A year like no other: How we built community and mobilized voters during a pandemic

Highlights and key learnings in the 2020 Election Cycle

By Andrew Klutey, Anthony Galace and Sam Gonzalez, When We All Vote Regional Organizing Managers

In the 2020 election, nearly 67% of eligible voters, a total of 161 million people turned out to vote — the highest since 1900. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the midst of a national reckoning on racial injustice, Americans came out in historic numbers to make their voices heard, and young people and people of color were crucial in driving this record-shattering turnout.

To say that 2020 challenged the way we think about organizing would be an understatement; this year forced organizations like ours to completely rethink our strategy and approach. With in-person voter registration essentially out of the question and many volunteers’ priorities shifting during the pandemic, our organizing team at When We All Vote needed to think creatively about how to reach and register high-potential voters (people who aren’t yet regular voters) during a pandemic, and give them the tools and resources to ensure that their communities were registered and ready to vote.

To invest in registering and mobilizing new voters, young voters, and voters of color, we built out a three-tiered organizing program:

I. Invest in our existing Voting Squad Captains program to encourage volunteers to organize their communities safely

II. Launch a relational organizing program to empower new and existing volunteers to engage with their own personal networks

III. Following CDC guidelines, run a socially-distanced, in-person and community-focused voter mobilization program

I. Bridging the Race and Age Voting Gap: Lessons We Learned From Our Voting Squad Captains

As we first began to ramp up our programming for the 2020 election, our team worked to empower our most dedicated volunteer leaders, known as our “Voting Squad Captains,” to lead their communities to the polls. These volunteer leaders were tasked with recruiting their friends and neighbors to become a part of their “voting squad” — to join them in changing the culture around voting in their communities by registering everyone they know and encouraging them to be voters. This program aimed to make the process of voting more accessible, more community-minded, and to turn voting into an act of empowerment.

We trained our Voting Squad Captains to actively engage their relationships with loved ones, reaching out to family, coworkers, neighbors and members of their faith communities to remind them of the power of their vote and provide safe ways for them to get involved with our efforts. Together, we hosted dozens of weekly virtual meetings to share best practices, held COVID-conscious virtual and in-person events, and engaged authentically to meet and empower voters in their own communities.

As we reflect on the accomplishments of this program, we wanted to share three key lessons that we learned about organizing, and more importantly, the power of our Voting Squad Captains and volunteers to build a more inclusive and vibrant democracy:

  1. Organizing in a socially-distanced world is challenging, but impactful

For organizations and volunteers like ours, the pandemic has made our work more difficult given our reliance on in-person community-building. That’s why we had to adjust and find ways to lean into digital organizing, as well as safe socially-distanced action opportunities. Our captains answered the call to engage voters at every turn, and as a result, our organizing team virtually trained over 26,300 volunteers and Voting Squad Captains in cities all across the country. From Raleigh to Detroit and Tucson to Atlanta, we hosted dozens of virtual couch parties and voter registration drives in the months leading up to the election.

Our Voting Squad Captains and volunteers made an unmistakable difference. Together, they helped 512,000 voters start or complete their voter registration. Our texting volunteers sent over 12 million texts to prospective voters to educate and provide resources. Community leaders held hundreds of voter registration drives in their communities, and in the Georgia runoff election, volunteers made thousands of calls. Leaning into online communities allowed us to accomplish real community work without compromising the health and well-being of our Voting Squad Captains and volunteers. By staying focused on our mission as an organization and as a volunteer community, we persisted through “Zoom fatigue” and moved our movement forward in new ways.

2. Never underestimate the value of relationships

Leading up to the general election, we hosted Weeks of Action designed to organize and motivate our Voting Squad Captains to host virtual and in-person voter engagement events. Some, like Selena from Nevada, handed out hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks while registering people to vote at their local food bank or community center. Others organized their friends — Lisa from Georgia, for example, organized her walking group, the Nature Gurlz, to vote early together.

3. Volunteers have the power to close the race and age voting gap

This past summer, we mourned the death of Rep. John Lewis, a leader in our nation’s fight to expand voting rights. In honoring his legacy, our volunteers found creative and meaningful ways to close the race and age voting gap in their communities. Whether it was Native American voting rights activists in Arizona or historic Black fraternities and sororities registering and turning out their communities, the legacy of Congressman Lewis lives on in the leadership of so many of our Voting Squad Captains.

II. Our most powerful messengers: Building a relational organizing program

To run an effective program in unprecedented times, we knew that we couldn’t rely on traditional (and often in-person) organizing tactics like door-knocking or high-traffic based events. That’s why in September, we launched our Turnout Captain program as a way for volunteers to bring their personal network through the entire process of voting — from confirming their registration to requesting a mail-in ballot or making a plan to vote early. Studies show that rather than a “cold” text or call from someone we don’t know, individuals as members of their community are the most effective messengers to influence and organize our friends and family. We created this program to cut through the noise of the election cycle, and empower our volunteers to provide voters in their life, like their parents, siblings, neighbors, coworkers and those in their faith communities, with straightforward voting information.

We recruited hundreds of volunteers across nine focus states and asked them to think about 10 or more people in their lives that needed an extra push to come out and vote. While we set quantitative and qualitative goals for this program, we wanted our volunteers to understand the power of their own relationships. We worked together to help them guide voters in their networks through a voting plan, from registration to turnout and ultimately bring more voters into the democratic process via a trusted messenger.

Overall, Turnout Captains reached over 1,000 voters who received support from a trusted source in their life. Turnout Captains frequently reported that they were excited to take action with their network and most importantly, helped turn out more voters in their communities because they did not assume people in their network were registered and had a plan to vote. They treated everyone on their list as a potential voter to turn out.

To accomplish this, we centered the Turnout Captain program on three key principles:

  1. Don’t assume everyone you know is prepared to vote

Many of our Turnout Captains have large networks of people in their lives. It was crucial to help them understand that they were the best messengers for their communities, and to not assume everyone’s registration was up-to-date or that they even had a plan to vote. By encouraging our volunteers to think of their friends, family and neighbors as potential voters who might not vote without their influence, we built a broad network of voters across the country who were engaging on a weekly basis with people closest to them in their lives.

2. Low tech is the best tech

We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel or have to train Turnout Captains on a new piece of tech, so we used simple worksheets to help them track their conversations and relationships. We provided them with resources and ideas to help them think of the people in their life that would most benefit from an intentional conversation about voting, not just individuals that they wanted to talk with about voting or politics.

3. Keep it fun, and action-oriented

Each week, we sent a newsletter to our Turnout Captains with action opportunities that aligned with key moments and dates in the election season and larger organizational moments at When We All Vote. Newsletters were written in a straightforward manner and included “homework” — simple actions they would take with their 10 voters that week, always including a fun update celebrating a fellow Turnout Captain or volunteer who had found a creative way to take action with their network. Our aim with these newsletters was also for Turnout Captains to also build community amongst themselves.

III. No mask, no ask: How we safely tripled voters’ impact at the polls

The third key piece of our programming in 2020 was our Polling Place Volunteer Squad (which we’ll refer to as PPVS), a tactic that allowed for community-focused, direct voter contact in a socially-distant world. Developed in partnership with VoteTripling.org, the program was powered by volunteers who would station themselves outside a polling place during early voting or election day, and ask exiting voters to text 3 friends or family to come out and vote on the same day. We ensured that our volunteers’ safety would come first — we had a strict “No mask, no ask” rule — and worked with Vote Tripling to make sure that all of our volunteers were trained on protocol and safe demonstrations of these voter conversations. Prior to their shifts, Vote Tripling made data-driven decisions to choose which polling locations we prioritized with our volunteers. Once they were trained and ready to go, our volunteers headed out to their polling places to Get Out the Vote, 2020 style.

Over the course of early voting and election day, our PPVS volunteers completed hundreds of volunteer shifts, during which they talked to more than 7,500 voters. Each of these conversations celebrated the voter, gave them a sticker, and asked them to text or call three of their family or friends to have a conversation about voting. In 3,300 of those conversations, the voters our volunteers talked to sent texts or made calls on the spot, encouraging their friends and family to join them in voting. In those conversations alone, we know we reached nearly 10,000 voters.

Because the program was run remotely, PPVS was powered on the ground entirely by our volunteers. David, a volunteer in Georgia, was an experienced canvasser who was looking for a COVID-safe form of voter contact. He signed up for a training and a shift, and later shared anecdotally that he felt that participating in this program was more effective than much of the door-to-door canvassing he’d done in the past.

Based on the feedback we received from volunteers, this program was effective, rewarding, and safe — and allowed us to safely connect volunteers with their community during a challenging election cycle.

What we learned:

The success of the PPVS program offers invaluable lessons that should continue to inform GOTV programs even after it’s safe to return to “normal” in-person voter contact.

  1. Safe in-person organizing remains invaluable. This program reminded us of the importance of face-to-face conversations — albeit socially distanced — and highlighted how we can foster deeper relationships in the communities of our volunteers through engaging conversations.

What’s next?

We can’t predict how our lives — or the work of organizing our communities — will change in a post-COVID world, but this much is clear: We must continue investing our time and energy into community and relationship centered-organizing to ensure all voices are heard, especially young people and people of color. Whether in recruiting friends to be a part of your Voting Squad, guiding your family through the voting process as a Turnout Captain or authentically engaging with your community as a volunteer in our Polling Place Volunteer program, we know that relationships are at the core of effective organizing. The tactic of relational organizing has been around for a long time, and rightfully isn’t going anywhere. It’s the most authentic and meaningful way that any organization or campaign can engage with high-potential voters via trusted messengers — their friends and family. Our challenge as organizers is to also design and implement relational programs that are equally authentic and accessible in our strategy and tactics. Every program is going to look different, and should reflect the goals of the program as fully as it does the lives and communities of the volunteer leaders leading them.

As we move forward, our sincere hope is that organizations and future organizers working in this space can take the lessons we learned through our Voting Squad, Turnout Captain and Polling Place Volunteer Squad programs to engage their communities, build long term civic engagement, and continue our shared work of making our democracy more inclusive and resilient.

We’re shaping the promise of our democracy through voter registration and participation. Because #WhenWeAllVote, we can change the world. WhenWeAllVote.org