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October 24, 2014

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ELECTION 2012:

Unions expand voter turnout effort thanks to Citizens United

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Karoun Demirjian

SEIU workers Rasheda Anthony, right, and Yolanda Florian, left, talk to a woman who has already decided to vote for President Barack Obama about the merits of early voting in North Las Vegas, Oct. 27, 2012.

Union Canvassing

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Culinary 226 members Moises Torres checks on his partner's list to make sure they haven't missed a house in the neighborhood they were stationed in on Nevada Day, knocking on doors of potential voters, Oct. 26, 2012.

It’s a Saturday morning, and the young, black woman who just opened her door to Yolanda Florian in North Las Vegas is clearly tired. But Florian knows she has found a prime target, and she’s not about to let her go back to sleep.

“She’s 19 years old, and she registered because someone told her to do it, but she’s not really motivated to vote for herself,” Florian, a personal care assistant and election volunteer with the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union said after giving the girl five minutes' worth of a hard sell to get to the polls. “She doesn’t really get it. This is our right, this is something we can do for ourselves. ... She’s just leaving it to — whatever.”

But this is new territory, even for the most seasoned of union workers who work the campaigns.

Every election year, a battery of union volunteers from local chapters of the SEIU, the Culinary and other local unions divide up the streets of the Las Vegas Valley and knock on the doors of union households, reminding whomever they find behind them to vote, vote early and vote Democrat.

In past years, their efforts were focused exclusively on turning out their own membership to vote. But thanks to a change in the campaign finance laws, union workers can now work outside their own fold — and they’re using the new latitude to micro-target registered voters in blocs they believe are likely to vote Obama: Hispanics, blacks, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, young voters and single women.

“This is strategically a completely different element for us. We’ve never talked to the general public door-to-door,” said Erin Neff, a spokeswoman with the local chapter of the SEIU. “But that’s the most convincing way to get them to vote. ... That young woman, she’s not going to get out and vote unless someone reminds her to do it.”

The call to issue those reminders has ballooned the size of the local unions’ ground game. SEIU officials say they are targeting “tens of thousands” of doors beyond their 18,000-strong membership and have logged over 100,000 door knocks — much of it thanks to campaign workers they have imported from SEIU chapters in California.

Ironically, their ability to engage with voters in this new fashion is thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that has become the unions’ prime enemy: Citizens United.

“Unions were mostly engaged in so-called internal communications before Citizens United — meaning they could contact their members only,” said Chris Arterton, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University. “The opportunity to expand outward and to engage in reaching a broader array of people is a significant advance for what unions can do, if they can justify to their members that this is a kind of expenditure that makes sense.”

Citizens United allowed outside groups to start spending undisclosed sums on direct political advocacy. Ask a union boss what he thinks about it and he’ll tell you it’s the worst thing that ever happened to politics.

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Volunteers from Culinary 226 knock on doors in a largely Latino neighborhood of Las Vegas on Nevada Day, as part of the union's get out the vote effort, Oct. 26, 2012.

“Citizens United has been a corrosive decision that is threatening democracy,” Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, told the Sun in an interview last Saturday at the Culinary Union hall in Las Vegas, where he’d come to rev up volunteers before they hit the streets for a full day of canvassing.

That’s because the chief beneficiaries of the decision were the unions’ deepest sworn enemies, like Sheldon Adelson, whose Las Vegas Sands Corp. runs the only non-union casino on the Strip.

Most of the new money in the mix since Citizens United has gone to Republican candidates. Adelson alone has thrown almost $50 million into the election on behalf of Republican candidates and causes, meted out in both disclosed and undisclosed sums.

Most of that money from those outside groups has gone to pay for commercials that are flooding local airwaves: Outside spending from Republican-leaning groups, in fact, has put pro-Mitt Romney spending in the Silver State well over that of Barack Obama’s campaign and the Democrats.

But experts say that the union’s increased ability to turn votes post-Citizens United may prove to be the more powerful political weapon.

“This is a great tool for them ... especially in the down-ticket races,” said David Damore, a political scientist at UNLV. “It’s an empowering factor. If the Democrats can hold their own, the unions are going to be able to say: ‘Hey, we made a difference here.’”

In study after study, door-to-door, in-person campaigning — the unions’ specialty — has been shown to be a more effective strategy to turn out voters than blasting them with commercials.

“Door-to-door activity is primarily about mobilization, whereas activity on TV or radio is primarily about persuasion,” said Don Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University who has conducted research on voter turnout practices. “Persuasion is really a go-for-broke strategy ... because when you have a saturated media environment, it’s very difficult to have your message heard above the din.

“To do the mobilization side of the campaign requires an organization and training and supervision and recruitment. But if you have the numbers to canvass a pool of people ... it’s effective.”

Union leaders admit that the decision may have given them a strategic advantage, though they stress it hasn’t changed the way they do business.

“The fact that almost a billion dollars is going to be spent in this election is obscene — and Citizens United made it possible,” Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU told the Sun during a trip through Las Vegas last week. “Unions, we don’t have anywhere near that kind of money. But we are perhaps the most organized worker constituency in this country.

“I am convinced that at the end of the day, in a strong democratic society, numbers will be more important than money. People who have not voted in the past or have voted sporadically ... that could be the difference in any election, but this one particularly.”

But not all unions are taking advantage of the new opportunity to the same degree.

The SEIU has pounced on the rule change to augment their reach beyond their 18,000 members. But over at the larger Culinary Union, volunteers are still focusing primarily on their approximately 60,000 members, plus the other, AFL-CIO-affiliated union members’ names who appear on their canvassing lists.

“It’s a big universe, and that’s really who we’re honing in on,” D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the local Culinary Union said.

Culinary’s list also includes many of the voting blocs already part of the Democrats’ outreach efforts. The Culinary estimates they have knocked on almost 150,000 doors, many of them belonging to Hispanic families.

“I believe that a lot of people are voting right now because they made themselves American citizens, so more people are going to vote this time,” said Moises Torres, an MGM shop steward for the Culinary who spent Nevada Day walking the Hispanic neighborhoods on the north side of Las Vegas.

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Members of Culinary 226 do a morning cheer before heading out to knock on doors as part of the union's get-out-the-vote effort, Oct. 28, 2012.

He attacks his target list with an uncommon energy for a man approaching retirement age. Torres is out every day from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., power-walking between doors and bounding down driveways to catch voters in their cars if they seem like they might evade his pitches. Most of the conversations he has are in Spanish, and he barters with those he catches in conversation until they promise to vote early, not just for Obama but for the Democrats down-ticket, as well.

“Most of the people, they are positive because they are voting for Obama. Sometimes we have to push,” he said. “If they are not positive, we have to make them positive. The main thing is people don’t have enough information.”

Torres said he finds that he is often repeating himself when it comes to the issues that persuade voters to make their way to the polls.

“We lost a lot of jobs — that is the important thing, and immigration also,” he said.

But the Culinary Union members have a particularly special interest this election that goes beyond the economic and policy issues affecting all voters.

Next June, their contract with the casinos is up. And while the negotiations won’t directly involve political powers, Las Vegas’ unions are wary of what an anti-union climate can mean for their standing.

“If we are in disputes ... clearly, having politicians on our side is a clear advantage,” Taylor said.

Unions aren’t the only ones working to turn out voters; so are the campaigns and the parties. In mid-October, Nevada Democrats were estimating they had made 325,000 door knocks and placed 3.2 million phone calls. While Republicans haven’t been working the phones quite as hard — they estimate about 700,000 phone calls to date — they have been hitting the street to turn out their base, knocking on more than 368,000 doors.

The closeness of the effort — and the unions’ personal stake in this election — make their new ability to advocate directly to the public and specifically for Obama all the more valuable.

“Frequently, union members are at variance with what was deemed to be the political interest of the union as a whole,” Arterton said. “The advantage that they now have is that they can identify strong supporters of Democratic candidates and then go to those people individually and try to persuade them to actually vote, to turn out.”

But while they may have the legal right to press everyday voters to support Obama, campaign workers don’t always exercise it as fully as they might.

On paper, Florian’s young, black woman in North Las Vegas seemed the perfect potential Obama voter. But despite the five minutes Florian spent trying to convince her to go and vote, she never once told her she had to vote for the president.

“I really want to grab her hand and say, ‘Come here, you don’t know who you’re going to vote for? You’re going to vote for whoever I’m going to tell you because you don’t even have a decision of your own,’” Florian said. “But if I say, ‘I want you to vote for Obama,’ and you say, ‘Oh, ok,’ that’s not the truth. You are just telling me what I want to hear to get me out of your face.”

She paused, glancing down at her purple shirt, emblazoned in bright yellow with “SEIU Obama 2012.”

“You know, we are for Obama,” she said, gesturing toward her shirt. “And we are handing her something from Obama. It’s not like I’m telling her, ‘Go vote for the other guy.' No, it’s, 'Go and make your vote count.'”

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