Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Strategy to boost voting in South LA is both high-tech and personal

SCOPE organizer Benjamin Toney visits with South LA resident Carmen Miller about becoming more active in civic life.
SCOPE organizer Benjamin Toney visits with South LA resident Carmen Miller about becoming more active in civic life.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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KPCC has embarked on a series called Project Citizen, which looks at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come with being a citizen. Among them is the right to vote. But fewer than one-in-five Angelenos in South L.A. voted in the May city election. A nonprofit group is using a strategy that combines personal contact with high-tech tools to transform non-voters in South L.A. into active participants in civic life.

In the most recent municipal election, residents of District 9 in South Los Angeles were flooded with campaign workers in the hotly contested city council and mayoral election. Despite the election-season attention, only 17 percent of the district's registered voters cast ballots.

Iretha Warmsley, who has lived in South L.A. for 20 years, said she used to be among the many residents who could vote, but didn't: "I didn't respect voting, all these years, and I'm 47. I just didn't care."

Warmsley said she didn't know or trust the people who canvassed her neighborhood around election time. Elections seemed to bring little change. And sometimes, the language of ballot issues was misleading.

"Like, yes means no, and no means yes," she said. She didn't want to cast a vote that was ill-informed or, pointless, so she "slacked off" of voting.

An alliance of nonprofit groups is using a strategy that combines repeated in-person contact with high-tech tools to transform non-voters in South L.A. into active participants in civic life. 

It's called Integrated Voter Engagement. The Obama campaign pioneered it as a national strategy, and organizations in battleground states of Ohio and Florida are also using it on pro-union and voting rights campaigns.

One of the most intensive efforts at  integrated voter engagement is going on in South L.A.

Community organizer Benjamin Toney is an Occidental College student working part-time this summer for SCOPE, which stands for Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education. It's a politically progressive nonprofit serving South L.A. that was formed about a year after the 1992 riots broke out less than a mile from SCOPE's Florence Avenue office.

On a recent evening, as Toney headed for a chat with a prospect about joining SCOPE, he reflected on his goal for the meeting.

"We really just want to know how people feel and really learn how we can help them become involved in making their voice a bigger part of the decision making process," Toney said. "We want to understand their level of political consciousness, from there we can assess what type of trainings, what type of education, what type of activities would be appropriate for where they are."

SCOPE is one of 31 community-based groups in a statewide alliance known as California Calls.

Other L.A groups participating are Inner City Struggle, the Community Coalition, and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. Inland Valley Coalition in San Bernardino County and Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy in Ventura County are on board as are the state organizations Courage Campaign and California Federation of Teachers.

The educational nonprofit side of California Calls and its allies such as SCOPE do voter outreach, member recruitment, political education and leadership training. Its political arm, a separate group called the California Calls Action Fund, leverages those resources for specific campaigns.

Their common goal is to increase voting among those who are feeling state budget cuts the most— young and low-income voters, people of color and immigrants.

Carmen Miller is one of them and that's who Toney came to see at a Harvard Blvd. building where her mother has an apartment.

Toney's strategy started with asking short questions and listening: "What are some of the main issues that you see people struggling with, or that you personally struggle with?"

Miller, who worked as a volunteer in the county court system after a temporary job there ended, says that jobs, education and after-school programs are tops on her list of concerns. Her daughter scored high on state standardized tests, but is now struggling in math after tutoring was withdrawn when she moved to third grade.

"Maybe they didn't have enough funds," Miller said.

Education spending is a key issue being used to connect with voters. California Calls claims to have turned out more than 400,000 voters last November to help pass Prop 30, a tax on top earners that raises billions for education.

USC political science professor Ange-Marie Hancock says SCOPE and California Calls  are pushing a values-driven vision of the California Dream that harkens back to the 1950s and '60s when government was better funded.

"You could buy a home, you could get an education, there were good schools for kids," Hancock said. "And so what California Calls and SCOPE have been trying to do is connect with voters around those shared values."

Hancock said while their strategy touts a personal touch, it's also high-tech and data-driven.

California Calls shares with its allies a database of 1.5 million voters, and a phone system capable of contacting 30,000 people a night.

"They have lots of social values polling that they've done," Hancock noted, "and they have technology, apps, mobile phones that can literally update on an immediate basis the conversations they have with voters at the doors."

Iretha Warmsley, the former non-voter, attributed her political awakening to her involvement with SCOPE — knocking on doors, attending house meetings and education sessions, working phone banks. She votes now.

"My first-hand experience is that it does matter when you push and call and stay on top of people, that it does make a difference," she said.

The next goal for SCOPE and California Calls is to recruit a half-million voters for a statewide campaign to get businesses to pay higher property taxes. Prop 13 is in their sights.