The Power of Grassroots Organizing

By Mike Sayer

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 p. 21

When people work together, they build their capacity to make things happen or not happen. They build power. The capacity to impact public policy is increased when people and grassroots organizations work to establish redistricting policies and plans that are responsive to their needs and interests.

Effective grassroots organizations utilize four elements of community organizing:

Investigation: Get the information needed to develop good redistricting plans and to understand the goals of the public officials who are also drawing plans.

Education: Share information with a cross-section of stakeholders within the designated community to develop an understanding of the importance of redistricting and how best to participate in the redistricting work.

Negotiation: Build a broad base of support within the community in order to negotiate from strength with public officials on how the redistricting plans ought to be drawn.

Demonstration: Bring large numbers of people to public meetings, hearings, and negotiations to demonstrate unity.

In the past, for the most part, small groups of public officials, attorneys, and demographers have met by themselves to draw the plans at the state, county, and local levels. However, communities have the right to participate in several major ways during the process of drawing plans:

  • See, get copies of, and make an independent evaluation of the merits of plans drawn by public officials.
  • Attend all public meetings at which redistricting plans are being discussed, deliberated, or voted upon.
  • Submit plans to the appropriate public bodies (such as the state legislature, county supervisors or commissioners, or city councilors), which have a duty to give full consideration on the same basis as plans drawn by representatives of the public body.
  • Bring complaints to the attention of the Voting Section of the U.S. Department of Justice concerning any wrongdoing or unfairness in the procedures used by public bodies to draw plans.
  • Make comments (evaluations as to the fairness of the plans) to the Voting Section and negotiate with the Voting Section, and the public bodies, concerning the merits of all the plans submitted.
  • Bring suit in federal or state court to prevent the adoption of the plans on the grounds that they violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act or the Constitution of the United States.

Drawing redistricting plans does not require being an attorney, demographer, or engineer. Anyone can draw plans, with some training, technical assistance, and experience.

Redistricting plans are not primarily math and geometry exercises. Rather, redistricting is usually result or outcome driven. That is, people who draw plans start out with the goal that the district lines should, to the extent possible, ensure that voters have a reasonable opportunity to elect representatives who will be accountable and responsive to their needs and interests.

Other values or goals must be taken into account in drawing the plans. But, the redistricting process is sufficiently flexible to permit plans to serve several goals. It is extremely important for grassroots groups to participate effectively to protect and ensure that their interests are reflected in the plans adopted.

Grassroots communities need to build strength through unity and unity through organization in order to make their collective voice heard. They should insist on the right to provide input and feedback to those who are drawing the plans, whether they are working for the public officials or are engaged in drawing alternative plans.

Grassroots and community groups need to identify people who can develop the tools and skills of redistricting. Community people bring local expertise to the table. They know where people actually live; what the issues are that bring people together or divide them in terms of race, class, education, and other considerations; where common interests lie; which groups will be willing to work together to support candidates on particular issues and which will not; which groups of people actually vote and which do not; at which locations people are willing to go to vote and which locations are intimidating to people and will discourage voting; and which political parties people support and where they live.

Mike Sayer is program director of Southern Echo, a grassroots organization in Jackson, Mississippi.