Do you want to change which people get elected to the Democratic National Committee (DNC)?
Read this for all of your answers!
Just kidding. Here’s the short version of how the DNC delegates are elected:
- The State Executive Committee (SEC) drafts a Delegate Selection Plan that is used to pick delegates to the DNC. The only stipulation for this in the state party’s Plan Of Organization is that an even number of men and women are elected as Delegates (section 7.02).
- SEC members are elected by the Executive Committees from each county.
- The County Executive Committees are made up of a few elected officers and the elected precinct Chairs.
- This means the more precincts that are chaired by progressives, the more voting power progressives have to change the party platform, put more progressives in leadership positions at the DNC and state level, and get corporate money out of the DNC.
TL;DR: Changing the Democratic Party starts at the precinct level!
I’ll show you step-by-step how to organize your precinct so that you can have voting power in your local Democratic Party. I’ll also go through a real-life example precinct in Buncombe County, NC.
Note: This guide is written based on the NC Democratic Party’s Plan of Organization. Precincts may be organized differently in your state or municipality, although in general the process should be the same. Check with your local Democratic party to be sure.
What Is a Precinct?
A precinct is a chunk of a county divided for electoral purposes. Each precinct has its own voting location on Election Day. Precincts are drawn based on population, so some counties have many precincts (Mecklenburg County has ~200!) while more rural counties will have fewer. Buncombe County, NC has 80 precincts to work with.
Think of your precinct as your neighborhood and the neighborhoods directly surrounding it.
Step 1: Register to Vote as a Democrat
Sorry Unaffiliated/Independent voters… you need to be registered as a Democrat in order to hold office within the Democratic Party. If you need to update your voter registration you can drop by your county’s Board of Elections office (sometimes called “Election Services”) during business hours and fill out a new voter registration form.
Not sure where your BOE is? Google “____ County Board of Elections” and your local office should come up.
Step 2: Find Out What Precinct You Live In
When you registered to vote, did you get a card in a mail listing all of your election districts? If so, check that card and your precinct will be listed (on mine its listed as “PCT”).
No card? No problem: NC’s BOE has a nifty voter lookup tool. Go ahead and load that (or your state’s equivalent) and enter your information. Note that the name you enter must exactly match the name you registered with, or else your info will not pull up. This means if you call yourself “Sue Smith” but registered to vote as “Susan Smith,” put in “Susan.”
This tool is really nice: It shows you all of your votingdistricts so that you know which GOP douche-nozzle representing you to call about HB2 or Medicaid expansion. You also get the name and address of your polling place if you vote on election day, and you can see your past voting history and check on absentee ballots if you cast those. For our purposes right now you just need to note the number next to precinct (under the jurisdictions section). We’ll be looking at precinct 30.3 in Buncombe County from here on out.
Step 3: Is Your Precinct Already Organized?
Now its time to look up the local Democratic party. Head back to Google and search for “____ County Democratic Party.” In some cases you may want to add your state to the search term because several states use the same names for counties. Your county’s Democratic party should have a website, and if not there should at least be contact info on your state’s Democratic Party website.
And… we just hit a snag. In Buncombe County (and several other counties in NC), precincts are organized into “clusters” instead of individually. For this county, precinct 30.3 is part of the South Buncombe cluster, which has three Cluster Leaders listed to contact. If I was organizing this Precinct, I would email these leaders to ask if my own Precinct is already organized.
Some county party websites will list out which precincts are organized, some will list cluster information if they organize with clusters, and some will not have any of this info online. If you can’t find this information online the best course of action is to call/email the First Vice Chair of the county party. That person is responsible for coordinating precinct organization and can let you know if your precinct is already organized.
Step 4a: Your Precinct Is NOT Organized
Your precinct is NOT currently organized, which means that there is no one in the local Democratic Party currently representing the people of your neighborhood. You now get a chance to organize this precinct and gain voting power!
To organize a new precinct, you need to get at least five Democrats that live in your precinct to a Precinct Meeting. Thanks to recent rules changes, you can now have a minimum of three Democrats and two Democrats that call in to the meeting. (This is great if you are working with folks who have mobility issues or otherwise can’t physically make it to a meeting.) These are held annually and are all held on the same day as dictated by the state party. This year’s precinct meetings will take place on Wednesday, February 22, with a make-up date on Wednesday, March 8. The meetings have a set agenda that culminates in the election of precinct officers. You want to be elected Precinct Chair or Precinct Vice-Chair to get your vote at the county party level.
Call/email your local party’s First Vice Chair, tell that person that you are interested in organizing your unorganized precinct, and request a “Precinct packet.” This packet contains the precinct meeting agenda and instructions, and may also contain a list of Democrats to contact within the precinct. We’ll get to that later.
Step 4b: Your Precinct IS Organized
Your precinct is currently organized, which means that someone in the local Democratic Party currently represents the people of your neighborhood. You now get a chance to
organize take over this precinct and gain voting power!
The process with working with an already organized precinct is more sensitive than what I outlined in Step 4a. In this case, you want to reach out to your precinct chair and ask what time and place the precinct meeting will be held at. If your goal is replacing pro-corporate Democrats with more progressive Democrats, then you’ll also want to figure out if your precinct’s current Chair and Vice Chair share those values. I can’t help you with specifics on that, but in general you can start attending your local party meetings or reach out to other Democrats in the area and try to gather info on your precinct officers.
You may find that the current Chair and Vice Chair are already sympathetic, supported Bernie in the primary elections, etc. In that case, show up to their meeting, see if they need help hitting the 5-person minimum, and in general be a good ally.
Or you may find that your precinct chair went gung-ho for Hillary and defended Wall Street donors or blames the election on Russian haxx0rs… If that is the case in your precinct, then its time to run for precinct chair! The big difference between organizing a new precinct and trying to take over an existing precinct is that you need to treat the latter like an election, and that you may not be able to work with the county party to get information. If you get more people to show up to the precinct meeting to vote you in as Chair, then you get the spot. I’ll go into details over this shortly…
If you reach out to the existing precinct Chair/Vice Chair and they don’t get back to you in a timely manner (a week tops) then flag this for the county party. Some people sit on these positions and do nothing after being elected, move, etc. If this is the case, you should be able to move forward as if the Precinct is unorganized. Your First Vice Chair will help with next steps if this situation comes up.
Step 5: Get the Precinct Map.
You gotta know what your precinct actually looks like! Having a map is critical to knowing which streets actually make up your precinct, so that you’re not wasting time canvassing voters who can’t actually help you hit five attendees/win your election.
To get a map of your precinct, check with your county’s Board of Elections (BOE). For my example precinct, the Buncombe County BOE website has each precinct map available as PDF files. Here is the map for Precinct 30.3.
Some BOEs will have the maps available online, but many will not. In that case, you will have to visit the BOE in person and request a copy of the precinct map. In Mecklenburg County, for example, a YUUUGE map showing every precinct boundary for the County is available for $10 or $15.
Step 6: Pick a Meeting Location/Time and Publicize Meeting Info
Only for people organizing new/unorganized Precincts. If you are planning a take over, you and your voters need to attend the current Chair’s meeting.
You need to find a place to hold your meeting. The place must be publicly accessible, able to seat at least 5 and as many as 20 people, and ideally be handicapped accessible (look for a wheelchair ramp). Great potential meeting locations include nearby libraries, community centers, restaurants with private rooms, and churches.
I like to hold my precinct meetings at a local restaurant that is either in the precinct or close to it. That way you can hold a meeting around dinner time and get people to come for a meal that wouldn’t come for just the meeting. For instance, a couple of years ago I held my precinct meeting at a local pizza place down the street from where I lived. We supported a small business in the neighborhood, got organized, and had a nice night out.
As for the meeting time, since this year’s meetings are being held on a Wednesday I’d aim for an evening time slot. You don’t want to prevent people from showing up who have to work during the day.
If I was organizing precinct 30.3, looking at the map I don’t see any good locations inside the precinct besides the Avery’s Creek Community Center (which is also this Precinct’s polling location). I can try to book the Community Center for the meeting, or go nearby to a local burrito place. I would set my meeting for 6:30 or 7:00 PM to give folks a chance to head over from work while keeping the location’s closing time in mind (plan for up to 2 hours total for your meeting).
You may have to provide notice of your precinct meeting to your precinct’s polling location and/or provide meeting details to the local newspaper. These rules can vary by county, but its a good idea to publicize your meeting anyway. For example, for precinct 30.3 I would put on my to-do list to email the meeting details to Asheville’s Mountain XPress weekly paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times, the Buncombe County Democratic Party’s First Vice Chair, and create a Facebook event. I would plan to snail-mail a printed meeting notice to the Avery’s Creek Community Center. I would also look for local progressive groups in the area and make sure to send them this info.
Note: You don’t technically have to choose a location inside your pecinct’s boundaries (especially since many precincts are all residential or have no good meeting spots), but it is encouraged. Having a meeting location close by will increase the chance of your neighbors actually showing up to your meeting.
Step 7: Talk to Your Democratic Neighbors!
Here comes the fun part.
You need to get people to actually show up to your precinct meeting, or if you are planning a take over, get enough people to show up to the current Chair’s meeting that will vote for you over that person. Either way there needs to be at least five Democrats present at the Precinct meeting in order for it to be successfully organized.
I like following Moore’s Law when it comes to event planning. Expect 80% of your Yes/Maybe respondents to be no-shows to your meeting. That means I’m not 100% confident that I’m going to get my five attendees until I get 25 Yeses or Maybes from people I talk to.
How will you know which of your neighbors are Democrats? If you are organizing a new precinct, your precinct packet should come with a list of “strong Dems” printed from VoteBuilder (the DNC’s voter file tool). See if your local First Vice Chair can get you setup with a VoteBuilder account for your Precinct so that you can pull your own voter lists.
If your First Vice Chair isn’t being responsive or will not provide a list of contacts because you’re trying to overtake an existing precinct Chair, then you will need to gain access to the voter file for your Precinct. You will need to visit your local BOE again or check their website for the raw voter file. In Buncombe County, the voter file is available here on the BOE website.
Voter registration data is public information. The information will be available most likely in a giant .CSV file. There are companies and systems available for a fee that will have this data available in an easy-to-use format (VoteBuilder, NationBuilder, etc.), but the cost is going to be prohibitive versus going through the data yourself in Excel or OpenOffice. Once you get a hold of this data you will first want to filter down to just Democrats, and then filter down to Democrats that vote regularly. Democrats who vote in Primary elections are going to be your “top tier” contacts and the most likely to want to spend their weeknight helping you get your precinct organized.
Call or Canvass? You should aim to canvass (go door-to-door) to reach your contacts if possible. You will get a better response rate, but you will also hit less contacts per hour. How you want to reach out to your neighbors is going to greatly depend on the layout of your precinct. For precinct 30.3, some of the residential areas are tightly packed with lots of homes in a small area, and some other homes are spread out. I would walk the areas that have a high density of homes and call the voters that are a bit out of the way.
I’m not going to delve into too much detail about how to canvass, and a lot of effective canvassing is going to come from trail-and-error. Get a friend to help, or try to recruit enthusiastic Democrats you meet to help you reach their neighbors on their street. Do what you can to make this process less of a grind.
Also don’t try to hit every house or make every call in one shot. There are seven weeks until February 22. If you can get 4 Yes/Maybe responses out of your neighbors each week you will be on track to get your five attendees by the meeting date.
One last thing, make reminder calls a few days before and the day of your meeting with everyone who said Yes or Maybe. Don’t let the people you worked hard to reach flake because they forgot about the meeting or got the date mixed up.
Step 8: The Meeting
If you followed the other steps, you should have a precinct meeting setup, notices sent out, and a list of people who are attending/might attend. If you are doing a take over of an existing precinct, you have a list of your supporters that you are bringing and have double checked that they are coming.
This is more important for a take over situation, but be prepared with a statement, platform, or any other material that can help make the case that you are the best candidate for the precinct Chair or Vice Chair positions. Remember that the people you are meeting with are typically the activists on the ground. They’re ordinary folks who may have worked in local campaigns or people who simply vote often and make the occasional donation. No matter who they supported in the primary, its up to you to put those persuasive skills to use and convince them that you can best represent them in the local Democratic Party.
You will want some signage to help your fellow Democrats find your table, or otherwise have a plan to make sure no one gets lost trying to find your meeting. The more visible the meeting is, the better chance that you won’t lose anybody.
Did you get at least five Democrats to show up? Did you get elected Chair or Vice Chair? Congratulations, your precinct is now organized and you have voting power at the local level!
Not enough people showed up. What happens now? You will need to hold a make-up meeting on March 8th. Go back to Step 7 and hopefully you can get your neighbors to show up for the make-up date.
After the Meeting
You are now a member of your county Democratic Party Executive Committee! You get a vote in the local party and can influence how donations are spent, which local candidates/issues to support, how to grow the party and improve voter turnout, AND help choose the SEC members that shape how the state party functions.
You are also the Democratic party representative for your precinct. With this leadership position comes an opportunity to improve voter turnout in your neighborhood. You may want to start holding bi-monthly potluck meetings with your fellow precinct activists, and if they are successful start inviting candidates to speak. You can organize phone banks in your precinct to call your representatives as a group. You can hold Precinct meetings with the purpose of deciding on endorsements. When it is election season (later this year for NC) you can run your own mini ‘coordinated campaign’ and walk your street while other volunteers in your precinct canvass the other streets. Local candidates in particular never have the ability to effectively canvass the number of voters they need to reach, but if you can cover your precinct for them they can focus on other precincts and have a better chance of winning! Showing local candidates that a progressive like you is having success organizing your community can help sway local Democratic candidates in a more progressive direction as they campaign for your vote… and the election results in precincts that are well-organized always turn out better for Democrats across-the-board compared to Precincts that don’t have this kind of support.
This is how we can change the Democratic Party from within. It is not glamorous and it is a LOT of hard work, but if we put in the effort we can nudge this party in a more progressive direction, one precinct at a time.