During the 2019 Kent Cornucopia Days, one of the region’s oldest summer festivals, the Rev. Jimmie James beckoned onlookers to his voter information booth. One man who had slowly circled back to James’ booth, sandwiched between a line of vendors, whispered to him that he hadn’t voted in nearly three decades. He had served prison time, the passerby said in a hushed tone. Knowing what to do, James pointed to a line in a pamphlet that stated formerly incarcerated people are eligible to vote in Washington.
The passerby was elated. “He looked at it and said, ‘Is this real?’” James recalled the man saying.
It was a common interaction for James as the executive director of Auburn-based nonprofit Being Empowered Thru Supportive Transition (B.E.S.T.) Since its founding in 2015, James has helped the formerly incarcerated and people experiencing homelessness navigate voting, housing and health systems.
During election years, community organizations are essential for educating and registering voters who have been historically underserved, said King County Elections’ Chief of Staff Kendall Hodson. The boots on the ground mobilization efforts are especially important in South King County, which holds the highest concentration of unregistered voters in the county, according to 2018 King County Elections data.
In 2018, 29% of eligible voters were unregistered in King County Council District 5, which represents portions of Kent and surrounding areas in the south, compared to 10% in District 4, which covers parts of North Seattle. Many areas in South King County saw turnout under 30% in the 2019 general election, significantly below the county average of 49%.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, B.E.S.T. and other nonprofits that serve South King County residents have needed to be inventive: They’ve drawn on social media posts, hotlines, yard signs and Facebook Live events to get out the vote.
B.E.S.T. is one of 39 current grantees of King County Elections’ Voter Education fund, which offered grants ranging from $15,000 to $40,000 to organizations that serve marginalized communities between 2019 and 2020. Grant recipients submitted proposals to improve voter access through activities such as setting up tables at fairs and events, radio shows or virtual programs.
Started in 2016, the fund was born from a partnership between King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation, and originally focused on serving people who spoke limited English. When King County Elections added ballots in Spanish and Korean and staff that could speak the languages, voter participation among those populations dramatically increased. The program has since expanded to include all underserved communities, such as people experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities and South King County residents.
“We see historically lower turnout in South King County as well as lower voter registration rates,” said Hodson.
The department sought to broaden its impact by turning to grassroots organizations already embedded in the communities that it hoped to reach. Along with the funding, King County Elections provides virtual monthly trainings to their partners on various topics including voter trends and helping people register online.
A year after the fund started, there was a 52% increase in voter registrations for speakers of languages other than English throughout the county. Otherwise, the organizations’ metrics of success vary depending on their field plans, which may include registering a certain number of voters during tabling sessions. Last year, grant recipients reached 140,000 people, held nearly 2,000 events, and registered 7,950 voters, according to King County Elections.
The 2020 election cycle has galvanized local voters, including in South King County, said Hodson. This weekend, King County Elections saw a record number of people at drop boxes.
“We’ve been hearing from voters for weeks that they’re anxious and eager to cast their ballots,” said Hodson.
Staff at El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle-based nonprofit with an office in Federal Way that serves the Latino population, say they’ve relied on their understanding of the community’s needs to offer culturally sensitive programming.
“People are not registered to vote for a variety of reasons, and we want to make sure that people have as much information as possible about voter registration,” said Mandela Gardner, El Centro de la Raza’s volunteer coordinator, adding that misinformation or lack of information leads to barriers in voter registration.
Prior to the pandemic, El Centro de la Raza would table at events throughout Greater Seattle in locations including Kent and at the grand opening of their Federal Way office last February. Voter registration was also offered at the center’s ESL classes, legal clinics and summer events.
During the pandemic, their voter mobilization efforts have pivoted to telephone outreach, and they plan to send postal reminders closer to the general election. A hotline operated by volunteers bilingual in English and Spanish that will launch Oct. 19 and conclude in November will allow voters to call in with questions about voting.
Indigenous Showcase — a Seattle-based nonprofit that amplifies Native voices by and for Natives through film, poetry and art — uses its social media platform to boost messages on voter registration. Their weekly Zoom chats about voting called Café Conversations with Katie and Chloe, which launched a few months ago, are uploaded to Facebook and engage Generation Z. For instance, their fourth episode on Wednesday featured a King County Elections representative who discussed different facets of the ballot including the duties of an insurance commissioner, which is up for election.
For Indigenous Showcase Associate Producer Eleni Ledezma, exercising the right to vote honors previous generations. “Our ancestors fought for our right to vote,” said Ledezma.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented staff from hosting registration booths at powwows and canoe journeys as they had in the past, Indigenous Showcase has expanded its reach through partnerships with other Indigenous organizations. For instance, Indigenous Showcase adds flyers about voting into food packages that local Na’ah Illahee Fund sends to elders. “It was paramount to us that we keep our community safe,” said Ledezma.
South King County cities have also turned to partnerships with grassroots organizations during the pandemic. Last week, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell filmed a video to increase voter turnout in conjunction with Federal Way Black Collective, a nonprofit that serves Black residents.
King County Elections will host voter centers throughout the county during the election, one of which will be held at Federal Way’s Performing Arts and Event Center starting Oct. 31 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“There’s no more precious right in our nation than voting,” said Ferrell.
James from B.E.S.T. agreed. He stresses to formerly incarcerated people returning to society that one of their duties as a community member is to vote.
In previous years, B.E.S.T. volunteers would set up informational tables at transitional houses, criminal justice centers, and dinners for people living unsheltered. They’d help people register, hand out flyers, and dispel myths about voting. When unsheltered people filled out voter registration forms, volunteers and staff would suggest they list a friend’s house or social service mailboxes in lieu of a stable address.
James finds that talking with people one on one helps them drop their guard and to inquire about their rights. As a Black man who serves predominately residents of color, he thinks that when given the proper resources, community groups are well-geared to mobilize voters. James believes that the Voter Education Fund’s support of on-the-ground groups is imperative in South King County, where people displaced from Seattle in recent years are eager to create a sense of community.
“When people hear that information from someone who looks like them and talks like them, they say ‘Oh!’” said James.
Distrust of institutions due to historical disenfranchisement and the myths that formerly incarcerated people or residents who owe court fines are barred from registering are some of the most common barriers that James said he sees when encouraging people to vote. Another pressing issue for the population he serves is their lack of access to technology, which can preclude them from registering to vote online or gathering more access about ballot measures and candidates.
During the pandemic, he’s partnered with the Kent nonprofit Restore, Assemble and Produce to disseminate voting pamphlets along with free groceries to residents.
The personal connections he makes with attendees at the weekly food giveaway helps him get to the root of their reluctance to vote. He uses people’s frustration about issues such as housing and health care to underscore the importance of voting.
“Right now what people have on their minds is survival, so we have to be persistent and consistent with passing along the education,” said James.