Why not just fund all the lawyers?

This is a lightly-edited version of an email I sent to a team I work with, about why we should be focused on raising money for grassroots groups, in addition to legal organizations and political campaigns directly, to fight the threat of a stolen election.

I am writing this from the perspective of Pennsylvania, as that is obviously the state that I know best — but I can imagine that scenarios I could see happening in PA are also possible in any of the other Big 5, particularly Wisconsin (which shares the PA problem of not starting the vote count of mail or absentee ballots until Election Day itself). The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has only run one election where the majority of voters were eligible to vote by mail — it happened this past June, and it took about 10 days to certify statewide results.

There are any manner of good analyses of how the Trump campaign might attempt to subvert the election, including Jeffrey Toobin’s recent New Yorker article, and the Atlantic piece that details the outsized influence that state legislators may attempt to invoke. Here’s a good analysis from yesterday’s Inquirer, about the various challenges that the Trump campaign is already throwing up against the wall in PA around Philly voting — I’m sure you could find similar pieces in the major papers of cities in all the battleground states. The purpose of this piece isn’t to make you more stressed out and scared about all the nefarious legal machinations that may come our way between now and January 20, 2021, it’s to talk about why, in order to fight those legal machinations, we need to fund organizing, not just lawyering.

So what are the kinds of things that we’ll need organizers to do, in the period between Election Day & the Inauguration?

First and foremost: The fundamental job of an organizer is to explain things about a system to people in language they can understand, and move them to take action to change it. If the organizers that we are investing in during the pre-election period are effective — and I believe that they are — then they will be the most trusted messengers in their communities after the election too.

In the post-election period, in addition to smart lawyers who can win in court, we also need to be able to win in the court of public opinion. Here are some ways that our groups can and should be asked to do that:

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  • Explain to people in their communities what is going on and how to fight it. There will be a lot of work, on the Republican side, to make people feel like this is a fight around complicated legal issues that are hard for the average person to understand, so please just go about your business while the lawyers work it out. We will need to fund massive organizing to explain to people things like, “hey, the only other time a lot of people voted by mail in PA, it took 10 days to count the votes, so don’t stress, this is normal.”
  • Find plaintiffs. In many states, in order to file a lawsuit about a bad outcome for voters, you need named plaintiffs — people who were actually harmed by whatever the thing is that the lawsuit is about. Sometimes, in order to file a statewide election, you need plaintiffs from multiple counties or jurisdictions to show that the damage was state wide and not confined to one city. Our groups are tracking voter registrations (including those that are rejected) and vote-by-mail applications, and will know which of their community members have good cases that show systemic problems. They will also be more trusted by a voter they have already engaged with/have helped through a voting problem. It is not easy to convince a “normal” (ie — not someone who spends their Sunday mornings writing memos about organizing) person to sue the President of the United States. It helps if you already have a relationship, and can rely on trust and the feeling that someone local has your back.
Seated woman holds a phone that says, “Call your rep now!”
  • Run mass texting or phone banking operations. Again, these may be directed at state legislators, at county election officials, at governors, at members of Congress, at the Senate, at members of the Electoral College themselves — there are multiple public actors who will have the opportunity to do bad (or good), in the post-election period. We should make sure that the groups in whatever state needs this have all the resources that they need — which might even require more money than they needed in the election. Elections have finite universes — for example, in most cases, you aren’t necessarily spending a lot of time organizing people who are too young to vote, or who are ineligible to vote for whatever reason. That doesn’t mean you don’t call them to take action when our democracy is jeopardized. A person who lives in a Congressional district is that Congressperson’s constituent, even if they are too young to vote for that Congressperson. They can and should be given the opportunity to make their voices heard.
People march under a sign that reads “Count all our votes!”
  • Organize mass demonstrations. We’ve come a long way in democratizing the ability to organize demonstrations in the past four years, happily. But, to be honest, we cannot afford to have demonstrations that are seen as largely white-led, which is what we have seen a lot of, in demonstrations that are electorally-related, because volunteer white Democratic activists still have not learned enough about organizing BIPOC allies. (I want to be clear that I am not referring to the demonstrations that have been organized by BIPOC communities & their allies around community issues like police murder, DACA, the end of TPS, the Muslim ban, lack of PPE for essential workers, etc.). Did you go to one of the memorials for RBG, hosted at federal courthouses last month? Was it largely white? ‘Nuff said.
  • Organize direct actions. All the Democratic political advisors in the world will not come up with the creative kinds of disruptions that our groups will, because Democratic advisors are part of the system. Do not ask people who directly benefit from a system to come up with ways to shut it down.
  • Organize community defense networks. Heavily-armed, right-wing “patriots” are not going to be coming to the kinds of neighborhoods where I and many of our other white staff & donors live, to impose their visions of ‘law and order’ — either before the election or after. If they come to mine, I can reasonably expect to call the cops and survive the call. That is not true for most of the BIPOC communities where our groups are organizing.
  • Continue to organize mutual aid, as the political system in the US grinds to a halt. Do we believe that we are getting some new covid-19 relief legislation through Congress, while the entire US political system is in a street fight with itself about the continuity of government? If not, we better have a plan for how to help people survive the coming wave of layoffs and evictions.

I hope this is helpful to folks who are working on their late election fundraising pitches, and welcome added information or feedback from the other staff who work directly with grassroots groups about things I’ve left out or that are not clear enough.