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Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick Takes On Grassroots Voter Engagement Through New Initiative

BridgeTogether is intended to fund organizations that are taking up the mantle of connecting with existing voters as well as disengaged or new ones.

In 2007, when Deval Patrick was the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, things seemed to be going well for the party. He was at the helm of that state’s government while Barack Obama was in the White House. Fast forward three presidents and nearly 15 years later, the Democrats, while holding majorities in the Senate and House, walk a fine line. Believing that Republican legislation is eroding voting rights, Democratic political action committees (PACs) are springing up to respond.

Patrick has become involved with one such initiative, BridgeTogether, a nonprofit conceived by the former governor, who also serves as co-chair of American Bridge 21st Century, a PAC founded in 2010. What BridgeTogether, an initiative of the PAC, is intended to do is fund community groups operating on the grassroots level that organize and support outreach efforts to voters in the political landscape. The work, he says, will start in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona – states that were critical in the 2020 election and whose voting returns determined who won. In explaining the need for the initiative, he says that this time his party is trying something new.

“We and my beloved Democrats have been counting on votes without actually asking for them,” said Patrick. “And polls and TV ads, look, they don't vote, people do. So, we have to be about building lasting and trusting relationships with people and sustaining them. I think that's how we engage voters, is how we overcome voting barriers and disinformation.

“It's how we learn whether the agenda being pushed in Washington or State Capitol, for example,” he continued, “by Democrats is actually the agenda that matters to the voters we're trying to, we're trying to serve.”

He used the example of the work of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams over the past decade, bringing together groups that have been dormant or even disparate in participating in the political process.

“They were engaging with people who sort of fit what a whole bunch of folks think of as the Democratic sort of model,” said Patrick. “But also, people who were totally not engaged, and a bunch of Republicans too, because that's how you build. That's how you build lasting relationships. And they kept at it, not just in time for the next election cycle, but all the time.”

Patrick says the whole idea of BridgeTogether is to be a permanent source of support for the grassroots groups involved. One of the groups, VoteRiders, a voter advocacy organization, received a $100,000 grant to expand voter identification work in Arizona, meaning an expansion of partnerships with organizations statewide and create voter identification clinics in key locations.

“This grant will ensure VoteRiders is ready to help citizens in Arizona who are most impacted by voter ID laws, including women, communities of color, and youth. Alongside a growing number of state-based partners, we’ll be working every day between now and Election Day to equip Arizona voters with the information, resources, and assistance needed to ensure they can have a voice in our democracy,” Lauren Kunis, VoteRiders' executive director said in a statement.

In addition to Arizona, the states BridgeTogether will start with are Georgia and Pennsylvania.  According to Patrick, these are places where Republican legislators intend to create more difficulty in voting. In Georgia alone, legislation passed earlier this year, many are afraid will serve to restrict access to ballots, make absentee voting harder to do, and hinder the power of local election officials in favor of state legislators.

To Patrick, there could be more trouble ahead when it comes to voting rights in those states and others.

“I think that there are efforts underway by Republican legislatures and Republican governors in those places and elsewhere, to make the will of the majority of voters something that can be questioned,” said Patrick. “To make it harder for people to vote, to make it possible for partisan actors to overturn the outcome of elections.”

Last month, Republicans in the Senate blocked passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which was designed to protect people from voter suppression. The move angered Democrats, who had supported it, and left them looking for ways to get legislation passed that would return what was taken away when provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were removed. It is actions like these that Patrick says grassroots groups like the ones he wants to fund must circumvent.

“These are the kinds of laws that need to be overturned by moving voting rights reform in the Congress at the federal level,” he explained. “But while we wait for that, and frankly, whether we have that or not, we have to overwhelm these barriers.

“We have to make sure that people first of all, feel appreciated not just in the couple of months before the election, but they actually are a part of shaping candidacies, shaping campaigns, shaping the agenda that they have a voice,” he continued. “That happens at the grassroots number one. Number two, (make sure) that they are informed about the different barriers that have been put up so that they don't show up on polling day with the wrong ID or in the wrong place, or what have you, and that we are very, very prepared and that we're expanding registration of people who are prepared. And number three, that we have channels where folks can get information, accurate information from people they trust.”

As for the groups that BridgeTogether will fund, Patrick says BridgeTogether is not attempting to create new groups, but rather work with existing groups that are trying to reach unengaged, disengaged, or marginalized voters.

“There are folks who are consistently overlooked, when it comes to civic engagement,” he said. “Often they are in rural communities or in you know, increasingly in suburban communities and sometimes in urban communities,” Patrick said. He went on, “BridgeTogether wants to see that the grassroots groups already have a record of engaging people, not just those who agree politically, but those who may not, or simply haven’t thought about electoral politics.

“We want to assure that just as some of these groups get resources from a campaign,” he said. “We want to make sure that they have resources all the time, so they can start to build a permanent staff of organizers and they can develop the networks and the analytics, and the technology to track the folks in that network as it grows.”

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Patrick briefly put his hat in for a presidential bid in 2020, but wound up leaving the race in which the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency went to Joe Biden. When asked about any plans to run in 2024 he said that he is content to support the party from where he is.

“I'm thrilled that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are in power,” he said. “I'm appalled at the way the other party has just thrown up its hands and more than that, is actively trying to undermine their administration, much as Republicans tried to do with Barack Obama. So, I continue to be an enthusiastic supporter in this way and others. I'm going to continue to try to support the current administration.

“But I do think it's important for folks to understand that we are a party that is about government helping people help themselves, and that the other party has no interest in that,” he continued. “And so what I want to do, the service I want to bring now and into the future, is how we engage more people in trying to build the kind of democracy that is healthy, that is worthy of American democracy.”

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