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GOTV in 2020: The New Field Program

This cycle, nearly all voter contact has been virtual – candidate events, fundraisers, and, over the past several months, GOTV efforts. We sat down with Angela Lang and Addisu Demissie to discuss how GOTV has changed this year, the innovative strategies used, and the best practices they expect will continue in future cycles. 

Angela Lang is the Executive Director of BLOC in Wisconsin. BLOC uses community-based organizing to invest in and engage their community to ensure a high quality of life and access to economic opportunity for members of the Black community. Angela and her team’s work at BLOC was featured in Dress Rehearsal, a documentary Higher Ground Labs produced alongside Acronym and Arena about the Wisconsin special election in April 2020.

Addisu Demissie is a Democratic Strategist and Founding Principal of 50+1 Strategies. Addisu has nearly 20 years of experience in political advocacy and campaign strategy and is a member of our Board of Advisors. 

What does GOTV look like this cycle? 

What are innovative strategies you’re using or have seen implemented this year? 

Angela: We have an event called Civics Jeopardy that our team uses to educate voters and keep them on top of important issues, including important deadlines, different voting options, and candidates platforms. This year, we decided to livestream it. It’s been a fun and creative way for people to learn and engage. We also feature special guests like US Senator Tammy Baldwin. 

We’ve also livestreamed virtual town halls with candidates in 1:1 discussions with our Political Director about their agenda for the Black community and give attendees the opportunity to ask questions. You have maybe an hour on Facebook Live to hold people’s attention so we don’t want it to seem like we’re talking at people, we want people to engage in conversation. We’re trying to make things fun, educational, and accessible in times of darkness.

Addisu: It’s a combination – the platforms that have been built and the tactics that are being used to build meaningful relationships online are the most innovative things I’ve seen. You can still contact a voter by telephone or a social post, but actual relationship-building (which is the crux of organizing) is a lot harder when you can’t hear someone in person. 

This cycle I’ve seen field organizers hosting events using interactive tools that simulate the in-person experience more than I thought was possible. In many ways, the most interesting part of trying to do a largely online/digital voter contact program is how you incorporate the social part of organizing into the work. People say all the time you come for the candidate, and you stay for the organizer – and that’s still true. But it’s different when you’re building personal relationships and at times organizers and voters are not even in the same vicinity. 

How has increased vote-by-mail (VBM) changed GOTV efforts?

Addisu: The biggest thing is we’ve had to focus on teaching people how to vote-by-mail. In a few states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, this is the first time they’ve had VBM at scale like this in a presidential election. Election day will still have a large turnout, but in a lot of places you’re going to have a majority of the votes cast by then. The need to GOTV for a four- or five-week period is now universal because you needed to start communicating in September. Campaigns adjusted to that. 

Angela: We’ve been making a big push for VBM and early voting because we believe it’s the safest. But we also provide voters with a backup plan and reassure them they have other options. Our organizers use Facebook Live to help people with registration and answer their questions about VBM. They open their lines for follow-up and do a lot of individual outreach. We’re letting voters know that the majority of the country is voting in ways that they have never voted before. We inoculate folks on some of the things that we might hear on election night – that it’s going to take some time to count the ballots and that’s ok. When you have more money in your drawer at the end of the shift, it takes a little longer to count it. You’re not undercutting the process or doing anything shady – there’s just more than usual and that’s ok.

What does “meeting people where they are” look like today?

Angela: We did a voter registration drive where we gave out food and commit-to-vote cards and registered 40-50 people. It was our first in-person event since quarantine began. We didn’t consider this a mobilization effort, but more so providing resources and support to our community. We need to look at core needs and see where voters are to connect with them. 

Addisu: The most interesting thing I’ve seen is meeting people where they are in spaces like video games, YouTube, and Twitch. It’s become a normalized way to get information and entertainment, so it’s a little bit more on par with TV. A big part of that is that older people have gotten more comfortable with tech during the pandemic – particularly older people of means, who have access to tech and are lucky to work from home during the pandemic. What we used to perceive as a young person’s medium has now become universal. Combine that with people like AOC and others willing to try out new ideas, and you have a new place to do politics. I hope that we go back to convening in-person, and traveling, and having intimate gatherings and tangible interactions, but this is a new way to communicate that has a newfound intimacy to it that could actually extend to different GOTV efforts.

How has the pandemic impacted GOTV messaging this cycle? 

Angela: We are being more mindful and sensitive to people’s needs and how their traumas and triggers may be manifesting. We’ve had to give this warning to our staff – we’re in the last couple of weeks, it’s crunch time, emotions are high, and we’re a family. I have some members coming up to me who are struggling with anxiety and depression or suffering from domestic violence – as there’s been a rise since COVID hit – and many who are homeschooling. We’re being intentional with how we’re sustaining ourselves and how we’re talking about these issues with staff and voters. 

Addisu: Because you can vote by mail, early, or on election day – it is a complicated message to get across. It’s not as simple as saying vote this way or vote on this day. The challenge for practitioners has been to zero in on the most effective message and timing by jurisdiction and deliver that message in a localized way. There’s not really a national GOTV message – Pennsylavania has one message, Iowa has one, Nevada has another – and that’s hard. That’s the nature of the combination of a pandemic, our messed up electoral laws, and the fatigue that comes with how politics is right now and how long this election cycle has been and felt. 

What GOTV strategies do you think are going to stick in future cycles ? 

Angela: What’s also interesting is the last several cycles we’ve seen a shift of everyone moving to a digital space. But, what I’ve seen more of this year that I haven’t seen in a while are old-school tactics like having yard signs that say “I’m a BLOC voter,” giving out stickers for people to wear, or handing out flyers at essential businesses. There’s a mix of old school and digital coming together. It’s not completely digital. 

Addisu: It’s a lot easier to organize digitally by constituency, and not by geography. This is something that every campaign I’ve been a part of has tried to do. Geography has been the dominant principle for organizing for a long time for totally normal and sensical reasons (and shouldn’t change). But now you are able to (and should) have online communities that can connect  women, African Americans, Latinx, AAPI – you name it – and digitally organize themselves. Now we see statewide or national constituency campaigns via video conference and I think that’s going to stick around post-COVID.