Working to Save Democracy: Seattle’s David Domke Mobilizes Volunteers

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This is likely the most important election of our lifetimes. Voters will decide whether to re-elect a president with strong anti-democratic tendencies, utter disregard for the truth, and careless about the effects of climate change on the future of mankind. As many citizens as possible ought to vote—but may not be able to because of the killer COVID 19 pandemic.   

There’s a debate among social scientists and election officials whether making voting easier would help one party or the other, but many Republicans, led by Donald Trump, act and talk as though they think it would destroy their chances of prevailing over Democrats.  

David Domke (Image: Wikimedia)

One who agrees with them is UW Prof. David Domke, founder of a 2,000-volunteer, Seattle-based activist group, Common Purpose Now, working to expand voter participation and elect Democrats all over the country this year.

Domke, who stepped down last year as the highly-successful chair of UW’s Communications Department, is  convinced that “one party, the Democrats, is dedicated to inclusion of all groups in society and one party, the Republicans, is dedicated to maintaining the power of whites, especially white men.”

 CPNow engages in multiple activities. It organizes in-person, phone and mail voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives in key states. It also urges federal and state officials to adopt mail-in or absentee voting to prevent COVID19 from devastating the 2020 elections. And its political action committee helps local activists  canvass for Democratic candidates (this year, in 19 states).

Besides that, Domke conducts a popular lecture series, now through YouTube and Zoom.

In one recent lecture, he described the current-day Republican party as “the cult of Trump.” And in another, he convincingly demonstrated that the GOP is dominated by whites and is determined to limit voting to nullify the growing demographic power of Democratic-leaning blacks, Latinos, young people, and single women.

They’ve done it, he said, by enacting well-documented strict voter ID laws, limiting voting times and locations, making it hard to register or obtain absentee ballots, preventing students from voting where they attend college, and gerrymandering Congressional and state legislative districts.

That realization, he told me, converted him from being a long-standing “center-left Democrat” who decided only at the last minute to vote for then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000, to a dedicated “progressive”  who’s comfortable, though, supporting Joe Biden in 2020.

He’s also an amiable small-d democrat whose preferred CPNow title is not President or CEO but “leader of field work and learning.” Domke shares the limelight with Charles Douglas, “Director of Brand and Big Ideas” and leader of CPNext, the group’s outreach to millennials. Almost the entire eight-person CPNow staff is young and non-white. Domke emphasizes that when its volunteers work in other states, they follow the lead of partner organizations.

“The model is the Mississippi Freedom Summer” of 1964, when “out-of-state voter registration volunteers got their marching orders from locals.” CP’s traveling motto is “Our Boots, Their Ground.”

After starting a journalism career in the 1980s, Domke, now 53, switched to teaching in 1991, got a Ph.D in 1996, joined the UW faculty in 1998 and became chair of the Communications Department in 2008, building it into the second largest undergraduate program at the university (after biology) and raising millions in funding.

He had opportunities to take low-level Obama campaign jobs in 2008 and 2012, but decided it was incompatible with his academic position. In 2016, with three years to go in his department chairmanship, he decided he would retire in 2019 and get involved in politics, which he’d studied extensively. He’s now on leave from UW.

He decided on the CPNow model because, as a professor, he’d led journalism students on reporting trips during presidential campaigns and participated in “pilgrimages” to several Southern civil rights sites, where students interviewed participants in epic marches, sit-ins, and integration crises. 

Now, his group has a $1.4 million budget and 2,000 regular volunteers who travel, phone and write to officials and voters. He and Douglas regularly hold “salons” (now on Zoom) to recruit new volunteers and financial backers. 

Since 2018, CPNow volunteers have helped win more than 50 political reform efforts and elections in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Washington, Nevada, and Arizona. He thinks they made a crucial difference last year in Democrat Andy Beshear’s 5,000-vote victory to become  governor of Kentucky.

This year, the group has two major goals. The first is to “force” state and federal officials with an inundation of citizen messages to adopt mail-in voting systems for 2020.  The second goal is to elect Democrats at all levels from the presidency to state legislatures in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. 

The states were chosen opportunistically, where either Trump or Hillary Clinton won narrowly in 2016 or where Democratic “flip” chances are good or incumbent Democrats are vulnerable. 

With 1,800 voter contacts, CPNow also helped the swift and massive absentee voting effort in Wisconsin this month. Ten percent of voters cast ballots by mail there in 2016, 83 percent this year. 

Surprisingly (no doubt, shockingly to Republicans who tried to limit voting), a liberal candidate, Jill Karofsky, beat Trump-backed conservative incumbent Daniel Kelly, for the state Supreme Court by 11 percent of the vote. Trump carried Wisconsin by just 0.77 percent in 2016.

Because of COVID, the group’s remaining work this year likely will have to be long-distance, but its website gives volunteers officials’ telephone numbers, email addresses and Twitter handles—plus sample messages—to urge passage of federal legislation or state action to widen use of voting by mail.

Before the epidemic, Domke and a group of volunteers attended Democratic primary campaign events in Iowa and South Carolina and spoke with candidates. Domke became convinced he could support any of them as the party’s nominee.

 He said he finds Biden experienced, capable, sincere, and empathetic. He hopes that, besides nominating a female running mate, Biden will name a talented shadow cabinet before the election.

Before the general election, instead of door-to-door canvassing in target states, volunteers will write letters to and phone voters urging them to register and then vote. A trial run is under way in Pennsylvania, where volunteers are writing 10,000 letters to unmarried women, young people and people of color.

The COVID epidemic, he told me, presents “an existential threat to our democracy” if voters and poll workers are afraid to assemble and absentee voting is limited. He doesn’t think that the Democratic party is perfect—especially in its past performance on immigration and criminal justice—but is persuaded it’s far preferable to the GOP on the two issues he cares most about, “racial justice and voting justice.”

I’d add, CPNow is doing nothing less than working to save democracy from the threat of a re-elected president who believes he can do and say anything, thwarts oversight, and is supported by a party totally in his thrall and willing to suppress voting to maintain power and take over the federal judiciary.  I’d say, it’s doing God’s work.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’m wondering how the organization is modifying its strategy to take account of the distancing requirements likely to be in place this fall. Will doorbelling still work, and will there be ways to sign up new voters safely?

  2. I decided a year ago that I would do all I could to support Common Purpose in its grass roots work. I had been looking forward to spending October in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania or anyplace I could help. But my health won’t permit that now so I’ve committed substantial (for me) financial support to CP through November.

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