Hidalgo didn’t campaign as a firebrand progressive looking to defend Texas from Trump. She won it, she told me, by focusing on what mattered most to her neighbors: the constant flooding of the county, as violent storms kept overwhelming dilapidated infrastructure. “I said, ‘Do you want a community that floods year after year?’” She won, and after she won, she joined with her colleagues to spend $13 million more on election administration and to allow residents to vote at whichever polling place was convenient for them on Election Day, even if it wasn’t the location they’d been assigned.
Protecting democracy by supporting county supervisors or small-town mayors — particularly ones who fit the politics of more conservative communities — can feel like being diagnosed with heart failure and being told the best thing to do is to double-check your tax returns and those of all your neighbors.
“If you want to fight for the future of American democracy, you shouldn’t spend all day talking about the future of American democracy,” Wikler said. “These local races that determine the mechanics of American democracy are the ventilation shaft in the Republican death star. These races get zero national attention. They hardly get local attention. Turnout is often lower than 20 percent. That means people who actually engage have a superpower. You, as a single dedicated volunteer, might be able to call and knock on the doors of enough voters to win a local election.”
Or you can simply win one yourself. That’s what Gabriella Cázares-Kelly did. Cázares-Kelly, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, agreed to staff a voter registration booth at the community college where she worked, in Pima County, Ariz. She was stunned to hear the stories of her students. “We keep blaming students for not participating, but it’s really complicated to get registered to vote if you don’t have a license, the nearest D.M.V. is an hour and a half away and you don’t own a car,” she told me.
Cázares-Kelly learned that much of the authority over voter registration fell to an office neither she nor anyone around her knew much about: the County Recorder’s Office, which has authority over records ranging from deeds to voter registrations. It had powers she’d never considered. It could work with the postmaster’s office to put registration forms in tribal postal offices — or not. When it called a voter to verify a ballot and heard an answering machine message in Spanish, it could follow up in Spanish — or not.
“I started contacting the records office and making suggestions and asking questions,” Cázares-Kelly said. “I did that for a long time, and the previous recorder was not very happy about it. I called so often, the staff began to know me. I didn’t have an interest in running till I heard the previous recorder was going to retire, and then my immediate thought was, ‘What if a white supremacist runs?’”
So in 2020, Cázares-Kelly ran, and she won. Now she’s the county recorder for a jurisdiction with nearly a million people, and more than 600,000 registered voters, in a swing state. “One thing I was really struck by when I first started getting involved in politics is how much power there is in just showing up to things,” she said. “If you love libraries, libraries have board meetings. Go to the public meeting. See where they’re spending their money. We’re supposed to be participating. If you want to get involved, there’s always a way.”