Mobilizing voters in JP and Roxbury

Using technology to get people to the polls

IN DEEP BLUE MASSACHUSETTS, the outcome of this year’s presidential election is likely a foregone conclusion.  But if this year’s campaign has taught us anything, it is that marginalized communities are vulnerable to those who would use intimidation tactics to threaten democratic rights.  If you are poor, a person of color, or a religious minority, it is important to be aware that some seek to limit your democratic participation.

For communities like Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, even a presidential campaign whose outcome is known is an important opportunity for greater community involvement.  Accelerating civic engagement in these neighborhoods, however, requires interest, commitment from community organizations, and the kind of technology that has made the sharing economy the darling of upper income communities.

It is worth noting that in Boston, there is a local issue on this year’s ballot that impacts low-income residents – the adoption of the Community Preservation Act (CPA). The CPA allows municipalities to create a Community Preservation Fund to produce affordable housing, preserve open space and historic structures, and develop recreational facilities by imposing a surcharge of up to 3 percent of the tax levy against real property.  Real estate in Boston is booming – the CPA will help to ensure that the wealth created by that boom extends to many in need.

But beyond these local issues, this year’s election presents an opportunity for long-term change.  There will be an election for Boston’s mayor next year.  Two years from now, a new gubernatorial campaign will be underway.  Both of those events are just as important to residents’ futures as a new president will be.  The silver lining of a divisive presidential election is that people have a greater awareness of why it is important to vote.  Making sure that individuals who are eligible to vote are registered – and have access to the polls – is critical to those who care about their communities.

Helping voters in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain to both register and cast votes is one simple but powerful way to ensure that these often marginalized communities have a voice.  Keep in mind that in the 2012 presidential election, only 3 percent of Boston’s active voters came from Roxbury, with Jamaica Plain accounting for less than 5 percent.  In contrast, nearly 10 percent of Boston’s active voters came from Hyde Park, nearly 8 percent from West Roxbury, and more than 6 percent from Back Bay.

The only way to address this disparity is from the ground up – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done using the kind of disruptive innovation for which Boston is rapidly becoming famous.  That is why Urban Edge, a community development agency serving Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, has teamed up with Union Capital Boston, a nonprofit that partners with community institutions and residents to create pathways out of poverty. We are using technology – more specifically, a rewards points mobile app – to turn out thousands of voters in this election, including hundreds of new voters.

Here’s how the app works – participants sign up for and track their community involvement. They can then collect points and purchase rewards, such as college savings plans and home loan assistance. This method provides residents with an incentive for community engagement while also easing the financial burdens of poverty.  It is a win for everyone involved. While participants legally cannot earn points for voting, they can be rewarded for registering and mobilizing their networks to vote. Over 100 Jamaica Plain and Roxbury residents have already reported in the mobile app close to 3,000 registered voters for this election. These participants are now contacting these networks to make sure they vote, competing to see who can turn out the most voters. These are not paid campaign workers, but Urban Edge residents, being rewarded for their civic engagement, just like health care programs reward members for exercising more. And this work doesn’t end November 8. In fact, it is just the beginning of a new model of increasing accountability and investment in our neighborhoods.

Meet the Author

Robert Torres

Director of community engagement, Urban Edge
Meet the Author

Eric Leslie

Founder, Union Capital Boston
Residents of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury know that, like the rest of the nation, they are witnessing history – and they want to have a say in the direction the nation goes.  If there is one benefit to this long campaign, it is that so many people are motivated like they never have been before to make their voices heard.  Finding innovative ways to help them in that quest strengthens those communities and Boston as a whole.

Robert Torres is Urban Edge’s director of community engagement. Eric Leslie is the founder of Union Capital Boston.