Emerge Miami’s new campaign to get more voters into local elections

Sitting at a long folding table in Sweat Records, lawyer and Emerge Miami member Justin Wales addresses the twenty or so attendees of the group’s weekly meeting: “Marco Rubio won his first political election to serve as West Miami Commissioner with 750 votes. Now those 750 votes might change the course of our country.”

Emerge Miami has met around tables like this weekly for almost ten years. An officially unofficial group of activists passionate about seeing progress in our city, Emerge Miami originally formed as a loose coalition of UM students and local organizers.  Since then, they have kept their doors open to organizations and individuals who want to help bring a better Miami to life.

Over the years Emerge Miami has started and maintained a monthly Critical Mass bike ride, hosted transportation and environmental forums, helped garner political support for city and county legislation, and assisted dozens of nonprofits and community groups in organizing bike rides, marches, parades, and parties.

Their ability to get things done is based entirely on their members caring about the growth and the future of our city. “Most of our decision are done by consensus to some degree and by sweat equity,” explains Adam Schachner, a high school English teacher and veteran Emerge Miami member (and, full disclosure, an occasional contributor to The New Tropic).  “If someone comes to our meetings for several weeks in a row they might take on responsibilities just like someone who’s been in the group for several years.”

This year, the group is stepping up its game. Their current project to boost participation in the upcoming City of Miami election on November 3 started as a conversation between Wales and Schachner, with both asking, “What can we really do to make this place better?”

Their answer is to bring all the connections the group and its members have built up over the years together in service of a common cause:  To shape the future of Miami through your power at the polls.

No matter your political views, Emerge Miami wants you to know that at the local level, your vote counts. The numbers bear out this claim.

In the last District 2 race, only 5,450 of 41,000 registered voters cast a ballot. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff won that election with 53 percent of the vote — a paltry 2,873 ballots.

“The future of our city should be decided on by more than 5,000 people. That’s our goal with this campaign,” said Wales.  “Let’s make this a fair fight. Let’s get more people involved in deciding Miami’s future.”

How does your vote matter? Wales, Schachner, and their fellow Emerge Miami members believe there’s more at stake than your favorite local business or park — particularly in the hotly contested District 2 City Commission race.

“There’s this fight right now for Miami’s soul,” states Wales. “You have a lot of new people coming into Miami, you have a lot of investor money flowing in, and a lot of developers trying to build up Miami as quickly as possible. At the same time, you have elected officials that are being voted into office by almost nobody. These officials control hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money and are heavily influenced by multi-million dollar developers that lobby the commission to get their mega developments approved. It is no wonder the current commission has basically handed the keys of our city to commercial developers.”

But you can take those keys back, and Emerge Miami wants to help, he said. They understand that voting in local elections isn’t exactly easy. It’s hard to understand candidates’ positions on issues that matter to you. It can even be difficult to figure out where to vote or how to register.

Over the next few months, Emerge Miami members will  hit the streets to register new voters and inform existing voters about the District 2 race and how the city election directly affects their lives. Their new website will provide information on how to register to vote, what to do if you’ve moved, and how, where, and when to cast your ballot.

At the same time, Emerge Miami will work with the candidates to ensure the public has a clear, documented record of each candidate’s position on issues many Miamians find most important — including development, transit, the environment, and public spaces. If you’re visually inclined, their website will feature infographics by The Naked Policy Project to help simplify the voting process, candidate positions, and complex local issues.

At the heart of Emerge Miami’s new campaign is the belief that, at the local level, political power can come from you and your neighbors, rather than special interest money fed into a candidate’s campaign coffers, members said.

The group has operated for ten years without asking for money from their members, and they’re conducting this campaign in the same spirit. “We want to be able to show the people of Miami that they can influence an election without worrying about fundraising,” explains Schachner.

Their strategy to get out the vote relies on four pillars: registering new voters, reaching out to new and existing voters and groups within their network to demonstrate the importance of the District 2 race, providing voters with information, and making participation fun.

“We understand that in Miami the best way to really get people to care about anything is to turn it into a party,” says Schachner. So, Emerge Miami will throw parties every step of the way.

Planned events include bike rides to the ballot during early voting, a pre-election concert with proof of voter registration as your ticket in, and a post-election party where a voting receipt or an “I Voted” sticker gets you in the door.

The first bash will be this Friday, May 1 from 6 to 8 p.m at the Arts + Entertainment District’s Performance Pavilion, preceding a circus performance. Yes, voter registration will be on hand.

Want to crash the party? Keep an eye on Emerge Miami’s website to learn about the candidates and upcoming events. Or check out an Emerge Miami meeting on any Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Sweat Records. And most importantly, Emerge members say, make a commitment to vote in your next local election.

Rachel is a writer passionate about telling the stories of people and places. She blogs about writing and Miami at racheldharris.com.

Questions about the political process? More reasons people should vote? Have a vision for Miami’s future? Share with us in the comments below.