Like a lot of people, Karla Ortiz thought the 2020 election would be different.
As the Iowa Regional Organizing Director for NextGen America, a national Democratic organization that works to register and get out the vote among young progressive voters, Ortiz thought she would spend the months leading up to election in a busy office overseeing a team knocking on doors in Iowa’s urban centers.
Instead, Ortiz has found herself stuck in her apartment in Ames, a college town just north of Iowa’s capital, training volunteers, providing IT support, analyzing outreach data, and generally overseeing a fully remote effort to help people vote in an election rife with challenges.
In 2018, NextGen’s boots-on-the-ground program registered more than 14,000 young Iowans, knocked on over 63,000 doors, and helped raise the 18-35 year-old turnout-rate to 41 percent (up from 28 percent for this demographic in the last midterm election year in 2014). But now that the group’s staff members and volunteers are unable to knock on doors due to risks associated with the pandemic, Ortiz and her team have seized the opportunity to expand their outreach in rural areas.
“Traditionally, campaigns have forgotten these people, and that’s what I like about our campaign now: Since we’re all virtual, we’re able to reach out to them,” Ortiz told Civil Eats. “In rural areas, people may not know where their county office is or how to register to vote, and we’re able to give them that information.”
Ortiz and NextGen are part of a larger trend that has allowed a range of organizations to shine a new light on rural communities, particularly in agriculture-intensive regions like Iowa, and across the country. In an election where a majority of voters are planning to vote early, there has also been renewed interest in outreach that specifically targets young and BIPOC voters, a type of rural voter that has been historically underrepresented in U.S. elections.
This potential voting block is also bringing a renewed focus to working conditions in agricultural industries along with their desire for more sustainable food systems. Around the country, a range of organizations are responding to an unprecedented situation by pushing for unprecedented turnout among these groups.
Many Rural, Young People Live in ‘Civic Deserts’
According to data in a 2018 report from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, just 2 percent of rural voters ages 18 to 29 voted in midterm elections, even though the age group’s voter turnout was 36 percent nationally.
The report pins that low turnout on the fact that this specific demographic of voters live in “civic deserts,” or areas where people lack access to resources that encourage political engagement. Sixty percent of rural Millennials live in civic deserts, contributing to a general alienation from political involvement. This alienation is exacerbated by a lack of digital infrastructure; approximately one-third of Millennials living in a civic desert lack reliable access to the internet and cell phone service.
“In 2018, our main way of reaching folks was going to universities and conferences,” said Jazmin Kay, the 22-year-old executive director of 18by.vote, a non-partisan voter outreach organization founded in 2018 that has spent years focusing on educating the 16- and 17-year-olds who have become the 18- and 19-year-old voters in the 2020 election. “As soon as the pandemic happened, we thought, ‘How can we still do this even if we can’t necessarily meet in person?’”
Since moving its work online, 18by.vote has taken the opportunity to expand their fellowship program, adding new fellows in states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, and Oklahoma in order to connect with young rural voters as directly as possible.
Lack of rural broadband has long been a challenge in rural communities, and Kay says reaching young people with limited access to technology has been an important goal this year. “I know one young person in rural New York who is splitting a data [plan] with her neighbor,” Kay said. “There are just so many more barriers to entry; you have to be a highly informed person to even want to access this information, so for a lot of young people it just doesn’t feel accessible to them.”
A number of their constituents also feel suspicious of a political process that only seems to care about them once every four years. For that reason, the group has been working to engage with local politics alongside the presidential race. “Rural voter outreach needs to be hyper-localized. Voting isn’t just a national issue, it’s a county issue. I think the pandemic really pushes a lot of us to think of how to keep up this work and reach out to voters in a different way,” Kay said, adding that the group is focusing heavily on helping young people share information through peer-to-peer outreach.
Rural America’s Growing Latinx Communities
Just as rural communities in America are not a monolith, neither are rural voters. And in many counties throughout the heartland, the growth of immigrant populations has played a vital role in slowing the overall trend toward population loss. Large rural states such as Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oregon have all seen growth in Latinx populations in the last decade.
In Iowa, the Latinx population is the largest minority group in the state, but lawmakers voted to make English the state’s official language in 2002. For that reason, the state hasn’t made translating voter material into other languages a priority.
As a result, Get Out The Vote organizations have taken up the effort—translating voting instructions and candidate information and sharing it by phone and texts to reach people where they’re at.
“It has been a lot of people who don’t know how to register to vote, who need material in Spanish,” Ortiz said. “I’m able to be there and give them all this information.”
Although Biden came in fourth in the Iowa primaries, many Democratic voting advocates are less focused on generating excitement around Biden as a candidate than they are taking advantage of a strong desire among many voters on the left and in the center to see Donald Trump defeated.
“After the caucuses, I feel like there was definitely a consensus that we need to rally together to defeat Donald Trump,” said Jeanina Messerly, a district field director for the Progressive Turnout Project, a PAC working to drive Democratic voter turnout with field offices across the U.S. “So much has happened, the caucuses kind of feel like they were five years ago, but Biden really understands the importance of reaching rural communities. He has a platform to uplift all working people. I feel like people see that and they’re excited to be voting Donald Trump out, to be quite frank.”
Biden has demonstrated a desire to “peel away” at the rural voting population that helped Trump win in 2016. Messerly, who oversees a team of 15 people who spend most of their time phone banking, also sees reaching out to Latinx voters as a key part of this strategy. To that end, she has hired a number of Spanish-speaking field reps. And when an English-speaking field rep reaches a Spanish speaker on the phone, they have a tool that allows them to patch them through to someone who can communicate in Spanish.
Redefining ‘Rural Issues’
Though a younger group of rural voters is on the rise, most of the rural population still skews older and healthcare remains one of the top issues of the 2020 election, especially as the pandemic has hit places where healthcare is inaccessible.
But as campaigners reach out to a younger, more diverse coalition of rural voters, they’re finding a greater appetite for conversations about issues like climate change and the challenges facing agriculture workers and their communities.
Ever since Trump signed an executive order aimed at getting meatpacking plants to reopen in April, Latinx and other immigrant groups have faced high rates of coronavirus transmission, illness, and deaths. Now, the communities surrounding these plants have been especially ripe for GOTV outreach.
“I cut my teeth on organizing the Latinx community here in Iowa, so I know it has been a concern for many people,” Messerly said. While the role of meatpacking corporation doesn’t come up often in conversations, she added, “I would really like to see workers have more of a voice and see their issues front and center in the election.”
Murphy Burke, the Iowa press secretary for NextGen, says that Governor Kim Reynolds hasn’t exactly helped Trump’s case either. “We know that people across the state disapprove of how Reynolds has responded to COVID-19, particularly in meat-processing plants, where she has prioritized the corporate owners over the workers,” he said.
Beyond the immediate crisis of the pandemic, climate change and other environmental issues continue to gain traction with voters. The derecho wind storm that ripped through Iowa, causing severe destruction to crops and towns alike was just a recent reminder of the dangers climate change has in store for farmers while the fight for clean air and water has also taken on a greater sense of urgency for some voters.
“I think that a lot of these communities are changing dramatically,” Kay of 18by.vote said. She pointed out that the pandemic has brought more attention to the flaws within the current agricultural system. “A lot of people are thinking about how we can make these growing systems more sustainable.”
“Young people have to grapple with [the fact that] the climate is changing rapidly but also the way that we work and the way we understand things,” she added. “All of these issues are incredibly connected right now.”
Top photo: Voter registration efforts in Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the Progressive Turnout Project)