Delray Beach used to be like most American cities. Its mayor and commissioners were chosen by a handful of voters from neighborhoods consisting mostly of wealthy, older white people.
But now voters from poor, black neighborhoods have become a major force in this South Florida city of about 65,000, where 28 percent of residents are black. In fact, the percentage of voters who turn out from those neighborhoods now matches or exceeds that for the city as a whole. And the civic engagement of these citizens does not end at the ballot box. They stay politically involved year-round.
Because residents have become more engaged, they have seen improvements in their neighborhoods as well as more influence on how Delray Beach is run. Streets and alleyways where drug dealers hang out have been repaved, the city has pushed for more affordable housing in the area, and a new union contract has increased maximum pay for city workers--many of whom live in Delray Beach's black neighborhoods.
It started in 2012, when the Service Employees International Union Florida Public Services Union got involved.
Before that, local organizers would knock on every door in their neighborhoods, trying--unsuccessfully--to persuade people to vote for their candidate. "And after each election, we would be humiliated," recalls Chuck Ridley, a local organizer who works with the public employees union.
But then the union teamed up with local organizers and began using publicly available voter data to find residents who vote in presidential elections but not in other races. Local organizers knocked on their doors. "The most important first step is meeting people where they live," says Alphonso Mayfield, president of the Service Employees International Union Florida Public Services Union (SEIU-FPSU).
Volunteers began to canvass neighborhoods, going door-to-door to listen to residents' concerns. "Back then, it was really about nothing being done in the southwest and northwest side of town," says Morris Carstarphen, president of the Northwest Southwest Neighborhood Alliance, one of the civic groups in Delray Beach's black neighborhoods. Most black residents live northwest and southwest of downtown.
The public employees union and the local groups hosted town halls, where candidates for mayor and city commission explained to voters how they would help their neighborhoods by pushing for repaving roads and building affordable housing.
And when the union and local groups endorsed candidates, they contacted...