About 40 Washtenaw County residents gathered Sunday afternoon at the Washtenaw County Learning Resource Center for an event titled Mobilizing for Michigan: 2017 Listening Tour Launch. The event, led by the Precinct Organizing Committee of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, aimed to organize residents from county precincts to canvass effectively and communicate better with local Democratic voters.

Catherine Daligga, a vice chair for the Precinct Organizing Committee, said the event is meant to encourage community members to listen to their neighbors, act upon their concerns and volunteer to canvass locally.

“Our objective today is to start grouping people geographically so that we can use a team approach to talk to people in the neighborhoods, listen to what people have to say about their reactions to the 2016 election and start to serve as a reliable conduit of information back and forth from the people in the community to elected officials and to the Democratic Party, and vice versa,” she said.

She noted in recent years, canvassing and reaching voters has been based on Big Data and technology instead of communication.

“To do it, it’s a relatively novel approach in some ways, because we’ve been relying on Big Data for a while, but the personal touch is indispensable,” she said. “The politics is based on relationships. If we foster good relationships, then we’ll be stronger.”

The Listening Tour itself will consist of acquiring 65,000 contacts — Democratic voters in Washtenaw County — by the end of 2017, by way of volunteers who will canvass and reach out to their communities.

Daligga opened the event and explained the importance of precinct-based organizing, as well as the plans for the Listening Tour. She said Washtenaw County needs to improve their voter turnout.

“We’ve done remarkably well in the county for keeping our turnout better than it has been in some places, and yet it’s still true that our turnout is not as good as it could be and we still have a noticeable fall-off in the non-presidential elections,” she said. “To this end, precinct organizing is the key.”

Precincts refer to the smallest political units in the American electoral system, and they are represented by one or more precinct delegates. These delegates serve as a primary link between residents and their party, and according to Daligga, a strong precinct organization generally corresponds to a much better voter turnout.

Daligga emphasized the importance of community relations to be fostered by the Listening Tour.

“Over and over and over again, study after study shows that the most effective way to mobilize voters is to talk to people, and to talk to people face to face, not on the phone, not online, not through emails — it’s remarkable,” she said.

Daligga noted Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in Michigan by 2.2 votes per precinct. She said the Democratic Party has failed to organize people and has only served in the context of specific political parties.

“The party has existed really as an adjunct in many ways to political parties,” she said. “It’s had the loss of an independent existence in terms of organizing people. That’s what we’re here for today.”

Daligga noted 2017 is not nearly as intense in terms of political campaigning as are presidential election years, and so it should serve as an opportunity to regroup and improve upon the situation the party found itself in last year.

With regard to reaching 65,000 residents, Daligga said the number may seem staggering, but it is definitely possible.

“The closer we get to that goal, the more we grow the number of people that are willing to take on a few people to talk to, the farther ahead we have ever been,” she said. “Our objective is to aim to recruit people to go talk to their neighbors, serve as a community liaison and resource, and socialize — get to know each other.”

She emphasized the importance of not just asking people for money and votes but really listening to their concerns and transforming those concerns into actions.

Washtenaw County resident John Erdevig also addressed the group, speaking on his experience as a canvasser. He noted the importance of asking people to refer their neighbors and friends to gain a stable foundation of voters.

“We went out door to door, starting with the people that we knew, but always asking, ‘Do you know anybody on Yorkshire who might be a Democratic?’ and we always got a hit,” he said. “So you can go out like a web — literally a network.”

After Daligga and Erdevig addressed the group, attendees — who were seated according to geographic location — were asked to converse with one another and consider the level of involvement they’d like to commit to on the listening tour. Daligga said some residents can simply survey their neighbors to make sure the WCDP has correct contact information.

Beyond that, volunteers can converse with residents they may not know; they can ask people’s concerns, discuss with them how to contact an elected official and also ask if they’d like to become volunteers.

For the Listening Tour, volunteers will use walk lists as they travel around neighborhoods to make sure they hit the right houses. The names on the walk lists will be those of registered Democrats and will be provided by the Voter Activation Network — a system through which Democratic campaigns can contact voters and update voter information. However, according to Daligga and several attendees, the VAN can be unreliable in terms of such contact information. Thus, volunteers will be responsible for updating the VAN when possible, but also just knocking door to door, as volunteers in the past have found this effective.  

Daligga said by 2018, the WCDP will have hopefully improved the VAN and even have a database of their own for contacting voters.

Ann Arbor resident John Sloat is a volunteer on the Precinct Organizing Committee and was one of the leaders at the event who conversed with residents.

He said the listening tour can offset the conception of canvassing only in the midst of an election.

“Frequently what has happened in the past, both in Washtenaw County and in other county parties in Michigan, is the county parties get organized and canvass when we get into the election cycle, so six months, or whatever it is before an election is actually going to happen,” he said. “What we’re trying to do now is really get out … canvas and talk to people where you don’t even have a midterm (election), you don’t have a presidential election going on.”

Sloat echoed Daligga’s comments that the WCDP wants precinct delegates from the Democratic Party to help stay in touch with the people in their precinct, be a resource to them and help get out the vote — not just when canvassers knock on doors to talk up a specific candidate.

Ann Arbor resident Ellen Doss was in attendance at the event. She said she is on the mailing list for the Washtenaw County Democratic Party.

“What I’ve actually been interested in is this local, start-from-the-ground-up organizing effort,” she said.

Doss said she attended an event comparable to a "wake" after the 2016 election and heard someone speak about the importance of organizing precincts.

“I thought to myself, that’s really the way to connect,” she said.

She said she thinks it may not be considered “cool” for people of a younger generation to identify themselves as a Democrat or Republican, unless they are very gung-ho. She said she feels there should be a way to re-establish relations between neighbors and friends within their political party.

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