A group of activists canvassing for the upcoming midterm elections walked into a Northeast Portland apartment building last week — and were immediately confronted by security.
The guard asked for IDs, and scanned one person's driver’s license with a handheld device before allowing the group — all people of color — to proceed to the elevators.
Organizer Ivan Hernandez waited until the elevator door was shut to say anything.
“If 105 passes,” he told his colleagues, “that could happen to us all the time.”
Measure 105 would overturn Oregon’s 31-year-old sanctuary law, which limits how much state and local police can cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts. Fear over what Measure 105 could mean — supporters say it will ease bureaucratic confusion, opponents predict it could lead to a new wave of racial profiling — has mobilized activists. They're trying more and new ways to spur voter turnout among groups that have not, in the past, gotten this kind of attention in the days leading up to a midterm election.
Last weekend, for example, the women of color-led organization Forward Together hosted a rally to bring together dozens of organizations that support communities of color and to encourage voters to reject Measures 105 and 106, the latter barring the use of public funds to pay for abortions.
Forty-five people knocked on more than 1,200 doors as part of the effort. Hernandez, deputy communications director for the No On 105 campaign, and Emily Lai, who volunteers with the organization Momentum Alliance, both went door-to-door in North and Northeast Portland.
Lai said being in a community with people who are passionate about the election made her want to get involved.
“It's hard to not feel compelled to do this kind of stuff,” she said.
Before the canvass, Hernandez told volunteers why he’s against the measure: “This would affect us all, regardless of your documentation status. Obviously it would affect people who are undocumented even more,” he said. “But even those who have status would still be pulled over, would still be stopped just because the way they look. That’s not the Oregon I know, and that’s not the Oregon I want to be in.”
Hernandez was born in Mexico and came to America as a child.
“And we have this anti-immigrant group telling me that I’m not Oregonian?” he told the group. “I went to elementary school here, I went to middle school here, I went to high school here. I graduated from the University of Oregon. You can’t tell me that I’m not an Oregonian.”
Activists say that while racial profiling still exists in Oregon, the sanctuary law ended some widespread abuses, such as homes being raided without cause and people being stopped at checkpoints simply because of their skin color. They say overturning the law would amplify the fear that already exists in communities of color and discourage people from calling law enforcement.
During a conversation with two East African women at one home, Hernandez got personal.
"You’re an immigrant too, right?” he asked.
One woman said “yes,” over the background sound of a child inside asking what the man at the door wanted.
“I don’t want them stopping me. I am a citizen,” the other woman said. “I don’t want them pulling me over!”
Hernandez asked the women if they had received their ballots and if they had plans to mail them in or drop them off at a designated dropbox. They said they hadn’t received them, so Hernandez instructed them to call the Multnomah County Elections Office.
Kalpana Krishnamurthy, the national field policy director for Forward Together, said canvassers frequently hear from voters who report not receiving their ballot.
She said Oregon’s vote-by-mail system can create barriers for people of color, especially immigrants and refugees. First-time voters may not know to look for the ballot in the mail, so they might overlook it when it arrives. Or they may not understand the ballot because it is written in English.
This, she says, is a form of voter disenfranchisement, though not the type that has drawn headlines during these midterm elections.
There have been at least three major stories of voter disenfranchisement across the country during the 2018 campaigns. For North Dakotans, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to restrict a law that requires voters to present an ID displaying their “current residential street address.” The law creates a barrier for voters in Native communities who live on reservations and may not have street addresses.
In Georgia, 53,000 voter registrations are being held up because they are not an “exact match” with Social Security and motor vehicle records. Most of those belong to black voters.
And there have been controversies over poll sites closing in multiple states, including this week’s news out of Dodge City, Kansas, where the majority of residents identify as Latino.
Krishnamurthy said volunteers canvassing in North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods heard from people who stopped voting 10 years ago because they didn’t think it mattered — or had never had anyone knock on their door to talk politics and encourage them to vote.
Oregon’s secretary of state does not keep data on the ethnicity of registered voters. That’s where data science comes in: The trend of trying to target people of color to vote started during President Obama’s 2012 campaign. MIT scientists used public information such as census data to target specific communities.
Krishnamurthy said the database Forward Together uses is not as sophisticated as a national campaign but is still reasonably accurate. The information comes from the census, along with the secretary of state’s list of registered voters, and third-party information.
Forward Together is an advocacy group that works for progressive causes at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality. Krishnamurthy said Measures 105 and 106 directly threaten her group’s mission.
“How systemic racism works is by depriving women of color economic opportunity and healthcare access,” she said. “So this backdoor ban on abortion really does hit Oregon’s families of color and low income communities the hardest.”
Activists say the abortion measure impacts women of color more directly than other groups because, on a per capita basis, a higher percentage qualify for Medicaid.
Forward Together has knocked on more than 13,000 doors in Oregon this year. The group started Sept. 9, and Krishnamurthy said people didn’t know about the measures yet.
“They weren’t tracking the election,” she said. “Now they are paying attention and its record turnout for a midterm election."
According to Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s office, more than 882,000 Oregonians had already submitted their ballots by Friday, 32 percent of the ballots. That’s about 10,000 more than at the same time during the general election in 2014.
“If you feel any hesitation or not like they’re jumping up and down and excited to vote no, talk to them more,” was the guidance Robin Ye, of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, gave volunteers before the canvassing event. He walked volunteers through scripts, ballot collections and the literature.
APANO has published voter guides in seven languages and has a voter phone bank reaching out to people in six languages for the midterms. Ye said they have made more than 30,000 calls this election season.
Activists say voters of color are more likely to get involved if they see other people of color encouraging them.
“I know that when I knock on doors at first people are like …” said Ye, miming closing a set of curtains. “... Then they see what I look like, and they’re like, ‘OK, I’ll give this guy a chance."
In addition to canvassing for measures 105 and 106, APANO was one of several culturally specific groups behind Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative making the ballot.
The measure would create a tax on large retailers with funds going to clean energy projects such as weatherizing homes and installing solar panels and job training, with an emphasis on projects that benefit communities of color.
It’s an attempt at expanding the notion of environmental justice to include communities that are usually not part of that conversation. Portland is known for their environmentalism, but those benefits don’t reach communities of color.
“Environmental justice is tied to jobs in the green economy for people in the neighborhoods taking care of their own communities,” Ye said. “The last thing that we want to see is gentrification, the unintended consequence of putting programs like this in neighborhoods of people of color.”
Ye said the measure brought together one of the largest coalitions ever — organizations that will continue to cooperate after the election is over.
APANO has been canvassing for Portland Clean Energy Initiative with weekly parties at their headquarters at 82nd Avenue and Division Street.
Ye said APANO has focused its efforts in East Portland where there are large communities of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants.
Ye said there’s a clear connection between Measure 105 and the Portland clean energy proposal, Measure 26-201.
“Communities of color are living at all of these intersections, and they can tell you how immigration is not just tied to a specific policy,” he said, noting that for some immigrants, climate change is the reason they came to Oregon. Rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns and accessibility to clean water are all factors in immigration.
This push to drive turnout among ethnic minorities in Oregon is not being done in a vacuum. The national political climate led to APANO leaders changing its status to a social welfare organization, which allows them to engage in legislative lobbying and certain political activity.
“We became a 501(c)(4) understanding the current political movement and needing to make it clear to ... friends and neighbors across the state that our communities are directly under attack,” Ye said. “Our politics won’t change until the people involved change.”
There have been several cases this year in which people of color — including state Rep. Janelle Bynum — had police called on them as they were canvassing potential voters. Organizers say that reality hasn’t deterred efforts in Oregon.
Back in the Hollywood neighborhood, one white resident mentioned those incidents to Hernandez as he went door to door with an OPB reporter trailing and taking notes.
“I can’t imagine you two, as people of color, walking around a very white city,” he said. “How brave you guys are for doing this.”