How one campaigner is democratizing local elections
Veronica Carbajal is re-writing the rules of city politics in El Paso
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Progressive lawyer and organizer Veronica Carbajal ran for Mayor of El Paso in 2020, receiving nearly 50,000 votes in a competitive six-way race. Although she ultimately lost, Carbajal decided to channel her campaign’s energy into a movement for local democracy reform, spinning up organizations to support progressive candidates and reform the rules of politics in El Paso.
For this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Veronica about how and why campaigners can use organizing and ballot initiatives to have a positive impact on their politics.
Q&A with Veronica Carbajal, El Pasoans for Fair Elections
What made you want to get involved in local politics?
Veronica Carbajal: I realized that the power structure in El Paso is very similar to that in other Texas cities. Polluters are always at the table, but the community was almost never given a chance to contribute to very big decisions about highway expansions or permits for polluters or economic development, etc.
So I decided to go to law school, and I've been practicing with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid since 2004. Since then, I've been pretty outspoken and have taken on big issues in the community. Most of our Democrats here are very centrist and conservative, and it just came to a point where, you know, I just said fine, I’m ready to run for office. I had a good friend and mentor who encouraged me to run for Mayor, and its his legacy that I’ve been trying to keep pushing forward.
We ran against six candidates and eventually lost with around 50,000 votes. After I lost, I thought, okay, what do we do with this mobilization that we've created? How do we create a pipeline?
That’s when we decided to create a political action committee to support progressive candidates, and later El Pasoans for Fair Elections.
Campaigner: You’ve now started several organizations to change the way local elections work in El Paso. Can you talk a little bit about your work on ballot initiatives and why its important?
Veronica Carbajal: El Pasoans for Fair Elections has focused on three ballot initiatives that we hope will level the playing field and allow progressives to gain local power. We have three propositions right now that we're collecting signatures for. They all build on one another and they build on the ideas that would've really helped someone like me in my Mayoral campaign.
The first proposition is focused on limiting campaign contributions by individuals. We don't currently have that in El Paso, so what often happens is that a city council member can receive something like $25,000 from one entity. When you look at local officials’ financial reports, it’s no wonder why some politicians always vote against the community.
One of our core tenets is to follow the money: What's coming in, and who's it coming in from? Where does it go? Often campaign contributions’ impact goes back to tax incentives, permits for projects, etc.. That’s why campaign contribution limits are really important to us.
The second proposition we’re working on is public financing for grassroots candidates. If candidates gather a certain number of petition signatures and prove viability, they would be able to tap into a small amount of public financing so they can spend their time talking to voters, creating plans, and engaging the community, rather than fundraising. We think that’s important.
And our last proposition is ranked-choice voting. People will often go to cast their ballot, and may really like one candidate, but it's someone who they think will surely lose, so they vote for someone else - a “safer” candidate. With ranked-choice voting, you have more of a choice. It allows voters to “take a risk” on someone they really like, and if they lose, then their vote will go to their second-choice candidate. I really believe that will make a difference in our local elections, with voters operating from a place of hope instead of a place of fear. In Texas, ranked-choice voting is complicated. The city of Austin had a similar ballot initiative that passed, but it hasnt been implemented because the city is afraid of getting sued by the state. The Secretary of State has declared that it’s not allowed in Texas, but state courts haven’t weighed in yet.
Campaigner: So how do you actually get these passed? I know the process often differs between states and localities… I assume you have to get a ton of signatures for each measure, and then voters decide in November?
Veronica Carbajal: Kind of! We have to gather enough signatures that are equivalent to 5% of the people who voted in the last general election. For us, that number is right around 11,000. In our jurisdiction, we have to basically do that twice.
We’ve just reached our first finish line, collecting all those signatures, this then goes to the city clerk to validate, and then it goes to the city council to vote on. If the council adopts any of these propositions, then they now become the law. However, we think they’re probably gonna say no, which means then we have to get the propositions directly on the ballot this November.
That makes us collect a second set of signatures based on this November’s elections numbers, and finally, we would get these propositions on the May election ballot next spring.
Long story short - it’s two rounds: you have a legislative option and then you have a direct democracy option. You’re basically forcing the city council to vote on it with the first, and then you have to gather all the signatures again to get it on the actual ballot.
Practically speaking, we think gathering the second set of signatures will be much easier because we'll have already have a contact list of people who signed it the first time.
Campaigner: That’s really interesting. On a practical campaign level - it seems like it's much more difficult to explain and mobilize voters around this kind of wonky policy issue, as opposed to just one politician's candidacy. How are you approaching getting voters excited about this stuff?
Veronica Carbajal: What's been fantastic to see about the ballot initiative process is that we are having one-on-one conversations with people about these issues, we’re having to break them down in one to two minutes. Our pitch is solid (laughs). We’re making sure that the message is accessible and bilingual.
That said, there really isn't a rubric for us to follow. We’re creating our process as we go along, and have access to really great resources, guidance and connections from key allies. We have looked at examples of what they did in Austin, proven strategies for working with canvassers, accountability for contractors, etc.
We're hoping to create a guide that we can share with people who share our values, because there are a lot of administrative things that you need to take care of in order to run these types of campaigns. You have to know how to file as a PAC, have someone in charge of reporting, know who to contact at the State ethics office, etc. We had very little guidance at the beginning, and so we want to help guide people through this process in the future.
Campaigner: What have been the main tactics you all are using to collect these 11,000 signatures?
Veronica Carbajal: You’ll be surprised by how much community power and support you can rev up with these kinds of proposals. I should also note that the system is designed to make it really challenging. Having funding is crucial, because in my opinion, you can't do this work with volunteers alone, you need to have paid canvassers and paid staff to manage all of the moving parts.
Paid canvassing is the main tactic we use. We wanted to be able to provide at least a $15 an hour wage to our canvassers. So that was a priority from the very beginning. We have sort of now shifted strategies, from paying by the hour to paying per signature. We spend a lot of time thinking about what kinds of training do people need? What skill sets are we looking for? How do canvassers deal with making a pitch very quickly?
Most of our canvassers are younger than 25, they've been in pandemic mode, and talking to people one on one can sometimes be challenging. We're trying to minimize the time we spend on each signature at every step. A lot of this work is about efficiency in every step - from collecting the signature, payroll for organizing, checking the voter ID, making sure the person is registered and in the correct jurisdiction… its just the nature of it.
One effective tactic is that we started doing events at universities and the community college. In those places, we talk a lot of people who are registered to vote and are enthusiastic, or at least knowledgeable about our elections. We also try to reach parents that are waiting for their kids at the elementary school, farmers' markets, setting up tables at certain small businesses - pretty much everywhere we can be.
In order to quickly get voters information about our issues, we created these little postcards. We have these really clean postcards with a QR code, bullet points, in simple English and Spanish and people really like them. It also helps establish that this is a legitimate thing.
More from Arena:
Veronica talks about her work to pass ranked-choice voting in El Paso. Check out the Arena Toolbox tool about ranked-choice voting to learn more about how that process works >>
These interviews are meant to highlight different voices from across the campaign ecosystem. The views expressed therein are not necessarily reflective of the views of Arena or FWIW Media 🇺🇸