The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion. ~ Molly Ivins
I would add that, in addition to being messy, disorderly, and loud, democracy requires you to leave your comfort zone. I know there’s something on this list you can do.
So, just in case you’ve just found out about a campaign you’d like to volunteer on, here are 13 ways to get involved.
1. Block Walk
I encourage you to try this even if you think you can’t talk to people. You can go with a partner and see how it is done. You aren’t knocking on just any door; you are given a list of addresses in a neighborhood for people who are likely voters. Primarily, you knock, no one answers, and you leave a door hanger. You get exercise, soak up a little Vitamin D, and help get the candidate’s name in front of voters. A win for everyone.
2. Phone Bank
If I can do it, you can do it. Smile when you talk, because it really does help. For every 10 numbers you dial, you might reach one person, so get busy and don’t fret over making that first call. Find out if you are supposed to leave voice messages or not before you start. Sometimes, those are the most fun of all. Campaigns will provide scripts, but don’t be afraid to modify them (for style, not substance) to make them sound more like you. If you start off sounding friendly and identifying yourself as a volunteer, only one in a million people will be nasty to you. Just think of that as payback for the times you’ve hung up rudely on a phone solicitor. Most will be either friendly OR honest about wanting to get off the phone. Once in a while, you have a great chat with an older person (because that’s who has land lines) who will reinforce your faith in humanity and democracy with their passion for your candidate or issue.
Campaigns host phone banks because they work. Try it before you say it isn’t for you.
3. Deliver yard signs
Campaigns get calls and emails from supporters who want signs. They also seek out supporters with prime property for big 4′ x 8′ signs: residential or retail corners, fences on key roads, etc. If you can deliver yard signs, great. Go ahead & put them up in the yard, but not in the right-of-way. If you’ve got a truck, you can help with the big signs.
A few key rules to live by:
- Do not get the candidate in trouble by putting signs up without permission, especially in the public right-of-way.
- Do not take down, deface, or otherwise mess with other candidates’ signs.
- It is nice to offer to help pick up signs after a campaign has ended. Some candidates recycle the signs from election to election. If you can recruit a team of people to do this, what a gift to the candidate.
4. Data Entry
When volunteers return from phone-banking, and when donations come in, someone has to log them into the computer. If you think data entry is your thing, please make a commitment for the long haul. Campaign staff can train you, but to make the most of the time they spend training you, you need to show up on a regular basis. And, accuracy is very, very important. Take your time and get it right. The campaign uses this information to plan future block-walks and phone banks, and relies upon it for mandatory financial reports.
5. Cleaning the campaign office
Seriously. If you showed up every couple of weeks and spent an hour doing basic house work, the candidate, campaign staff, and volunteers will consider you a hero. Clean phones, keyboards, tables, and don’t skip the bathroom. Watch the newspapers, get some coupons for cleaning supplies, and invest in a box of disposable gloves, then leave them behind so others can follow your example. If you can pick up a vacuum or dust-buster at a resale store, do it.
(I’d like to get your feedback in the comments on this question: does the option of cleaning toilets make you more or less likely to sign up to phone bank?)
6. Driving the candidate
If you’re a good driver and navigator, you can volunteer to drive the candidate to various meetings, debates, and events. This frees up the candidate to make fundraising calls or do other work from the passenger seat. Make sure you’ve got enough gas, know where you are going, and who the contact is (including cell phone number) for the place you are going in case something happens on the way.
7. Host a meet & greet
Early in the campaign, candidates, especially first-timers or those running for local offices, need name recognition among voters almost as much as they need donations. You can invite your neighbors over for coffee on a Saturday morning or wine on a weeknight to meet the candidate. Ask the campaign how long your event should be, what time works for them, and how many people they would consider a successful event to be. They might look at their records and ask you to include nearby neighbors you don’t know in the invitation. This is a great way to meet new people.
If you can’t host an event, ask if the campaign is having any in your area, and attend, and bring a friend or two. Hosts are always grateful for a good turn-out.
This doesn’t have to be a fundraiser, but note that as campaigns get closer and closer to election day, their focus will be on fundraising events, not meet & greets. So, get on the calendar early if this is how you want to participate.
8. Collect & donate office supplies
Every campaign needs printer/copier paper, clipboards, pens, highlighters, dry erase boards and markers, and ink cartridges for printers. They need trash bags, coffee cups, coffee makers, microwaves, and toilet paper, too. And, they need stain pens and laundry wipes. Find out exactly what they need, make a wish list, and ask several friends to help you play Santa once or twice during the campaign. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for coupons. Make sure you coordinate with the campaign so that they can track your donation according to campaign regulations, and so that you don’t overwhelm them with things they don’t need.
9. Bring food
A campaign, like an army, marches on its stomach. Donuts on the weekend for block-walkers are great, but if you bring real food that comes from legitimate food groups beyond pizza and tacos for the staff and hardcore volunteers, they will worship you for all eternity. Remember that vegans volunteer on campaigns, too, and need your animal- and dairy-product free love. Breath mints, hand sanitizer, and napkins, etc., are a nice touch, and can help the candidate prep for a meeting after a meal.
10. Work polling locations during early voting and on election day
This is critical. You stand outside, wearing a campaign shirt/button/sticker (and, you know, the rest of your clothes), offering voters small cards (called push cards, probably because you are supposed to push them into people’s hands) with your candidate’s name, picture, and campaign platform reduced to a few snappy words or phrases. But don’t just offer the cards—ask people to vote for your candidate. Be polite, and, despite what the cards are called, don’t be pushy.
“Hi! We sure would appreciate your vote for Wendy Davis for Governor today,” is a great way to start. Most people will walk past you quickly, smiling and nodding or ignoring you. A few might ask you questions. Be prepared for the people who respond by asking why with a few short reasons. “Wendy really knows how to build consensus among people with different views, and I think our state really needs someone who can lead like that,” or “Wendy has always been a champion for education, and I think it is critical that we have a governor who understands how to make school finance work efficiently but effectively.” Of course, you’ll need to know more than that in case someone asks, but they rarely do.
A few might want to get hostile, or at least ask questions to distract you when it is clear they aren’t going to vote no matter what you say. Thank them for their time and walk away so that 1) you don’t waste time arguing and miss other voters, and 2) others don’t see you arguing and get so disgusted with politics that they skip your candidate’s race or vote for the other person.
11. Give money and raise money
To earn votes, campaigns have to connect with voters. Those connections are phone calls, emails, handshakes at events, articles in the newspaper, eyeballs on signs, etc., and even with a tremendous volunteer base, campaigns need to spend money to make these things happen. If you can’t write a big check, consider making a monthly gift of a smaller amount to help with cash flow. And, consider bundling. If you get ten friends to each give $10 a month for 12 months, and the campaign finds ten other people to do that, it adds up.
12. Talk to people (while wearing a campaign t-shirt)
One thing I love about Texas is that you can strike up a conversation with any grocery store checker, waitress, or even a person in an elevator. Reason #39 I’m glad I live in Texas. This horrifies anyone who grew up or lives in the north. I find myself trying to chat people up in New Hampshire, and they get the uncomfortable look of a shy woman who realizes she’s going to be stuck for an entire transatlantic flight next to a man who has modeled his life on Bobcat Goldthwait’s character in Shakes the Clown.
But I digress.
My point is, be friendly and talk to people. Tell them about your candidate. Tell them you are volunteering, what you are doing, and why you think it matters. Be nice, be friendly, and keep it short, but give them a reason to have a strong positive association with your candidate. You never know, but you might convince someone to vote for your candidate just on the strength of that one interaction.
And for heaven’s sake, if you have a car magnet or sticker on your vehicle, don’t drive like an ass. Or, take the magnet off before you do.
13. Get busy on the internet
There’s a famous campaign saying you should know: signs don’t vote. Aside from being obviously true, inasmuch as signs lack opposable thumbs or rights under the constitution—so far, that is—it means that you should never assume that the quantity of signs you see equals the number of votes a candidate will get.
Internet comments don’t vote, either, nor do Facebook posts, tweets, or even hilarious .gifs. Still, all of those things play a role.
Play nice. Speak truth. Be brief. Comment first on an article about your candidate, and say something positive without resorting to mudslinging about the other candidate. That helps get the message out, and makes the people who comment after you look like jerks.
I’d love to hear from campaign staffers and experienced volunteers: what have I left off? What do you think is most important? What have I said that is flat-out wrong?
14. Drive voters to the polls
Campaigns can usually connect you to the places where drivers are needed. This is incredibly helpful for people who otherwise would face transportation hurdles (long bus rides, no public transport that runs between residence & polling site, mobility issues) that might make them skip voting.
15. Visit retirement communities, help sign people up for voting by mail
This is like a combination of block-walking, and meet & greeting, and phone-banking. Often, you can visit retirement homes, and even nursing homes, to talk to potential voters who, because of their age, are often eligible to sign up (in Texas, anyway) to vote by mail.
Why haven’t I suggested registering voters?
Campaigns have to focus their resources, which are generally more limited than they’d like, on those who are already registered to vote. Ideally, their labor-intensive outreach efforts (door-knocking, phone-calling) targets largely those already likely to vote for them.
Campaigns, therefore, aren’t usually directly engaged in voter registration work. The good news is that other groups, like Battleground, are involved. It is definitely important, it just doesn’t usually fall under the type of assignment campaigns hand out.