On August 8 or 9 I walked into Cynthia McKinney's campaign office and offered to help after work and on weekends for the last ten days. I've served as volunteer in and consultant to a couple dozen political campaigns and voter registration drives in the Chicago area in the 70's, 80's and 90's. Been a community organizer in the projects. Been a Chicago precinct captain. I've run field operations and election day operations across hundreds of precincts at a time. In '92 I was one of three Project VOTE! Illinois field organizers who, under our director Barack Obama, now an Illinois State Senator, put 120,000 new voters, mostly minorities on the rolls in one summer. I live near Atlanta now, and make my living as a network systems administrator.

I came out to help Cynthia because she spoke truth to power. She was a correct, courageous and principled voice for women, consumers and minorities, for education, human rights and civil liberties, for a sane, accountable and even-handed foreign policy. Cynthia was unbought, unbossed, and unbowed. Although the nearest edge of her district was 35 miles from my home north of the city, this was just plain important. The Right had declared its intention to oust her, had raised and bankrolled a black puppet candidate.

As a five-term incumbent, the race was McKinney's to lose. Despite the avalanche of outside money, despite the universally hostile media, despite a large white Republican crossover vote that was being openly organized and abetted by the media, the conventional wisdom was that if Cynthia could get her base vote out in heavily black south Dekalb County, she was favored to win, if narrowly. A look at Dekalb County's publicly released totals from previous elections confirmed this as fact. So I was there to help.

The campaign operation I walked in on was heartbreakingly inept. There-was no field operation whatsoever. The McKinney campaign had failed to conduct a voter registration drive in her district. They hadn't performed a pre-election voter canvass in any parts of heavily black south Dekalb, which should have been her base areas. These are the organizing basics, the ABCs of electoral success for black progressive candidates against opponents with more money and media. Her campaign ignored the basics and it cost her. And all of us.

Courage is not enough

, in the last issue, called the outcome of the McKinney campaign an "honorable defeat". I don't doubt Cynthia McKinney's personal honor and integrity, not in the least, and not for a moment. But a defeat is only "honorable" if you fought the hardest and smartest fight you could before you got whipped. A defeat is only honorable if you subject your own efforts afterward to an unsparingly critical assessment, looking for what you could have done better. Cynthia McKinney's unsuccessful re-election campaign failed that first test, and isn't doing so well on the second.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, questioned on the McKinney outcome by former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell on his morning radio show September 12, set it out like this: "It's not enough," Congresswoman Waters said, "to take principled and courageous stands on the issues. Black and progressive elected officials have to know that when you speak truth to power... powerful interests will target you, will mobilize their resources... and come after you. We have to defend those correct and principled positions by hitting the street and organizing our own communities.... " This isn't new news. It's old boilerplate, organizing lore. Maxine didn't invent it; it's way older than she is. She learned it just like the rest of us. But since she said it so nicely let's call it "Maxine's Rule". You fight the Right by hitting the streets and organizing your base.

Cynthia's campaign ignored Maxine's Rule and it cost her. She lost by a whopping 19,000 votes. Nobody doubts, either, that there are far more than 10,000 unregistered voters in south Dekalb County. If the McKinney campaign had concentrated some resources on a 90-day registration drive preceding the July 22 registration deadline, 8,000 to 10,000 friendly new voters could have been added to the rolls in her base areas. But the effort was never made, so the votes were not there. It's that simple.

McKinney's campaign also failed to conduct a canvass, either by phone or door to door in her core areas of support. A pre-election canvass is the operation of identifying individual voters, making one-on-one contact with them, either in person or via the phone and directly asking for their support, and entering the visits, calls and responses into a database. McKinney's opponents, on the other hand, publicly boast that they conducted an aggressive door-to-door and phone canvass of voters in heavily white and Republican areas of north DeKalb. The election results bear them out.

If we arrange all of Dekalb County's precincts by percentage turnout from highest to lowest, we can see that Cynthia's opponent carried 20 of the top 21. The turnout levels are amazing for a primary election, ranging from 57 to 66%.

Table 1: Top 21 4th CD Dekalb County precincts by percentage turnout

precinct number

precinct name

registered voters

ballots cast

Denise Majette

Cynthia McKinney

turnout %

Majette margin of victory

13

BRIARLAKE BD237

1,276

843

779

54

66.07%

725

6

AVONDALE AE239

1,807

1,193

1,071

115

66.02%

956

58

ELAM ROAD EH273

412

271

91

177

65.78%

-86

92

LAKESIDE LA223

1,704

1,115

1,038

66

65.43%

972

34

CORALWOOD CM210

1,742

1,124

1,043

78

64.52%

965

63

FERNBANK FB260

1,769

1,137

1,020

110

64.27%

910

81

HUGH HOWELL HG231

1,396

890

777

111

63.75%

666

168

SMOKE RISE ELEM SCH

565

354

328

23

62.65%

305

106

MIDVALE MH220

1,465

917

866

42

62.59%

824

126

NORTHLAKE ND236

1,058

656

616

33

62.00%

583

56

EVANSDALE EF220

1,030

636

603

30

61.75%

573

193

VANDERLYN VA252

1,495

922

896

23

61.67%

873

160

SAGAMORE SA210

1,562

958

914

39

61.33%

875

76

HENDERSON MILL HC2

1,595

971

922

46

60.88%

876

117

MOUNT VERNON WEST

983

594

573

20

60.43%

553

43

CLAIREMONT EAST CV

1,459

881

818

50

60.38%

768

135

PINE LAKE PE294

375

225

161

61

60.00%

100

96

LIVSEY LE220

1,951

1,167

1,116

42

59.82%

1074

129

OAK GROVE OA218

1,637

978

897

79

59.74%

818

169

SMOKE RISE ELEM SCH

1,533

906

818

85

59.10%

733

114

MOUNT VERNON EAST

2,024

1,160

1,123

32

57.31%

1091

source: Dekalb County Board of Registration and Elections

These 20 precincts produced an average margin of victory of 762 votes, and a deficit for McKinney of more than 15,000 of her 19,000-vote margin. Make no mistake, Cynthia would have lost these precincts anyway. They were part of the opposition's base, and an electoral campaign is supposed to turn out its base in big numbers. But when high turnouts exclusively occur in our opponent's base areas, and never in ours, it can only mean we just ignored Maxine's rule. We did not organize our base.

The next table shows the top 20 Dekalb county precincts ranked by the margin of votes they produced for Cynthia McKinney. It is therefore a representative slice of her campaign's biggest vote-producing base areas.

able 2: Top 21 4th CD Dekalb County precincts by McKinney Margin

precinct number

precTinct name

registered voters

ballots cast

Denise Majette

Cynthia McKinney

turnout %

McKinney margin of victory

146

RAINBOW RA208

2,214

1,154

243

898

52.12%

655

195

WESLEY CHAPEL SOUTH

1,914

1,028

187

828

53.71%

641

87

KELLEY LAKE KA205

2,139

895

120

761

41.84%

641

28

CHAPEL HILL CG265

2,123

1,115

235

866

52.52%

631

110

MEADOWVIEW ELEM SCH

2,122

924

149

758

43.54%

609

10

BOB MATHIS BA263

2,096

1,160

297

853

55.34%

556

66

FLAT SHOALS PARKWAY

1,909

1,055

252

792

55.26%

540

194

WADSWORTH WA228

1,898

871

170

684

45.89%

514

72

GRESHAM PARK ELEM S

1,783

716

103

598

40.16%

495

139

PANOLA WAY PI269

2,290

974

237

727

42.53%

490

67

FLAT SHOALS FJ205

1,592

668

91

572

41.96%

481

62

FAIRINGTON FA267

2,106

810

161

641

38.46%

480

20

BROWNS MILL BJ265

1,810

974

232

706

53.81%

474

100

MARBUT MC266

2,124

798

160

623

37.57%

463

200

WOODRIDGE WG281

2,338

1,061

299

750

45.38%

451

37

CROSSROADS CP284

2,418

1,132

341

785

46.82%

444

120

MILLER GROVE ROAD M

1,521

790

170

607

51.94%

437

64

FLAT SHOALS ELEM SC

1,432

626

91

524

43.72%

433

201

WESLEY CHAPEL NORTH

1,826

826

188

618

45.24%

430

107

MILLER GROVE MI267

1,800

697

126

555

38.72%

429

152

ROCK CHAPEL ELEM SC

2,487

960

265

684

38.60%

419

source: Dekalb County Board of Registration and Elections

Both the McKinney margin of victory and the turnout in these, her very best precincts are far smaller than those achieved by her opponent. The highest turnout in Cynthia's best 20 precincts is several points lower than the bottom of her opponent's top 20.

In fact, Cynthia's district-wide vote in this election, 49,000 votes, was only 15% higher than the 2000 primary election in which she ran unopposed, with far less attention, and no national media noise, but also with no canvass.

There can be absolutely no doubt that a voter-contact canvass following a successful voter registration drive would have raised the turnout in south Dekalb County areas enough to offset the big margins her opponent got in white north Dekalb, making this an extremely close election or winning it outright for McKinney.

Assessing the Loss

If Cynthia McKinney's defeat has national significance, then so does the effort to take stock of its root causes. After all, labor unions endorsed her, contributing bodies, cash and phone canvasses of their membership in the district. Volunteers for the final weekend and election day came from New York, from DC, from Chicago. Hundreds of local citizens pitched in to help. Locally and nationally, the progressive movement is entitled to an honest exploration, not of just why Cynthia McKinney lost, but of the large margin of the defeat.

Some campaign volunteers pressed for an assessment meeting the Saturday after election day, and more than a hundred people crowded into McKinney's office on Rainbow Way. But rather than conduct an honest self-examination of the campaign, those running the meeting preferred to point at outside causes. This has been the public stance of all the campaign spokespeople since the election.

For them, the causes are entirely external. It was the Republican crossover vote. It was the outside money. It was white Democrats unfolding nefarious schemes from the governor's office. It was the alliance of the hard Right and Zionists. It was a universally hostile media. In truth all these were important factors. But none of them were surprises and all of them come with the turf. Remember Maxine's Rule...

[When] you speak truth to power... powerful interests will target you, will mobilize their resources... and come after you. We have to defend those correct and principled positions by hitting the street and organizing our own communities."

It was the job of the McKinney campaign to hit the street, hit the phone lines and out-organize the enemy. It was their job to register that vote and bring it out election day. Despite the opposition's money, despite their clout, McKinney had the Black Consensus on her side. But real, live voters are only activated by the hard, meticulous work of day-to-day organizing. "If organizing and people power can't beat the big money," said one union volunteer for McKinney, "then we might as well all go home now."

 

 

In the last few days, we have been treated to leaks and rumors of a "black voter boycott" in November to retaliate against white Democrats who did not support McKinney, a run for the US Senate, and a run for president or vice president on the Green Party ticket. On September 10 McKinney's dad Billy, a 30 year Georgia state representative prominently involved in his daughter's campaign, faced off against a white opponent, a member of the Sons of the Confederacy. It was a 60% black district. The elder McKinney lost too. He blames black people who "just didn't come out" for him and his daughter.

As analysis, this is unacceptable. It's way time for organizers and activists to stop hiding behind the lame excuse that our people just don't come out to vote. They come out when we organize ourselves to register them and to turn them out. It ain't rocket science, and we should not blame the people when we do not do our own jobs.

The fact is that progressive political campaigns have to take the responsibility for registering their vote and getting it out. It's not enough to call meetings. It's not enough to vent on black talk radio. It's not enough to make the rounds of the churches. Electoral organizing is about numbers, not noise. Skip the registration drive and large numbers of the core constituencies for your progressive candidates won't even be able to vote. Omit or skimp on the canvass and you will be unable to bring out the voters who are registered. It's that simple.

Hard work, done right, wins

In 1982 another progressive member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Harold Washington, was being asked to run for mayor of Chicago. What would it take? he was asked? Harold's reply was, "Give me 50,000 new registered voters." He got those and more besides. Canvassing and appealing to the Black Consensus after the registration drive produced over 90% turnouts in African American areas across the city. Harold was elected Chicago's first black and only progressive mayor early in 1983.

The same forces in Chicago conducted two registration drives in 1992. The first, concentrated in several black and Latino areas of the city, put about 12,000 new voters on the rolls and brought them to the polls to defend progressive Latino candidates for the Illinois State Senate against well-funded right-wing Latino surrogates in a Democratic primary. A whopping percentage of those newly registered and canvassed Latino voters cast ballots for Carol Moseley Braun, providing her narrow margin of statewide victory in that primary election. A second voter registration drive over the summer put well over 100,000 new voters on the rolls and made Braun the first black woman ever to sit in the US Senate and the only African American US Senator in the 20th century.

It's not a mystery. It's all doable, and it's all been done many times before.

Bruce A. Dixon can be contacted at Bruce@Dixonmail.com. Mr. Dixon has compiled additional, important information on the contest in Georgia's 4th congressional district. Visit his web site. http://www.bdixon.net/mckinney-analysis.html


Below is Bruce Dixon's prescription for a winning voter canvas and registration operation.

CONDUCTING A CANVASS AND VOTER REGISTRATION DRIVE

In Chicago, independent progressive candidates frequently face black and Latino opponents funded and sponsored by what we fondly call “the Machine”. Sometimes the progressives lose and some other times they win. When they do win it’s by sticking to a set of steps much like the following for the registration drive phase of their campaigns:

A.      Set a numeric registration goal for your drive and appoint someone to be responsible for doing whatever it takes to accomplish this goal.

B.      A modest amount of radio advertising pushing arguably nonpartisan voter registration during the 2 weeks before the registration deadline is necessary. Set some funds aside in your budget for this. Registration being a legally “nonpartisan” activity in most places, it is possible to hit up donors who may have already reached their hard money contribution limits. It may be advisable to maintain a separate “nonpartisan” entity to collect and administer funds for your voter registration drive.

C.      Recruit and train a core of volunteers who will conduct registration activities either directly through the campaign or indirectly as members of their unions, church, community or other groups. Offer technical assistance – advice on areas, sites and techniques. Set aside some funds in your budget as volunteers or their organizations may have to be compensated.

D.      In the several weeks before the cutoff of voter registration, concentrate forces to conduct a door-to-door registration drive in population-rich but registration-poor areas of the district.

E.      Have volunteers carry the candidate’s propaganda along at the same time you are conducting the registration drive. While the person doing registration is not permitted to advocate on behalf of the candidate, someone else tagging along on the same encounter, is. On some high visibility occasions have the candidate out there doing registrations in person. That always sends a nice "nonpartisan" message.

F.      Record each door-to-door contact, along with phone numbers, absent neighbors and family members who may need to be registered, and possible absentee ballot or other such needs.

G.     Photocopy all registration forms before turning them in and add them to your contact database. Use the campaign’s bulk mail permit to send a “thank you for registering” postcard signed by the candidate and informing them of the polling place location, election day and registration deadline and giving them a phone number to contact with any registration or voting related questions.  Your campaign or civic organization doesn’t have a bulk mail permit?  Think about getting one, perhaps in combination with some other progressive campaigns in neighboring districts.

H.      Follow up area visits/phone calls to catch absent family members, and put out door hangers telling those you miss where to go before the registration deadline hits.

I.         There should be 2 follow-up mailings to the newly registered in the weeks before the primary election.

J.       Phone calls and visits to the specific people you registered asking for their commitment to vote for your candidate.

K.      If local laws allow you to hand carry registration forms to the authorities, the candidate or some other newsworthy figure should try to show up at the registration office with a hand truck or wheelbarrow of completed forms for a photo opportunity. Alert your local media contacts.

L.       On the weekend before the close of registration conduct a field operation to get registration volunteers on the ground in as many precincts as possible, along with telephone support to direct some of them to visit the homes or businesses where unregistered people are, and to place and publicize the placement of registration forms in as many locations as possible. This is the time for low-budget media buys reminding folks that it’s their last chance to register for the election. Make the candidate visible in this effort too.

M.    Use this registration drive to expand your volunteer database and ties with organizations that provide occasional manpower for street activities such as student and women’s groups, church groups, unions and the like. Ideally, a single group of people should adopt a single precinct or precincts throughout the drive, but week-by-week accountability to a registration goal is a must.

Before Election Day operations, the canvass is the central activity of a campaign field operation. Without a canvass to measure the results of its activity more reliably than polling and among demographic sectors in which poll results have been less than dependable, campaign management has little or no accountability for results until election day. 

A.      Designate a person to be not just “in charge of” but also accountable for the conduct and results of the canvass. The canvass manager has to be able to command the resources to get the job done, and must report accurate numbers (voter contacts and dispositions, along with current and next-day volunteer activity) daily to the campaign manager and other responsible parties.

B.      Obtain poll sheets or lists of registered voters, make several copies and designate one as the office master copy. Better yet, get the list on disk and rig up your database program to spit out walk or phone sheets or mailing labels based upon various criteria such as precinct, even or odd numbered addresses, senior citizens, etc.

C.      Obtain updated phone numbers for as many voters as possible in areas targeted for phone canvass, and reconcile these with your voter list.

D.      Carefully train your canvassers. They are your contact with thousands of voters.

E.      Set aside an area in the campaign office where noise levels from other activities will not interfere with the phone canvass, and where phone canvassers can work. Set aside several phone lines for this purpose and make it a top priority to keep trained volunteers working these lines each and every evening from 6 to 9, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Since many people have lots of unused cell phone minutes after 7 or 8 PM and on weekends think about distributing scripts and log forms to some to use off the premises, though it is vastly preferable to have people working together.

F.      Develop scripts for canvassers to use that ask the question you want without leading the voter, and train canvassers in their use. Train canvassers to record their contacts and to fish for relevant information such as the names of other registered voters, and whether any of these need absentee ballots, transportation to the polls, or have specific issue concerns. Canvassers for incumbents are certain to encounter constituent service issues which should be referred to the incumbent’s service office and handled there. Constituent problems encountered in this manner should be given a fast track to solution, as these are the same folks whose votes your representatives are personally asking for.

G.     Both door to door and phone canvassers must record each voter contact immediately on the appropriate forms so that it can be reported in a meaningful way to the canvass manager and the campaign.

H.      Develop special issue-oriented scripts for certain groups such as senior citizens or other identifiable groups as dictated by the needs of the campaign. Follow-up special interest mailings may be directed at voters contacted by the canvass.

I.         Use the canvass as a tool to recruit more volunteers from among those most interested in the campaign’s objectives.

J.       The primary use for volunteers in a well-run campaign is to staff the canvass and election day operation.

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Other commentaries in this issue:

The Trojan Horse Watch:
Identify, expose and defeat Black stealth candidates

Misreading the Zimbabwe Crisis: by Bill Derman and John Metzler, Guest Commentators

e-MailBox: Watergate, South?... Move over, Oprah... Return to sender

A letter to our readers: CIA-Crack website is back... Coca-Cola kills... Smallpox: none of the nurses' business... Victory in St. Louis, Setback in New Orleans


Commentaries in Issue 11 September 5, 2002:

Cynthia McKinney's Honorable Defeat: The Hard Right's New Black Strategy rolls on

America Held Hostage - by Bush: Public safety doled out for a political price

E-MailBox: Randall Kennedy and bad whiskey… McKinney: pain, sorrow and anger… Dr. Onyeani challenged on Zimbabwe… Offer to buy out The Black Commentator

A letter to our readers: Mugabe in the cross-hairs


You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety on the Past Issues page.