Improving voter turnout in and around Tulsa was the theme of “Breaking Down Barriers,” Saturday’s voter engagement forum at Rudisill Library. The forum was hosted by the Voting is Power Coalition of Tulsa.
The forum was introduced by Floretta Reed, an activist who marched in the early days of the movement to give African Americans the right to vote. She provided the audience with an outline of national and local issues facing voters today, as well a few reasons why voting is so important.
She also shared the fact that elections have been won or lost by slim margins, as well as her belief that although voting in presidential elections is crucial, it is just as, if not more important to vote for local and state officials because their actions will have a more direct impact on your life.
Reed’s introduction was followed by keynote speaker Helena Berbano, an enthusiastic college grad who works for Nonprofit VOTE and has been involved in several projects to raise voter turnout in urban minority areas. She began her presentation with an outline of voters’ resources, as well as examples of barriers voters face.
Berbano discussed how the participation gap can be statistically tied to income, age and race among other factors. She also noted that non-voters tend to hold different political beliefs than regular voters, meaning that during elections, results are not entirely representative of the opinions of the entire population.
However, she did not lay all the blame on the voters themselves. Berbano also discussed a mobilization gap, in which political campaigns do not invest in communities where they believe the people are less likely to vote. This leads to a downward spiral in which fewer and fewer people in the community vote, meaning fewer and fewer campaign interests are directed toward those communities.
Berbano shared her interest in how nonprofit organizations (and in that vein, student organizations) have a special role when it comes to engaging communities in the voting process. Berbano suggested these organizations have a unique ability to reach people in a way that campaigns cannot.
In fact, she pointed to case studies from multiple nonprofit voting coalitions: after the organization got involved in the community, voter turnout of minorities increased dramatically in the following years.
A large part of Berbano’s presentation focused on how to have a discussion about voting. Attendees were asked to participate in an exercise which involved acting out example conversations with constituents. We were provided with lists of common responses to the question “Are you registered to vote?” and advice on how to react to hesitant voters.
A handout we were given encouraged us to keep three things in mind when talking to constituents about voting: “1) keep it positive 2) be interactive 3) make it personal.” Berbano told us to avoid focusing on the barriers in place that keep people from voting, and instead to focus on determining how these barriers can be overcome.
Berbano suggested engaging people by assuming they are already voters and are planning to participate in the election to avoid being condescending.
Following the keynote presentation, Mana Tahaie from the YWCA and Voting is Power asked forum attendees to participate in an “Asset Mapping” exercise. We were asked to write down voter engagement needs in our community on blue sticky notes, and existing resources on orange sticky notes.
These notes were placed on maps of Tulsa hanging throughout the room. There was a noticeably larger amount of blue sticky notes than orange sticky notes.
The forum was followed by optional voter registration training, for those who wanted to learn how to be voter registrars.
Afterwards, Berbano and Tahaie personally answered some questions about resources available for students to learn more about voting as well as suggestions for how students can help increase voter turnout.
Some of the resources available online with crucial information for young voters who don’t know where to turn are rockthevote.com, vote411.org and the iPhone app votebyte. Information can also be found on the Tulsa World website election page or pretty much any issue of the Collegian run this academic year.
Berbano and Tahaie also suggested that time is a valuable asset college students have (even if they don’t think they do) when it comes to being involved. They advocated that students have the ability to fill crucial roles as voter registrars and poll workers, and should take every opportunity possible to help democracy in this way.
Tahaie put it this way: “Being in college is no excuse for not being engaged.”