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Obama's Voting Machine Making Strides in Richmond

The Obama campaign not only changed how Richmond votes, but also built a political machine that bridged a city's racial divisions. 



Apart from the broader historical significance of Barack Obama's election as the 44th president, the Obama campaign represents a seismic event in the history of political campaigning and grassroots political participation in this country. One would be hard put to find a locality where that effect has been felt more keenly than Richmond.

Let's start with some basic political facts about Virginia. The Democrats do much better in the independent cities than in the counties. Unofficial results show Obama ahead by about 155,000 votes statewide; he is up roughly 211,000 votes in the state's cities.

This is no surprise. Any electoral strategy for Democrats in Virginia must start with its bigger cities as well as vote-rich Fairfax County. The Obama campaign consequently made an all-out effort to increase voter registration and election day turnout in places like Richmond.

Their success in doing so was phenomenal. When the presidential primary took place here in February, there was just over 100, 000 registered voters in the city. By election day, 118, 810 Richmonders were registered, a staggering increase over a nine-month period.

Total turnout for the election was just under 92,500, compared to 74,325 in 2004 -- an increase of nearly 25 percent. Obama also did better percentage-wise in the city than John Kerry in 2004, taking more than 79 percent of the vote compared to Kerry's 70 percent. Those facts are intertwined: the campaign got new voters on board, and they supported Obama.

The result: Obama racked up a margin of roughly 54,700 votes (over one-third of his statewide winning margin) in the city, compared to Kerry's margin of about 29,500 votes. For a city whose population is basically unchanged since 2004, that's a remarkable increase.

How did this happen?

First, we have to look at the success of the Obama campaign in getting new voters registered, both directly and indirectly.

Second, we have to look at the enormous get-out-the-vote operation the Obama campaign launched in Richmond, employing hundreds of volunteers. I participated in some of those efforts, especially in the last three weeks; what follows is in part based on participant observation.

Every evening and all day on weekends, the Obama campaign sent out canvassers to go door-to-door through the city (and neighboring areas), and to make phone calls to voters. The primary object of this exercise was to identify Obama supporters; a secondary object was to persuade undecided voters. Each night the day's data was entered by volunteers into a database maintained by the Virginia Democratic Party.

By the eve of the election, the campaign had identified tens of thousands of supporters in the city. A massive volunteer push (helped in part by a surge of out-of-state volunteers here for the final days of the campaign) aimed to distribute some 90,000 door hangers on identified voters' doors on election eve and early election morning, reminding supporters to vote.

On election day, Richmond put into operation what the campaign termed “Project Houdini.” By law, each political party is entitled to deploy three campaign representatives to each voting precinct, typically consisting of two ordinary citizens and a lawyer. I served as a poll watcher at precinct 504, the Randolph Community Center.

As poll watchers, we were given a packet containing a list of identified Obama supporters. As each voter announced their name to election officials, we marked off their names from the list as having voted. Around 10:30, a runner was deployed from the campaign to collect information from us on who had voted. That information was then used to purge persons who had already voted from the campaign's to-call list.

Canvassers and phone operators then began the work of contacting expected Democratic voters who hadn't turned out yet. Meanwhile, poll watchers kept marking off names of voters as they passed through, until early afternoon, when the campaign picked up the voter packets and repeated the process. The object was to make the work of canvassers and phone calls of volunteers as efficient as possible, so they wouldn't have to spend the day's final hours contacting people who had already voted.

In practice, of course, this was an imperfect process, as it was physically impossible for one or two poll workers to record every single voter who came through to three or four registration tables per precinct. The idea was that even a modest increase in the efficiency of the work of election day canvassers could yield a few more voters, which might be vital in a tight election.
After 2 p.m., we stopped tracking voters as they came in and started working as “line managers.” The idea was simple: make sure people who showed up to vote didn't get discouraged by long lines and leave.

As it turned out, long lines were not an issue at Randolph. By 2 p.m., more than 1,600 voters (out of 3,007 registered voters) had come through, many enduring a long wait in the early morning crush. After 11 a.m., lines were negligible.

Even so, total voter turnout in Randolph was 2,166 (not counting 180-plus absentee ballots previously submitted by precinct voters) compared to 1,683 votes in 2004, a 28 percent boost. Turnout in the neighboring precinct 503 (Maymont Elementary) was similarly up 23 percent from 2004.

Long-time locals at Randolph said the turnout was unlike anything they'd ever seen. Indeed, as recently as the February primary, only 2,329 voters were registered at the precinct.

Interestingly, the Obama Effect appears to have helped elect Dwight Jones as mayor. In 2004, there were 8,143 presidential votes cast in the 5th district. On Tuesday, 9,939 presidential votes were cast in the district, nearly 1,800 more than four years ago.

Jones's margin of victory over Bill Pantele in the decisive 5th was just 952 votes (3,983 to 3,031). While it is highly unlikely that the new 2008 voters who came out to support Obama also supported Jones by such a margin that the election would have been different if they stayed home, it's quite possible the race would have been much, much tighter without them.

The impact of the Obama campaign on electoral participation in Richmond is remarkable: Increases in registration and voting of 20 percent to 25 percent in a single year in a locality that is not growing are unusual events. But the Obama Effect can't be gauged simply by numbers.

We also have to recognize that the Obama campaign was perhaps the most extensive example of a multi-racial, multi-generational political campaign this city has ever seen. As I volunteer, I witnessed college graduate-age field organizers working with older (60 plus) white volunteers working with local African-American residents (often coming with their teenaged kids) working with VCU students in a spirit of determined optimism.

That level of diversity and cooperation is important for its own sake, as well as for the opportunities for conversations and sharing across generational, racial and class lines it created. (On election day, I learned more about the history of the city from my poll watching partner, a sharp as a tack 77-year-old African-American woman who was born and raised in Randolph.)
It's also important because it demonstrates that serious collaboration towards a shared goal across traditional cleavages is possible in Richmond, here and now. The campaign in its very operation thus put into practice an ideal trumpeted by Obama himself.

The important open question now is whether and how this positive example might impact future efforts on behalf of social change in Richmond going forward, and whether the community of interest established by the campaign can continue in some meaningful form now that the election is over.

The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but this much is clear: The 2008 Barack Obama campaign has changed electoral politics in Richmond and created a remarkable example of sustained civic mobilization.

Thad Williamson is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and the author of two books on urban politics and policy: “Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era” and “Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life.”

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