Politics & Government

Hundreds of voters in SC are asking 2020 candidates the same questions. Here’s why

When presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg visited Columbia earlier this month, former lobbyist and professor Doreen Goodwin had a very specific topic she wanted to discuss.

“I wanted to ask you something so desperately about your thoughts on women’s reproductive rights. What will you do?” Goodwin asked May 6 at the Eau Claire Print Building on Ensor Avenue.

Goodwin isn’t the only one asking this questions about this topic. Sen. Cory Booker got a similar question in Seabrook. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke got it in Beaufort and in Charleston. Sen. Bernie Sanders got it in Charleston.

Goodwin is one of thousands of volunteers — 200 of which are in South Carolina alone — trained by the American Civil Liberties Union to speak to 2020 presidential campaigns, urging them to commit to the agency’s policy proposals.

Riding a wave of donations and increasing membership after the 2016 election, the ACLU decided to invest in getting more boots on the ground ahead of the 2020 campaign for president. Those efforts became the Rights for All program, which sends volunteers to campaign stops across early voting states to ask presidential hopefuls from both sides of the aisle questions, South Carolina program organizer Maxwell Frost said.

Volunteers are trained to identify themselves at town halls and candidate Q&A’s as “Rights for All voters” and to ask specific questions about voting rights, immigration rights, reproductive rights and criminal justice reform, Frost said. After asking the question, volunteers will take a video recording of the candidate’s response and send it to the ACLU, where it will be posted online.

“We’re empowering people to hold the next president accountable with a cell phone video,” Frost said.

The goal of the program is to get presidential hopefuls to commit to certain policies by having volunteers ask questions about those policies at all of their campaign stops. For example, Frost said former Vice President Joe Biden agreed to reduce the prison population by 50 percent, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said he would allow incarcerated individuals to vote after questions from volunteers.

“We’ve changed candidates positions ... simply because we asked them the same question over and over again,” Frost said.

Goodwin, who is now an adjunct professor teaching journalism and public relations at Benedict College and the University of South Carolina, said it was a similar strategy she employed when she was a lobbyist at the S.C. State House.

“The squeaky wheel gets oiled,” she joked.

Once candidates commit to a policy on video, the ACLU can use it to remind them of what they promised if they are elected, Goodwin said. She said it makes her feel like she is really making a difference on the election cycle.

Stepping into the election

Frost said the overall goal of the program and collecting video commitments is to insure the next president of the United States is a “champion of civil rights.” So far, volunteers in South Carolina have spoken to every major candidate who has stepped foot in the state, Frost said, adding they had plans to speak with President Donald Trump on his next visit.

The program held a training in Columbia at the house of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler. Though he did not agree with all the policy points the ACLU was hoping to push this election cycle, he was encouraged to see the organization mobilizing voters to be more involved in the election process.

“I was impressed with (the programs) organization,” he said.

Fowler said the turnout for the training seemed to be low, and he thought the ACLU needed to push for more involvement. But Frost said the ACLU is expanding its number of volunteers every single day.

“If you’ve announced you’re seeking the presidency in 2020 and you come to South Carolina, you will encounter an ACLU Rights For All volunteer,” Frost said.

Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.