Last week, California held its primary elections for the upcoming midterm elections, in which we’ll vote in important new members of our government such as governor, state senator, and state assembly members. A few days before, I helped organize an event that brought people from my church together to discuss everything on the ballot, and it went as well as I could have hoped!
Just a month and a half ago, I had been completely unaware of the primaries. I was at a meetup for progressive Asian American Christians in late April, and the topic of conversation turned to politics, specifically the Asian American candidate for San Francisco’s mayoral race, Jane Kim. Because one of my friends was very active in her campaign, I already knew quite a bit about the upcoming mayoral election. But I was shocked to learn at the meetup that the entire state was also going to have elections in just a few weeks! Shocked, and a little embarrassed. The next day, I received my voter guides in the mail, and I resolved to do my due diligence as a citizen. Not only did I want to do my own research on the positions and propositions on the ballot, I also wanted to engage my community in the process.
I was inspired by a comment one of the members of PAAC said, about how it was difficult and confusing enough to go through a voting guide alone, and how it was much more fun to talk through everything with friends (who may or may not be more informed!). That’s how I came up with the idea to hold a ballot party, where people would openly discuss or debate everything on the ballot, and also drink beer and have a good time!
I had never organized anything like this before. I’ve been a registered voter for almost ten years now, and for most of my adult life I’ve simply voted however the majority of progressive Democrats wanted me to vote. And since for six of those years, Democrats were doing fairly well (as far as my politically naive mind was aware) on a national level, I never paid much attention to state elections. I always cast my ballot, but it never seemed like my vote really mattered. Then 2016 happened. And for quite some time now, I’ve been realizing more and more that you really can’t just blindly trust an entire political party, especially when they’re as large as the Democrats or the Republicans. Just because someone is in the same party doesn’t mean they really have all the same values that you do or will fight for what you think is right when they take office.
So I decided that this year, I needed to be a more informed voter. Even though Democrats have a strong hold on political power in California, I wanted to know more about the candidates, especially when important races would pit Democratic candidates against each other. And even though progressive political groups made instructional videos clearly identifying which propositions to vote for and against, I wanted to know more details about those, too. I quickly found out that that meant doing a lot of research… and that’s where the party came in! If enough people attended, each person could be responsible for one position or one proposition and do the necessary background research for it, then give a short presentation that would enlighten everyone else. Simple division of labor. Of course, people would also come in with their own biases and opinions, but I figured that’s part of what would make it more fun. That, and food and beer!
The plan was only half formed in my head when I stood up in church the next Sunday and made an almost improvised announcement. I just said I had this weird idea to talk about the upcoming election and make it into a community event, and asked for help in bringing it into fruition. I’m really thankful that my church is receptive to random ideas like these. I didn’t need to clear it with the pastor or do anything official; I didn’t need to beg or plead with people to get involved. All I had to do was put the idea out there, and people jumped on board. Leslie offered her house to host the party, and also made food! I got eight people to present on a dozen different ballot items.
In the weeks and days leading up to the party, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure if anyone would come or what would actually happen, but, hey, God provides! We had about twenty people in attendance, and everyone was an active participant, whether they had meticulously planned their presentation or just decided spontaneously to come (drawn by the food, no doubt) and ended up really engaging in the discussion.
All the feedback that Leslie and I got from the party was very positive. People remarked that they were really happy that they had their questions about the ballot answered (to some degree), since there were some confusing things on it. They were also pleased that they could talk openly and frankly, but also respectfully, about some issues that were really personal to them. Many attendees of the ballot party had strong opinions about certain people, but even when opinions conflicted, they never spiraled out of control, the way they probably would on, say, a Facebook discussion of the same topic. Maybe this is partly because everyone in attendance was part of the same church, and we had to maintain a high moral standard. (Just kidding!)
So, how did the ballot party actually work? I’ll give a brief overview. I set up a spreadsheet online that I shared with everyone who RSVP’d for the event. Each row had a proposition and a brief description, or a rundown of candidates for a certain position. Then, I asked people to put their names down in a certain cell if they wanted to do the background research for a particular ballot item. People seemed hesitant to sign up for slots at first, but at the last minute, we got enough people to make it work, with an informal presentation for all but one of the propositions and most of the government seats.
The party started at 1pm, and I gave folks until 1:30 to arrive and grab some food. I started everyone off with an icebreaker and a few reminders: 1) this is a ballot discussion party organized by a church, but the church doesn’t officially endorse any people or positions, 2) be respectful of your allotted time, and 3) be respectful of others; listen and respond, rather than reacting.
The timing part was important. I quickly calculated that if we gave every issue approximately ten minutes, we could be done in about two and a half hours. I decided that one hour for the propositions (one of which in particular would likely generate a heated discussion much longer than ten minutes) and one hour for the people, would be good enough, with cushion time and a built-in intermission. At times, I am a stickler for running a tight ship and making sure everything starts and ends as planned. (At other times, I am very late and everything is a hot mess and I don’t care.) So I made my phone’s timer very visible and kept the discussions moving quickly, sometimes having to wrap things up abruptly. But I think nobody at the party really minded; my strict timing didn’t prevent the debates from being lively or cause any undue friction. It was also great that we had finished officially discussing everything well before 4pm, which gave everyone time at the end to break off into smaller groups and continue conversing independently.
And in the end, the ballot party really did help me make better decisions about a lot of the propositions and candidates! On the day of the election, I dropped off my mail-in ballot at city hall, proud to have done my civic duty. Later that day, I came across a few friends who were hurrying to fill out their ballots before the polls closed, and they had just found a progressive website that told them exactly what and who to vote for. I mean, that’s a great way to do it, especially if you’re pressed for time, but I personally really appreciated that I got to discuss the ballot in person with other people, some of whom share my views and some of whom don’t. We didn’t all come away from the party having decided to vote exactly the same way, but we did come away with a better appreciation for the problems our state and county face and the complex approaches to resolving them. It also was a great avenue for community building with my church. I think that pulling off the ballot party successfully was a good reflection of the kind of civic engagement our church claims to prioritize, letting actions speak instead of (or in this case, via) our words.
I’m excited to throw another ballot party in November for the actual midterm election, and I encourage you to think about doing something similar with your community!
Word of the Day: to traduce, from the Latin trans (“across”) + ducere (“to lead”), means to slander someone, to speak badly of them to damage their reputation. I find it interesting that the literal meaning, based on etymology, is to transport or to lead along, but idiomatically, it has a negative connotation. Rest assured that there was little to no traduction taking place at the ballot party!