Voting groups, candidates slowly start in-person engagement efforts


Brooklyn Voters Alliance interns and Democracy Corps Fellows Flavian Philip and Jose Rickett offer passers-by information about ranked-choice voting and the chance to register to vote on May 7, 2021. Photo by Leonardo March.

This article is the third in a series about voter engagement during the 2021 New York City elections, supported by the Center for Community Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The series examines key issues, translation efforts for immigrant communities and ranked-choice voting. 

Rolanda Telesford-Hastick frequently stands outside Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, accompanied by the high school girls she mentors at YWCA BrooklynThe students are being trained to educate people about ranked-choice voting. As part of the program, they hold voter registration drives by handing out informational and voting forms about the election at highly trafficked locations such as the subway and commuter rail station.

“We’re continuing our voter registration all the time and we’re either out in the streets or in our own building,” said Telesford-Hastick, the director of external affairs and outreach at YWCA Brooklyn. “We also have about three or four girls learning about the ranked-choice voting process and then they’re going to go out and train people in the community.”

For more than a year, organizations like YWCA Brooklyn and political candidates relied on digital tools to reach voters during the pandemic. They formed partnerships with community leaders and with such groups as Common Cause New York and New York Immigration Coalition to educate voters. Now, as the number of vaccinated individuals continues to grow citywide, these groups have started to rely more on in-person events to raise awareness about the importance of voting this year. 

This year’s election includes six seats up for grabs, specifically the mayor, borough presidents, public advocate, comptroller, Manhattan district attorney and all 51 City Council seats. 

Collectively, the class of officials elected this year will administer New York’s recovery, said Juan Rosa, director of strategic partnerships at NALEO Educational Fund, which promotes civic participation among Latinos.

With 33.4 percent of NYC residents fully vaccinated and the city set to reopen July 1, civic organizations and candidates alike have begun to hold more in-person events. Despite deterrences in in-person outreach, such as having to switch solely over to virtual events, these groups are determined to increase awareness and civic participation this year. In-person outreach efforts, they say, are crucial in reaching the city’s electorate. Connecting with people face-to-face is especially important to share information through word of mouth.

“Nothing beats having a conversation, and it’s important for groups like ours to be out on the street or at block parties to make sure people are aware,” said Jan Combopiano, a Senior Policy Director at the Brooklyn Voters Alliance

“They can then turn around to tell the people in their life what’s going on and we can have a little bit of a ripple effect spreading accurate knowledge,” she said.

The Brooklyn Voters Alliance has started holding pop-up events on different street corners, including six this month, speaking to people about voting and making sure their registration is up to date, Combopiano said. BVA plans to hold these information sessions at block parties and outside public libraries to inform residents about the importance of the election and how to vote. 

They have been focusing on a variety of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, including Greenpoint, Sunset Park, Brownsville, and several in central and southern Brooklyn. Their goal is to focus on well-trafficked sites in communities that are not well-served in terms of voter outreach.   

Rank the Vote NYC held a ranked-choice voting education session at Claremont Neighborhood Center in the Bronx recently, lead organizer Debbie Louis said. Based on the turnout, the group plans to hold in-person events at various community and senior centers.

“We’re doing a lot of training, capacity building, and we’re working a lot with organizations that provide services to community members,” said Rosa. “So now, their staff are able to talk to voters about the new way of voting.” 

“Nothing beats having a conversation, and it’s important for groups like ours to be out on the street or at block parties to make sure people are aware.”

 Jan Combopiano, Brooklyn Voters Alliance

Offline campaigning gets creative

For much of the last year, candidates were forced to campaign mainly through virtual events, social media and phone banking as the city observed social distancing that forbade gathering in groups. It drove so much of the conversation online that many residents, already preoccupied with navigating the impact of COVID-19 on their daily lives, were unaware of the races and candidates.

In the City Council District 40 race, for example, the candidates found themselves getting creative to reach supporters throughout the central Brooklyn neighborhoods. 

“What I was doing in lieu of campaigning is community work,” said candidate Josue Pierre. 

From March 2020 through last summer, when Pierre’s campaign shut down, he found ways to engage potential voters by participating in mask distribution events. Now that he and his core team of three full-time staffers are fully vaccinated, Pierre said, they have begun knocking on doors throughout District 40, in addition to phone banking and social media outreach.

Edwin Raymond, another District 40 candidate, called COVID-19 a “gamechanger” that squashed plans for in-person fundraising events. His campaign chose instead to talk to constituents outside of grocery stores and in parks as an alternative to door-knocking. He has also held a “Tour de 40” bike tour of the district that encouraged residents to ride and register to vote. 

Rita Joseph, also a District 40 candidate, said much of her focus has been on educating residents about the June 22 primary and its importance. The campaign has done phone banking, outdoor masked events and radio interviews. 

“The last year has been tumultuous, so many of our neighbors have understandably been focused on themselves and their families,” Joseph said. “We’ve been meeting people where they are and getting the word out about the election so that folks know to exercise their right to vote.”

Brooklyn Voters Alliance interns offered passers-by the chance to register to vote and ranked-choice voting information in front of the Brooklyn Public Library on May 7, 2021. Photo by Leonardo March. 

Virtual events still prevalent

With New York not yet fully reopened, Telesford-Hastick of the YWCA Brooklyn is also still incorporating extensive virtual outreach before the June 22 primary. 

“We’re in this virtual space where we’re doing a lot more social media actions and visual project-based work,” said Telesford-Hastick. “We’re telling people the dates for voting and we’re using this virtual space to educate voters more.”

Rank the Vote NYC, for its part, has held more than 400 online training events about ranked-choice for faith and community leaders citywide, Louis said. Many attendees across the boroughs found it easier to attend virtual sessions instead of having to commute to a site. 

“[Virtual events] allowed us the opportunity to reach everyone,” Louis said.  

This story, which was co-written with Sam Bojarski, was originally published in The Haitian Times.