GOYV–Get Out Your Voters!

Okay, so you bought it. You’re going to integrate voter registration and promotion of civic participation into your organization’s activities. You’re registering people as part of your daily work with them, you’re generating excitement about the political process long before elections start, and, because it’s what donors expect and what everyone else is doing, you’re also planning a big blitz before the next election–door-knocking volunteers, tables at every community event, the whole deal.

So what? So who’s giving out bonus points for registering people to vote? So who even cares how many people you register (so why do people who have a legal right to vote have to even register in the first place? But that’s a different post–why social work advocates should care about election reform and campaign finance!)? In elections, all that really matters are votes, and there is, unfortunately, quite a chasm between registrants and voters. How do you bridge it?

Political parties have, historically, been the core of Get-out-the-Vote operations. Here in Kansas City, we have the Pendergast legacy. Today, each party has systems for rallying their respective bases. Many of the people served by our social welfare organizations, however, are part of no one’s base. They have never voted before, or vote only sporadically, so they are unlikely candidates for attention from organizations trained to calculate the cost per voter of any GOTV effort. They have few relationships, if any, with these entities, so there’s no natural connection from which to spur action. All too often, they are grabbed by some organization while on their front porch or trying to enjoy a parade with their kids, registered, and then forgotten, while the organization takes ‘credit’ for having registered another voter.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. You’re going to do voter registration a different way, remember, and that opens opportunities for different GOTV work as well. You have relationships, current or at least former, with all of the people you registered. You understand something about the issues that motivate them. You know at least a little bit of their stories. They trust you (we hope!), and they believe that you care about them. This gives you a tremendous foundation from which to help them change from a person registered to vote to a real voter.

First, a story to inspire, and then some ideas for how to make it happen. In 2004, I was in the midst of a pretty intense voter registration and GOTV process; we had both a sustained operation with our own clients and a more traditional, high-volume approach. I had teenage volunteers coming in every night for three weeks to make a series of phone calls to all of the people we had registered; they were trained to answer basic questions about the election and to offer assistance, if needed, to the new registrants. One of the young women doing the calling (they were all bilingual, since many of our voters were Limited English Proficient) came in to my office, excited, to tell me that she had just spoken with a 98-year-old woman who had just registered to vote after becoming a citizen earlier that year. I vaguely remembered her; she was the grandmother of one of our grassroots leaders, and her granddaughter had registered her after attending one of my trainings. The woman was very excited about voting but had a lot of questions; she understood very little English (the English requirement is waived for naturalization applicants who are elderly and meet residency or disability requirements), so she would need an interpreter at the polls. She needed transportation because her granddaughter had to work a long shift that day. She didn’t know for whom to vote because she couldn’t understand the English-language information and there was little in the Spanish press about the election. I took her phone number and called her back. We arranged for one of my volunteers to pick her up to take her to vote; the volunteer would also serve as an interpreter. I sent her a copy of our bilingual, nonpartisan candidate guide. I offered to translate any materials that she received from candidates directly. And I promised to call her again the night before the election to see if she had any other concerns. We spoke again on Election Eve, and she was concerned. She was sick, and so she had to go to the doctor at the time when she was to have been picked up for voting. I rescheduled the ride for later in the day and told her not to worry. At 6PM on Election Day, she called me again (I was working that shift on our election hotline, staffed between 5AM-8PM). Her ride wasn’t there yet. “Melinda, para mi, no hay otra chanza. Seguro que no vivo hasta la próxima elección. Tengo que ir a votar,” she told me passionately (Melinda, for me, there’s not another chance. I’m sure I won’t live until the next election. I have to go vote.) I told her not to worry, hung up, and called the volunteer’s cell phone. He was a little lost, so I gave him directions and called her back. I hung up as he had just pulled in her driveway and told her to call me when she got back. Instead, she called from the volunteer’s cell phone after having just cast her ballot. “Melinda,” she nearly shrieked, “ya voté!” (I just voted!) If only we all felt this exhilaration at having a chance to decide our nation’s future. And if only every potential voter had the help that she did to make it happen. Let those be our goals.

  • Provide people with good, accessible, nonpartisan voter information about the issues that matter to them. People are afraid to cast an ignorant ballot, so they don’t vote at all. The media do a great job at covering the ‘horse race’ side of elections–who’s ahead in which polls and why, but the issues that most matter to the people we serve (mental health, poverty, housing, childcare, jobs, health care, discrimination) often receive scant coverage. You can conduct nonpartisan candidate surveys and provide the information to your clients, or use nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters or Project Vote Smart to help you.
  • Remove the obstacles that keep people from voting. Provide transportation, childcare, and translation services. Consider offering a meal so that families who won’t have time to prepare dinner because of voting still have something hot to eat. Help people find out where to vote; some organizations take a ‘tour’ in advance to show people the polling site and where they’ll go.
  • Remove the fear. Ask your election office to come demonstrate how the voting equipment works, and allow people a chance to practice.
  • Understand your locality’s election laws so that you can explain them and protect people’s rights within them. Voter intimidation is a reality, and election protection needs to be a part of any GOTV strategy. Connect with organizations providing civil rights defense, but also explain to people what their rights are considering provisional ballots, absentee ballots (encourage these whenever possible, as it makes voting so much easier), assistance at the polls, and what to do in the event of a problem.
  • Provide real-time help. Either connect people with a hotline or cell phone number they can use, or staff one yourself. You cannot possibly anticipate everything that could go wrong, and the next business day is way too late.
  • Call people and ask them to please go vote. It sounds too simple, but the people with whom we work seldom get asked to please exercise their civic voices. I was cursed at many times registering people to vote out in the general public, but I never one time had anyone express anything other than appreciation when we called to remind them of the election and to see if they needed any help in voting.
  • Create excitement around voting–offer treats or prizes for those who come to your agency on Election Day with an “I Voted” sticker; partner with a local radio station so that people can call in their experiences; feature something on your website with real-time updates; use Twitter to make announcements about polling places and to congratulate people for voting. One mental health agency asked clients to call in after voting to touch base with their case managers, who congratulated them and talked them through the experience. Have a returns watch party that evening for everyone who voted.

    GOTV work, done right, is tons of fun. People are excited about being part of the political process and encouraged by the community that supports them in this action. It doesn’t cost too much, and volunteers are usually easy to come by (the teenagers who always helped me got community service hours and pizza!). And, because of the relationship base you already have, your efforts are much more likely to be successful than those cast with a much wider net. Remember, none of us are guaranteed to live to the next election!

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