Couch Party 101: Strengthening Democracy From Your Living Room

How we’re embracing virtual organizing and reaching new voters during COVID-19

When We All Vote
9 min readMay 19, 2020

By Laura Miller, Mobilization Director, When We All Vote

As we grapple with COVID-19, we are faced with not only an uncertain time for the health of everyone around the globe, but it’s also a critical time for our democracy. As Americans face greater uncertainty around the stability of their health, income, and families, elections are moving forward and the work to register voters and turn them out to vote is more important than ever.

The shifting landscape has forced organizations like ours to experiment with new methods of digital or virtual organizing on a much larger scale than ever before. While When We All Vote has always been a digital-first organization, we’re now focused on being a digital-only organization. In recent years, digital organizing has drastically improved from that old-school meaning of “couch activism” and online petitions to encompass a dynamic set of tools that make more personalized, meaningful conversations and online action possible.

While we had the formula to build inspiring in-person voter registration events in years past, this new reality posed a question: How do we continue to register people to vote at a large scale while we stay at home?

When We All Vote Voter Registration Event, Las Vegas 2018

Right before COVID-19, our team was knee deep in preparing to host our first big in-person rally of 2020 with Michelle Obama in Detroit. When it became clear that the rally could not move forward, we quickly pivoted to shift our digital infrastructure towards an online-only event.

As someone who’s run digital campaigns for everything from White House policy pushes to political campaigns, to national protests like March for Our Lives, I’ve been in the middle of dozens of rapid response situations. I thought I had the playbook down for pulling a team together and getting people to take quick action. While these experiences provided a basic framework, nothing totally prepared me for running a digital organizing program during a pandemic. We didn’t know how new voters would engage or what technology would be crucial for our volunteers during this time to stay active — this was uncharted territory. The one thing we did know was that testing, experimenting, and taking risks had to be a part of the new strategy.

Introducing the #CouchParty

As our essential workers are out on the frontlines, many of us are doing our part by spending our days at home. With that, our couches have become the central hub for our Zoom calls with friends, work meetings, kid’s schooling, movie night, meals, and so much more. So we thought, ‘why not also have a party on it?’ For our team at When We All Vote, it was exactly the place to continue reaching volunteers and voters.

When DJ D-Nice’s “Club Quarantine” hit the Instagram Live airwaves, a new cultural phenomenon broke loose. It seemed like the perfect opportunity was in front of us to create a party with a purpose. This was the main ingredient to bringing the first #CouchParty together. It helped us set our initial goal of reaching 50,000 new voters, while also bringing together our community of supporters, volunteers and partners.

On March 25th, in just three and a half hours, we blew past our goal, reaching over 400,000 eligible voters with help from 7,500 volunteers. 19,000 people either started or completed their voter registration in the days following the party, with the majority people of color and those between the ages of 18–35. More than 60,000 participants joined the #CouchParty alone, including dozens of our partners. With help from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tracee Ellis Ross and dozens of our ambassadors, we also were able to bring thousands of new volunteers to the table and train them to text voters through a tool called OutVote, all while jamming out during the DJ D-Nice live set.

With one successful Couch Party under our belt, we decided to try it again. This time, our co-chair Michelle Obama joined in on the fun, putting a focus on our safe and fair voting principles and of course, ending with another jam session with DJ D-Nice. We also engaged more of our partners like the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., United State of Women and many others to host their own “mini” Couch Parties with their supporters and members, calling on participants to focus on relational organizing by identifying people in their own contacts they could text to register to vote.

After hosting two virtual couch parties online (with more to come!), we learned quite a bit. Here are some of our takeaways:

  1. People are looking for a sense of community during this difficult time. We were pleasantly surprised by the thousands of social media posts — everything from people taking selfie photos on their couches with their kids and pets, to folks posting videos or photos dancing in front of their TVs with DJ D-Nice. For us, this proved that people want to share their experiences with each other and are excited to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves and to feel some positivity during this challenging time.

2. Friend to friend (relational) texting can work alongside a peer-to-peer ask — During our first Couch Party, our volunteers sent over 3,000 text messages to their personal contacts before sending 400,000 peer-to-peer texts. Relational voter outreach is more than twice as effective as traditional cold contact, but traditionally challenging to do at a large scale. During the Couch Party we trained participants to use our texting app OutVote to upload their contacts, select friends that are infrequent voters and send them a message to make sure that they were registered to vote. Parties are by nature relationship driven activities, and it is now clear they are great opportunities for reaching infrequent voters through people they are already in touch with.

3. People still want to party — even isolated at home. Just like any party, food, drinks, music, dancing, and community are what people are looking for. So for us, adding in some fun special guests, creating a space for people to communicate together, and of course music was key to keep our attendees there for the training and taking action with us.

4. It’s important to follow trends and plug into them (quickly). One of the reasons our first Couch Party was such a success was because we quickly noticed the cultural shift to parties taking place on Instagram Live. DJ D-Nice was the first to start with his “Club Quarantine” and bring people the joy of a dance party right to their living room. Now, IG Live has become a typical part of many people’s weekly social media routines. We followed this up by engaging in the very popular IG live Battle between Babyface and Teddy Riley. We continue to look for opportunities to naturally plug into and reach audiences that we’re not already speaking to.

5. Just like offline events, virtual events take a lot of energy and effort to pull together, so sometimes plugging into pre-existing events may be a better option. Just like any big event — in person or not — they take a lot of resources, time, and effort from your team. When it came to building a virtual event, what technology you’re going to use and how to broadcast it is something is one of the hardest things to navigate and learn how to make it all come together, especially when the team cannot be together in the same room. Being able to multi-stream to different social platforms all at once — whether that’s running it through a Zoom and streaming to Facebook Live or Youtube.

6. Keep training, building your community and pulling supporters up the ladder. Once you have a community of new volunteers, don’t forget to keep reaching back out to them (and don’t wait too long) to turn them into volunteers. Just as any good organizer would say, building relationships with your supporters and volunteers is vital to your success. This doesn’t change in an online-only world. Create multiple places where you can talk to them including creating a Facebook group or Slack community, initiating smaller training opportunities, and also just finding more fun opportunities for them to engage.

An excited Couch Party attendee

Want to plan your own Couch Party?

Now, if you’re trying to plan your own couch party, here’s a checklist to help get you started, but it’s important to note that virtual organizing means different things for each organization given varying goals, priorities, and resources — there’s really no “one size fits all” so it’s a matter of pulling out the tools that work best for your organizations team and volunteers.

  1. Start with the basics: Who is your target audience, what is your goal, and what is your main call to action? These are still the foundation of any strategy.
  2. Build your audience with a little help from your friends: We are lucky at When We all Vote to have a team of co-chairs led by Michelle Obama and others including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tom Hanks and Chris Paul to name a few. They are critical to helping us reach large audiences and build an audience quickly. Our incredible partners also bring in dedicated volunteers who are essential to helping us reach more people and doing the hard work.
  3. Know what digital organizing tools you can use: Get a great digital organizing tool that works for your organization. We use an events tool called Mobilize and and an action tool called Outvote that helps our volunteers upload and text their phone contacts (relational) and also join our peer-to-peer actions to text new voters. We would not have been able to reach as many new voters without this!
  4. Don’t forget about the mechanics: While this isn’t always the most fun, making sure the technology works is critical to throwing a big virtual event. There are a number of tools out there like Streamyard that help you multi-stream to different platforms at once. Or, you can let the professionals take over and work with one of the many livestreaming companies that will help you throw together your digital event for you.
A Couch Party hosted by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

So What’s Next?

Even with the world turning upside down, elections still go on and our team has a lot of work ahead of us. As we continue to navigate this new landscape together, When We All Vote is focused on getting voters information on how they can vote safely and fairly. This includes state-by-state rules around how to request a ballot at home and also how they can advocate for federal policies so more voters can have access to vote by mail, early voting, and expanding online voter registration. Also, we will continue to provide volunteers with both relational and peer-to-peer texting opportunities through our new “Texting Tuesday” series.

As for Couch Parties, the party doesn’t stop. We will engage with other key partners to help us host online events and continue to reach new voters, bringing our virtual registration parties to the states.

And for the digital organizers out there — keep going!

Build on your work. Increase your goals and try new target audiences. And have a little fun because we’re in this for the long haul. We’re all facing a new normal in how we run campaigns, organizations, and elections in our now digital-first world.

Digital organizers are always ready to rise up and take the lead. Now, we need to make sure we have the digital tools and critical resources to continue to help us meet the people where they are: online.

Check out these additional virtual organizing resources

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When We All Vote

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