden our definitions. Historically, voter education has meant telling voters about their rights and responsibilities, maybe expanding to talk about what issues are on the ballot, who the candidates are, and what to do when you get in the voting booth.

However, we should expand the concept of voter education to include:

* Our history (PR history, the civil rights movement. These help us, especially the youth, reconnect to our roots. It is important, for example, for people to know that the participation of Puerto Ricans in the electoral process was systematically blocked through the use of English-only literacy tests - which were not abolished until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

* Our current situation (what the statistics show, what we need to change the situation)

* How government works (Who makes the decisions that are effecting our lives? i.e., Who decides that tuition will go up? Who makes the decisions that see educational resources being funneled disproportionately to the richest school districts? Why aren't federal "fair housing" laws enforced? Why are Puerto Ricans systematically excluded from many areas of municipal employment. Who is responsible?)

Cumulatively, addressing these issues helps us do a power analysis; and helps the community to consciously recognize its interests, its friends, and its enemies.

*Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV)

The GOTV stage involves developing a mechanism to transform your registrations into actual voters. Historically, this phase of the electoral process has involved: mailings, phone calls, home visits, media exposure, sound trucks, and street leafleting. Collectively, all of these are referred to as voter contact activities. Organizers can learn to use these activities for electoral organizing, but they can also be applied to other organizing work.

The idea in GOTV is that the more times you "touch" the registrant, the closer to the election, the more likely he or she will vote.

Key in GOTV is planning and coordination. In the CSS voter participation projects, each project includes the following in their GOTV plan:

two mailings - one to arrive the day before election (this demanded that we computerize all names so that we can do labels. Computer technology also allows us to target groups as we get more sophisticated--i.e., mailing to all teenagers, all women between a certain age, all Latinos, mailings to seniors around issues that most concern them)

phone banking - calls to all people for whom we have numbers development of script, training of phone canvassers, tally sheets, assistance needed)

house canvass - computer technology allows us to divide our registered voters geographically. Thus we can arm street canvassers with odd-even lists to target door-to-door work. (These lists enable two campaign workers to walk down opposite sides of a street, with one covering all the voters at the even-number addresses, and the other covering the odd number addresses.)

* sound trucks - taped messages on loops

* street leafleting

(Note: We didn't do paid media because of the expense, but you can do public service announcements inexpensively.)

other important aspects of GOTV

1) There is a link between strong community organizations and electoral strength. Indeed, strong community organizations are necessary for any expression of collective power and monitoring afterwards. Therefore, we must build strong organizations and coalitions to wield electoral power - to have continuity (collective memory) in order to reward and punish.

2) Anti-disenfranchisement struggles - there are many institutional barriers to electoral participation (i.e., Board of elections "loosing" registrations, broken machines, irregularities at the polls, discriminatory rules - i.e., if you move you have to re-register). Each of these offers the opportunity for struggle and provide good openings for raising issues of institutional or systemic barriers.


After the election:

*Forums on what the results were and what the elections meant. (This helps build a shared consciousness and gives participants a sense of what their efforts accomplished.)

*Call for residents to continue working together around specific issues. (This helps build the kind of organizational continuity and "collective memory" that is needed to hold elected officials accountable.)

*Consider your mailing list to be a constituency list -- communicate regularly with your registrants. This is all part of the empowerment process.

In conclusion, let me stress once again: in the course of mounting a massive and effective voter registration and mobilization campaign, we should not lose sight of the continuing need to utilize this electoral movement to build the consciousness, organization and leadership our people must have to survive and advance.

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