This Election’s Historic Voter Turnout Is Thanks To Organizers Like Kat Calvin

Supermajority Education Fund

November 19, 2020

Much attention has been paid to the unprecedented early voter turnout and the highest overall voter turnout in over a century this election. In fact, 99.7 million ballots were submitted through in-person early voting and by mail, which is nearly three-quarters of the number of votes cast in the entire 2016 election, and nearly 65% of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot overall. But less attention has been paid to the organizers who fought to make that turnout happen — the folks who got voters to the polls despite an unreliable postal system, the coronavirus pandemic, and a virus of a very different name: voter suppression.

Kat Calvin, lawyer, activist and Founder and Executive Director of Spread The Vote and the Co-Founder and CEO of the Project ID Action Fund, is one person on a long list of organizers to thank for this accomplishment. Calvin has spent years helping Americans obtain the IDs they need to secure employment and housing and, in many states, to exercise their right to vote. Recently, she told Supermajority News what she gleaned from her work in this election cycle, what we can learn from the way the nation voted, and how we can already start to organize ahead of the 2022 midterms. 

What did election day look like for you and your team?

Well, we work in 12 states so, for election day, we did a lot of the same things we [had been doing] the whole early voting season — including getting people to the polls, answering questions people might have about voting, offering comfort at the polls, food, PPE, etc. 

Early voting numbers this election far surpassed any other cycle. Did you and your team detect the energy that propelled that turnout prior to the election?

I think it’s important to know that yes, we absolutely had a record voter turnout. Joe Biden had the [most votes cast for any presidential candidate] in history. But Trump received 70 million votes — the highest total for a losing candidate. Both of them got more votes than anyone has ever gotten before. That’s due certainly to how important the 2020 election is, but also how divided this country is.

But we also did a lot of things in this country to help make voting easier. A lot of states [had] been voting for over a month [before election day], early voting was expanded, vote by mail was expanded because of COVID-19, and many states really worked hard to increase enfranchisement — to put more ballot boxes everywhere, to provide postage for a vote by mail ballot when they hadn’t before. Because of all of these things that voting rights activists have been pushing and fighting for so long, we saw this massive turnout. 

There was also more voting messaging than I’ve ever seen before. You couldn’t go on a website to buy shoes or get on social media without seeing something about voting. [Spread the Vote wasn’t] just busy with our clients and communities — a number of organizations and companies also asked if I could come talk to their employees about voting. There was so much energy and excitement, a lot more time to vote, and all of the previous other things that led to this record.

What are your thoughts on the differences between how people in cities in battleground states voted differently than those in rural parts of those states in this election?

We can’t judge entire cities based on numbers. I think that there needs to be a better understanding of who we are as a country and why people vote certain ways. There’s a reason Obama was able to win districts that would never vote for a Black man named Barack Hussein Obama. He had a freaking platform. He told them, “Hey if I’m elected, you’ll get this thing.” That’s all people want.

Of course, I have certainly experienced a hell of a lot of racism in very small towns, but I’ve also experienced a hell of a lot of racism in every major city in America. The problems that we see in small towns, we pretend we don’t see in big cities but they’re there. 

I think the responsibility for nuanced conversation on these things falls on the media and the reporting that’s done. For example, in Miami, the Latino vote went for Trump … but they also voted for the first female mayor of Miami. In North Carolina, Republicans voted for a Democratic Governor, but then voted for Republicans elsewhere on the ballot. In California, ex-felons who are on parole can now vote, but we didn’t end cash bail. If you look at what people voted, they were making very interesting, very disparate choices on the same ballot. That’s how people who are scared vote. That’s how people who don’t have anyone showing real leadership vote.

What’s next for Spread the Vote ahead of the midterm elections in 2022? How do you and your team intend on making sure folks ‘don’t go back to brunch?’

We definitely want to continue to further educat[e people], but one of the big things that I’m always telling people in between elections is, you can influence who you want to see on the ballot next time. Is there someone who you think would be amazing as a city councilperson? Now’s the time to recruit them, get them signed up, and help them raise money. It is our responsibility everyday to ensure that what we see on the ballot is what we want. 

My hope is that people realize that this [political engagement] is a lifestyle. This wasn’t a temporary blip because we had a president that we didn’t like. This is what it means to be in a democracy. It means every day, no matter what, your job is to be engaged.