Nate Vosburg literally goes the distance for his work with the nonprofit Rural Utah Project — miles and miles and miles, across southeastern Utah — to get people in remote areas involved in the political process.
“One of the biggest challenges working in a rural area is the geographic vastness,” says 23-year-old Vosburg. “It's not uncommon for me to drive four hours down to the Navajo reservation, two hours back up to Moab, you know, two hours from there back to where I currently live.”
Vosburg has been involved in local political campaigns since his high school days in a small town in Iowa. He felt that working in local politics was more effective for the community around him and also made politics feel less divisive than on the national level. After leaving college early to work with organizers on a labor union campaign in New York City for a couple years, he found himself heading out West — where his passion for local issues found a home. “In rural areas, especially out West, more power is concentrated within local politics,” he says. “You can make that argument anywhere, that all politics are local, but especially out here.”
Nate is now based out of Helper, Utah, in Carbon County, a place that he characterizes as a forgotten area with a rich mining and labor history. People immigrated there in the early 20th century to work in the growing mining industry, and many of them joined the United Mine Workers union, which ended up informing the political environment in Carbon County. “It's one of the only places in Utah that's been a Democratic stronghold for almost the entire 20th century.” Nate credits the strong union density as one of the reasons for strong political participation in the past. “It had institutions that had been around to get people involved.”
But more recently, many of the mines have closed down, union membership has dropped, and there's more voter apathy. “So we're coming back to reinvigorate those organizing efforts where they've gone away.” Despite being a solidly Democratic county for decades, in 2016, Carbon County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, largely due to his messaging around bringing back coal. Now, for 2020, Vosburg wants people invested and involved in the upcoming election, though not just for the president. He wants them to have a say in changing the script at all levels of government.
Vosburg’s work puts his focus on underrepresented communities that have a unique set of electoral challenges, like a lack of polling locations, poor Wi-Fi and cell service, and the challenge of some voters not having physical addresses. “Rural areas are often overlooked by activist groups and bigger organizations and institutions.”
Vosburg hopes that by developing relationships with people in the community, as opposed to coming in for a specific election and leaving six months later, he’ll be able to engage the community. “You know, state-level races and federal races, you're working on a campaign for a short period of time. You were having to meet quotas for doorknocking and canvasing, and you're not talking to the entire community,” but with the Rural Utah Project, they work with locals as part of a long-term strategy, which means that on Election Day, voters are hearing from people they already know. “So that knocks out two birds with one stone. First, that increases voter turnout. And secondly, it gets people at large more interested in the political process,” Vosburg says.
Getting more people involved is personal for Vosburg. After growing up in a rural area where he saw a lot of apathy, we wants to make sure that change is happening and that people care. “Success here looks like getting people within the community who would otherwise be apathetic, out to the polls and getting them to vote and changing the script.”