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20 Jul 2020

To the Ballot Box: How Will COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement Shape What Happens Locally on Election Day?

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Since March, the United States has endured its most turbulent period in decades. The fact that the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the economic downturn are happening in an election year leads to an obvious question: How will the turmoil effect what happens at the polls on Nov. 3?

If local voter-registration numbers are any indication, the news is good for Democrats.

The Independent recently reviewed voter-registration data from the Riverside County Registrar of Voters and the Democratic Headquarters of the Desert, comparing political-party voter-registration totals as of April 13 and July 13, in each of the valley’s nine cities. In that time frame, the number of Democrats registered to vote increased by 459, while the number of registered Republicans decreased by 226. Interestingly, voters who chose to register as having no party preference decreased by 700.

We reached out to local party leaders to ask them about their efforts to get voters engaged between now and Nov. 3.

“We closed the Democratic headquarters (in Cathedral City) on March 16,” said Elle Kurpiewski, political director of the Democratic Headquarters of the Desert, during a recent phone interview. “However, all of the phone calls we’ve been receiving are forwarded to me at my home. In one week alone, I had over a dozen people call to register to vote. So what I did was mail the voter-registration form to them if they were not able to (register) online. But here’s where it got interesting: There must have been 10 who were Republicans wanting to switch to be Democrats.

“Another thing that I found interesting was that a very large rally was put on by young people,” the Enough Is Enough rally in Palm Springs on June 6. “We were able to do voter registration safely at that event, (which drew) over a thousand people, the majority of them being young people. We signed up 40 new registrations at that event.

“What’s even more interesting are the young people—I’m talking 16-year-olds—who have been contacting our headquarters, pre-registering to vote and urging their friends to get out and vote this November. They are fully aware of what’s going on. Their focus is not just on Black Lives Matter. In talking with these young people, they’re just fed up, and they’re getting involved. They’re saying, ‘We’re here, and you’ve got to start paying attention (to us).’ I’m very impressed with them. Also, what’s really interesting about (their efforts) is how organic it’s been. This isn’t organized, per se. These are just young people who communicate with each other on Facebook and on Twitter, and they’re saying, ‘We have to do something. We have to have our voices heard.’ It’s been remarkable. The really sweet thing is that they’re not going away.”

Joy Miedecke, of the East Valley Republican Women Federated, said she has talked to a lot of people who are interested in signing up for the GOP.

“If you’re going to go by us, our voter registration has been unbelievable as far as people changing parties from Democrat to Republican,” Miedecke said. “When people try to change from Democrat to, maybe, no party preference or independent or something like that, we try to encourage them to become a Republican, because numbers tell the truth. If you’re moving over to Republican because you believe like Republicans, or you like our president, but you register as ‘no party preference,’ you don’t make a statement. You don’t get Trump on the ballot in the primary, and you can’t join our club. You have to be a registered Republican to be involved. We have over 850 members, so we are no slouchy deal here in the desert.”

What demographics has she seen coming into the valley’s Republican Party in these chaotic recent months?

“I don’t have any hard numbers,” Miedecke said. “But I will tell you that many, many Hispanics are registering as Republicans, and lots of young families. We’re always behind (in the Riverside County Registrar of Voters statistical reporting), but that’s only because ‘no party preference’ is usually (voting) Republican.”

According to the Riverside County Registrar of Voters database, the numbers of registered Republicans declined in seven of the nine Coachella Valley cities between April and July; only Coachella and Indian Wells saw increases in registered Republicans (up 22 and 3, respectively) over the three months. In eight of the nine valley cities, the Democrats increased their registered voters, with the one exception being Desert Hot Springs, which saw decreases in both Democratic and Republican registered voters.

Megan Beaman Jacinto is an immigration and civil rights attorney who serves on the Coachella City Council. She said the Trump administration’s efforts have led many people to get more involved.

“I think that so many things have happened over the last four years that motivated the Latino community, other communities of color, and even white people—who are concerned about the way our communities have been damaged—to stand up and get more active politically,” Beaman Jacinto said. “Some of that has come in the form of protests, or creating new types of groups and associations, or just being more vocal on certain issues. All of that activation, I hope, will be seen in increased voter turnout. But inextricable from all of that is the challenge of COVID-19 and the potential vote-by-mail process. Of course, I support that (vote-by-mail) process, and I’m thankful that our community will be enjoying access to it.

“On the immigration side of things, we’ve done a lot of naturalization over the last four years, which is moving people from their permanent-legal-resident status to citizenship status—and that comes with the right to vote. A lot of the people seeking citizenship in the past few years are specifically motivated by a desire to vote against Trump, and a lot of them are older. They’re people who have been permanent legal residents for decades and now felt compelled to take the final step and become citizens so they could vote. So I’m hopeful that they’ll be reflected in the turnout as well.”

Victor Gonzalez is the project manager at Alianza Coachella Valley. According to the organization’s website, Alianza CV brings together community members, nonprofits and governments to make people active in the processes shaping policies and public funding. One of Gonzalez’s main responsibilities is supervising eastern Coachella Valley students in Alianza’s Youth Organizing Council (YO-C!).

“Our current engagement (group) right now consists of high school students and college-bound or college-attending students,” Gonzalez said. “Most of those attending college are able to vote themselves now. Currently, they’re participating in a focus group to help inform the messaging for the state in relation to the changes that are being made to the voting (process). I believe that there will be a higher emphasis on vote-by-mail. … Our youth are offering a Latino perspective (to the focus group), because most of the students that YO-C! engages are from that background.”

Gonzalez offered some observations about the importance of November’s elections to his student/youth leaders.

“Given the conversations that I’ve had with youth and others, for people who are unable to vote, there’s a sense of disappointment, and they don’t feel that the systemic response to (the societal challenges) has been good,” Gonzalez said. “For the people who can vote, they feel that now’s their time to make a difference. Also, people are messaging to us that the elections and voting (concerns) go beyond the national level, and that what happens locally does inform the national level. So, (the focus) is more on: How do we have people who represent us here locally that will make decisions that are going to benefit all of us, whether it’s Riverside County, the cities or even the school boards? That’s (an approach) that I feel is being emphasized more strongly than I’ve seen since I first starting doing this work. Before, it was like, ‘Local elections don’t matter. It’s all about the president or whoever.’ But now I feel that there’s a broader perspective.”

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