[PRESS] Feeding grassroots to turn non-voters into voters with Airlift (originally published in MIJ)

As originally published in the Marin Independent Journal:

By Lorrie Goldin

Presidential races understandably generate lots of attention. But there’s more at stake than the White House next year. Democracy itself is in peril, and what happens now on the ground will be crucial to saving it.

Threats include the Electoral College, gerrymandering, foreign and domestic interference, barriers to voting, the influence of big money, corruption, and an increasingly autocratic and erratic president. Millions of Americans feel their votes don’t matter. Even in high-turnout elections, only about 60% of eligible voters cast ballots.

The silver lining is that, since the 2016 election, thousands of groups dedicated to strengthening our democracy have proliferated. Big national organizations like Swing Left and Indivisible are well known. But there’s a homegrown, all-volunteer group right here in Marin: Airlift, one of the many programs of Mill Valley Community Action Network. MVCAN’s mission statement declares, “We’re Here to Keep Democracy Alive.” Airlift does just that.

The brainchild of Danny Altman, a branding strategist and activist from Mill Valley, Airlift funds grassroots organizations to engage and expand the electorate in key districts nationwide. Efforts focus particularly on the young and people of color, a demographic group comprising 40 million eligible but unregistered voters. The name Airlift is inspired by Altman’s boyhood fascination with the Berlin Airlift, when western Allies responded to the 1949 Soviet blockade of West Berlin by flying in emergency supplies to people on the ground. Altman believes saving our imperiled democracy requires a similar massive effort.  The Berlin Airlift fed beleaguered Germans; Airlift feeds underfunded grassroots groups in strategic states to turn non-voters into voters.

Recognizing the power of issue-based organizing rather than top-down party politics, Altman teamed up with fellow MVCAN member Larry Litvak, former CFO of Working Assets who now teaches public policy at Stanford. Together they devised an easy, one-stop donation site for progressive, politically inclined donors who wonder, “What’s the smartest thing to do with my money?” Airlift carefully vets grassroots groups, then delivers donations directly to them. Funding enables organizers to work year-round in their local communities to engage low-propensity voters about what matters most in their lives. People who don’t normally feel invested in politics care a lot about things like paid sick leave, higher wages, better public education, affordable college and housing, traffic and improved mass transit, healthcare, the environment, and racial, social, and economic justice. When they feel their voices matter, they vote.

The 2018 midterms are a testament to the importance of grassroots engagement. Turnout skyrocketed, with participation by young voters and people of color doubling from 2014. Airlift was a vital part of the collaborative organizing that resulted in widespread progressive gains. In addition to flipping local, state and national legislative seats, groups funded by Airlift helped bring Medicaid expansion to 400,000 Virginians; increase early youth voting in Texas by 500%; restore voting rights for about one million former felons in Florida; and pass automatic voter registration in Nevada and Michigan.

The 2020 elections must build upon these victories. Airlift is already investing in 17 organizations with proven track records in battleground areas throughout the Midwest, Southwest, and South. Wisconsin’s Black Leadership Organizing CommunitiesLiving United for Change in Arizona and New Georgia Project are just some of the groups turning non-voters into voters thanks to Airlift’s support.

Many Marin County residents care deeply about progressive values and the future of democracy. Many are also in the fortunate position of being able to donate time and money to this crucial undertaking. They’ll make phone calls, knock on doors, write postcards, and give generously to candidates. Feeding the grassroots now to engage and expand the electorate is equally important.

Strengthening our democracy is a heavy lift, but Airlift, born right here in Marin, makes it easier. If you’d like to help, check out www.airlift.fund.

PressRachel Klein