by Melia LaCour, columnist
Now is the time for urgent action. As we see COVID-19 rampage communities of color and watch the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s senseless murder, we seek leaders who will release their grip on “returning us to normal” and instead move us toward racial justice at every level.
What if that leader could be you?
According to the King County Democratic Party, there is a powerful and very accessible lever for change, which until now, has gone relatively unnoticed.
It’s the Precinct Committee Officer (PCO). From May 11 –15, King County residents have the opportunity to file to access this powerful lever.
“If you want to make a difference, this is a pretty good place to start,” said Keelcy Perez Woolley, PCO in the 36th Legislative District.
According to the King County Democrats website, PCOs are the “backbone of the Democratic Party.” Within the County’s 17 Legislative Districts (LDs), there are 2,642 precincts. That means within each LD, there are anywhere from a few precincts to a few hundred, depending upon the population. In the South End, the 37th, LD for example, there are 185 precincts.
In each precinct, an elected PCO is responsible for making sure neighbors in their precinct are registered to vote; reminding neighbors in their precinct to vote; voting on Democratic party priorities and leadership; and deciding which candidates to endorse. (More info can be found at the King County Democrats website.) In all, PCOs have a level of power that is quite significant.
“You get to help shape and vote for the party platform,” said Hunter Brown, PCO in the 46th LD, “which then moves its way to the LD level, to the county level, and then to the state level — that says what we as Democrats want to do and what we believe in.”
In addition to shaping the platform, PCOs are the only people who select the candidates to fill vacancies within the state legislature.
“If there is an appointment in the state legislature mid-term, it’s the PCOs that vote on the position,” explained Shasti Conrad, Chair of the King County Democrats. Conrad, a woman of color, was appointed to her position in 2018 after serving as vice-chair the prior year. “In the 38th LD, 44 PCOs were available to vote to appoint June Robinson to the state senate. Now that’s a lot of power.”
Crystal Fincher, political consultant and PCO of 4 years noted that in South King County, often, fewer than 30 PCOs are voting to make appointments for the next legislator.
“And when you think about how few people it takes to meaningfully affect change, the number is so small,” she said.
The dramatic impact of these appointments expands after factoring in the number of appointments that occur. Research indicates that of the 46 King County Democratic state legislators, 17 were appointed. The added bonus is that once officials are appointed, they are more likely to be re-elected in the following election cycle
Though PCOs play an important role, surprisingly, only 1,100 of the 2,642 positions are filled. Here in the 37th LD, there are 73 empty seats. Furthermore, party leaders say that of the existing PCOs in the county, the median age is 60 and mostly populated by white people, slightly skewed male. These realities do not sit well with party leaders.
“To be honest, I think the Democratic Party is having a crisis of leadership, especially in this era,” said Conrad. “How can the Democrats be more responsive to Gen Z and Millennials, especially along racial equity and gender equity? Who is electing leadership matters.”
To get at the root of these issues, Melissa Taylor, Chair of the Finance Committee for the King County Democrats, and Anne Udaloy, Subcommittee Chair, PCO Recruitment and Training, began researching the impact of PCOs in their precincts. The outcomes were startling.
“We were looking purely at the voter engagement impact of having a PCO in a precinct,” Taylor said. “The data was pretty stark in terms of the consistent lift of votes in the primary and the general election of about 5 points.”
The importance of this finding cannot be overstated. If precincts with PCOs could improve voter turnout by 5 points, then major initiatives pushing progressive issues would be more likely to pass. For example, last year, I-1000 Referendum 88, which would have returned affirmative action to Washington, failed by a slim margin of 20,000 votes statewide. If every King County PCO seat had been filled, thus raising voter turnout by 5 additional points, Referendum 88 likely would have passed.
This impressive data sparked King County Democrats to launch the 2020 #FillEverySeat Project. The purpose is to increase voter turnout by five or more points, transform the party to be more representative of the community and to build a “robust, diverse pipeline of leaders for party leadership, boards, commissions and elected office.”
“Essentially, we need more PCOs, because if we have more PCOs, more people will vote,” Taylor said. “Then the question is, if you have 1,500 empty seats, who should you fill them with? The impetus of the project was raising voter turnout and the structure of the project came from which voices are at the table and which voices need better representation.”
The project is focused heavily on recruiting a diversity of potential candidates by engaging in outreach with local organizations serving People of Color, as well as elected officials, candidates and volunteers working with an array of people across racial, gender, age, income, and language groups.
Fincher, who is also a recruiter and one of few Black PCOs, shared that while the party has historically struggled to be inclusive of People of Color and young people, she is optimistic with the new leadership’s commitment to change the party from inside out. Under Conrad’s leadership, the goal is to diversify the party at every level.
“So many gems of talent in the community are working for that space to grow, particularly in low-income, People of Color and marginalized communities. There is an infrastructure in the party for you to advocate for your neighborhood, your community, and your family,” she said. “Those in the South End are often left out. The system wasn’t built for them, or with them. Let us open this door and help you see what the infrastructure looks like and help us tear down some of the walls that have been built up so you can be at the table.”
Once you’re aware the door exists, going through the entrance to become a PCO is surprisingly easy. Anyone interested must file for the position between May 11 and May 15. Though most seats are uncontested, those that are contested are added to the ballot during the August election.
“I would encourage anyone to become a PCO,“ said Perez Woolley, “it’s not time consuming, it’s not super complex. The short of it is that you have to go canvassing for your precinct and to keep up with the relevant news about your legislative district.“
“Hopefully, people see that the qualification to be a PCO is that you’re you in your neighborhood,” added Fincher. “We need the people in these neighborhoods. We need the people in these precincts. We don’t need them to feel like they need to have knowledge in one area or another. Their knowledge is what they care about, what their family is going through and what they see is going on in their neighborhood. That’s the perspective we need.”
There are also great benefits to becoming a PCO. As part of a unique body of leaders, PCOs have easier access to party leaders, information not generally shared with the public, and pathways to a political career. In fact, some of the current elected officials such as Representative Adam Smith and Senator Patty Murray began their political careers as PCOs.
“If we can recruit underrepresented populations and demystify the process, PCOs can develop their own leadership skills, and do something for their community. This is how you change the party from inside out. It matters who is making up the voting block so we can push for more progressive change.” Conrad said.
Perez Woolley added that as a daughter of farm workers and a first-generation college graduate, she now has the opportunity to ensure that issues affecting her community are brought to the forefront.
“If not me, then who?” she said.
Beginning Monday morning, May 11, the door to becoming a PCO is open. In fact, the seat in Rainier Beach, precinct 37-1557, is vacant along with 73 seats in the 37th LD. Now is the time to step into a leadership position to enact the urgent change we need at this time.
“Everyone talks about how ‘they’ need to do something or how ‘they’ are messing it up,” said Fincher. “You have the chance to be ‘they.’ That’s really what it is.”
South Seattle friends, what if “they” could be you? #FillEverySeat
To learn more about how to file to become a PCO, please visit https://www.kcdems.org/get-involved/become-an-elected-pco/.
Please send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The deadline to apply is Friday, May 15.
Editor’s Note: If you filed on Monday or Tuesday, May 11 or 12, this week, you may need to refile do to a system error.
Melia LaCour is a columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director and Founder of Becoming Justice. She identifies as mixed race, Black, and her work is rooted in the belief that racial healing is a critical component of racial justice work. She is a native Seattleite with a passion for justice, writing and karaoke.
Featured image by Ryan Welsh.