This is a diary about how to run a voter registration drive. Specifically, it’s about how I run the all-volunteer voter registration drive for the Travis County Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign. It is intended to help all of you set up your own voter registration efforts, whether it’s you and a friend on a street corner, or a group of eager individuals at a community event. Read it, print out the text, email the link, however you think it can help. The key is for everyone to start registering voters.
To conduct a voter registration drive, you need three things:
I’m going to cover each of these three aspects below. In the coming weeks, my fellow voter registration all-star casperr and I will post a few more diaries to help you all get involved with voter registration.
This is good timing, because today marks a major milestone in our Austin Vote for Change efforts: tonight we will register our 1000th voter. More on that, too.
N.B.: This is going to seem like a lot of information. Take it step-by-step. Start small, and work your way up. This is a compendium of advice gathered through two months of weekly voter registration efforts. If there isn’t an effort going on in your area, I promise that if you follow some of these tips, you’ll be well on your way to starting one. Besides, you can always just look at the pictures!
Voter registration is the most important thing you can be doing right now. If folks aren’t registered, they can’t vote! And if they can’t vote, they can’t help Obama win. The earlier you start, the more folks you will register before your state’s deadline. So after you read this, head over to the Vote for Change page on Obama’s website and either sign up for an event, or create one!
At Netroots Nation, Obama’s deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said that on Labor Day Weekend the Obama campaign is going to ask all of us to conduct a huge, national voter registration drive. There may not be an event in your area, so you can use this diary to set one up. I promise you, it is not too hard. My first volunteer activity was registering voters for Barack Obama when he ran for Senate in Illinois in 2004. He was my State Senator at the time, and I was inspired by his candidacy to participate for the first time in a campaign. I organized my friends to help register voters at subway stops on Chicago’s West Side, which is predominantly Hispanic. People were lined up to register because they wanted to vote for Obama. It’s really exciting to see this same enthusiasm exist today!
This brings me to another important point: people want to vote for Obama. Some of them are not registered. We need to help them. The vast majority of people you register will be happy you found them, because they want to get involved. So don’t be afraid – go out there and make those future Obama voters happy!
Congratulations on taking action to help more people vote for Obama and all of our great Democratic candidates this November! You’re doing a great thing, helping other Americans exercise their Constitutional right to vote. Let’s start with the basics.
1. Pick a Date and Location and Get It On myBO. Weekends work best for recruiting lots of volunteers. Busy foot traffic (and car traffic in some cases) is a must to find folks to register. Community events—concerts, outdoor movies, parades, festivals—all have huge numbers of people that need to be registered. Don’t start too early (unless you can offer free coffee and muffins) and don’t go too long—four hours, max.
2. Recruit Volunteers to Plan and Conduct the Drive. Good thing you’re on my.barackobama.com to recruit others to participate. Also ask friends, the local party, neighborhood groups, or student groups to participate. Email the myBO link to people to encourage them to sign up.
3. Check Your Local Registration Rules. What is your state and/or county’s rule on registration? Can ex-felons register? How young can you be to register? Where are you allowed to go?
4. Prepare Materials Ahead of Time. In addition to registration cards, clipboards and pens, you’ll also want flyers or information on Obama and other candidates, stickers, mail-in forms, and other creative stuff. Assemble all of this before the volunteers who are doing the drive come to your meeting spot.
5. Reward Your Volunteers. They’re giving up their free time to pitch in and help this effort. Make sure to show your appreciation, and not only send a thank-you email but also find other ways to recognize them. More on that below, too.
Now we’re ready to move into a more in-depth explanation of how to go through this process and what you need to think about. Remember, you can always grab some friends, some forms, and some clipboards, and head out to a busy sidewalk downtown. That always works, believe me. But if you want to do more, here’s some suggestions as to how we do it in Austin.
You will need two kinds of volunteers: people to help plan and set up, and people to conduct the drive.
Find Fellow Organizers. Are you involved with a local Obama effort or Democratic party? That’s a great place to start. Find three or four people who can help organize the voter registration drive. It should only take about 3-4 hours of preparation for each of you. Before our Vote for Change kick-off on May 10th, we only had 6 people putting materials together, and we were able to handle 60+ volunteers and do over 200 registrations during our event. Once you’ve assembled your team, you will need to divvy up the tasks listed below in Locations and Materials. More on that in a bit.
Ace volunteers set up our Vote for Change Kick-Off:
Recruit Volunteers. Post your event to all of the local groups on my.barackobama.com. Are you a member of them, yet? If you’re going to be organizing locally, sign up for all of the major groups in your area, and any that match your interest. (I am a member of "Austin Runners for Obama" or some such.) You can send your event to their calendar. More importantly, you can email the entire group to personally invite them all to attend, and include the link from myBO. Are there Democratic clubs in the area? Find them and call their leaders and invite the club to participate. Post flyers in high-traffic areas: coffee shops, supermarkets. You might want to make a tear-off part at the bottom, or make smaller flyers and tack a whole stack up to community bulletin boards. Get the word out!
Learn the Rules. Next, you need to find out what rules govern voter registration in your area. Here in Texas we need to be deputized in order to register another voter with a special deputy form. Deputization is on a county-by-county basis. However, anyone can hand out mail-in forms. Read the state-by-state guidelines on the Obama website. You can also download state-by-state rules from the US Elections Assistance Commission. They have the rules in both English and Spanish.
Make a sign-in sheet. There are sign-in sheets available on the Obama website, or you can make your own. Be sure to get name, phone number, and email. Phone number is key in case people disappear with your materials and never come back. You will want to call them, not only because you are not the Great American Distributor of Clipboards, but also because they might have registration forms you need to collect. You can also send a thank-you email to everyone who comes. Make a spreadsheet or master list of volunteers, so you can go back and contact them again for your next event! (Or to say "thank you!" again when you reach your own 1000th voter.)
Train the Volunteers. Explain how to fill out the cards, how to approach voters, and what the local rules are. A tip: always start with "Can I register you to vote at your current address?" We need to make sure addresses are updated. If someone hasn’t voted since 2006, register them again. We need to make sure we have everyone on the books for this critical election.
I cannot tell you how much I appreciate and am inspired by my local volunteers. Here they are ready to register new voters!
Ok, so now you’ve got the people. But where should they go?
Just as with real estate, there are three things that matter in conducting a successful voter registration drive: location, location, location. You need to find people to ask them if they’re registered, so you need a high-traffic area. We also want to register folks to vote for Obama, so it’s good to target areas that will have a high rate of likely Obama voters.
Here’s where you may want to take a trip down to your county’s elections board or whomever handles voter registration (here in Texas it’s part of the Tax office.) Some lower-income or minority neighborhoods may have low registration rates—ask where these areas are. Also, we want to target students, so look for colleges and universities. Some folks are planning to register high school seniors. Find out if you can set up a table in the hall outside the cafeteria, or plan to attend high school football games.
I think of locations in two categories: "special event" and "slow grind." Special events are concerts, parades, festivals—any place where large groups of people gather for a specific purpose. We do the bi-weekly outdoor concerts here. We also targeted the Gay Pride parade, too. We’ll be at the ticket booth and entrance for the Austin City Limits festival in September. Lots of people means lots of registrations. "Slow grind" on the other hand is clipboards on street corners, registration tables at playgrounds, bus stops—basically, targeting everyday locations and talking to the folks that pass by. Now, this can be incredibly fruitful, but it’s a slower process. However, it adds up. Bus stops are especially good at reaching people we might otherwise never find. We don’t have the man-power to canvass every neighborhood, but we can go to major bus stops and talk to people there.
What kind of locations work? We do really well at city parks and pools (it’s hot here!), in front of ice cream stores (ditto!), on the sidewalk in downtown Austin, near popular local businesses. Our city code says that we as citizens can stand anywhere on public land—in parks, on sidewalks—and we can be partisan. We can also use folding tables and chairs in parks, which helps. In addition, contact local businesses and ask if you can stand near their store. Never stand right in front of a doorway or within 10 yards of it because you will piss people off and they may complain and that’s the end of your registration efforts in that area. The stores may ask you to be non-partisan. That’s ok—just make sure the store is in a leans-Obama or Democratic area.
Think outside the box. Gas prices are up—try filling stations! Hit popular coffee and brunch spots on the weekends. Supermarkets are great, especially for the after-work hours, but make sure to get permission. Call and ask for the manager, or the community outreach person. Make sure to get the name and phone number of the person who gives you permission, in case anyone challenges you. Again, you will likely have to be non-partisan. Some of our other locations include post offices, major bus transfer stations, central shopping areas, and busy playgrounds. On Saturdays there are only a few post offices open in Austin, so it’s not hard to target the busiest ones.
If you live in a car-centric area, find a parking lot on a busy street, preferably on both sides of the street. Set up big signs that read "Drive-Thru Voter Registration!" Set up a line of cones to direct traffic. Hand out mail-in forms and collect them on the spot if you can. You may need permission from the business to do this, FYI. Give folks flyers and stickers once they’re done.
From our kick-off event, here's my friend Ramey and I handing out registration packets and assigning locations. Later, we staffed a table on the sidewalk in front of Obama HQ. We did over two dozen registrations there! Plus, this served as the drop-off location when people were finished. All of that information was on the information sheet I'll talk about in Materials.
How do we get there? You can choose to either meet at your location, meet at a central location to train volunteers, or send folks to multiple locations. The key is to make sure everyone has directions and knows where to go. If you have only one location, meet everyone there with your materials. Be very, very clear about where the meeting place is. If you’re targeting multiple locations, have everyone meet at a central location for training and then disperse to their assigned spots.
Sometimes I will print a Google Map with directions from our starting point to ending point for the volunteers, especially if they are going more than a mile or two away. This is also helpful if you’re doing door-to-door registration (which will have its own diary in the coming weeks).
If you have more than one spot, make a master sign-out list of locations, and then write the name and phone number of the person assigned to each. When the people come back, write down how many cards you received from each location. This will help you figure out where to target in the future. You may be surprised which locations do the best. Plus, this will help you keep track of your total registrations collected.
At the end of the event have everyone return their materials to you. Make this location very clear—you will want to put it on the information sheets or on a post-it. It is imperative that you get the registration cards back, as well as your materials! (Clipboards don’t grow on trees! Well, they kind of do. But that’s besides the point.) Call them if they’re more than 15 minutes late returning stuff. Maybe they’ve gotten busy with a big group of people to register and need more help!
You’ve got the people, you’ve got the places, now you need stuff to give them! Here’s what we hand out here in Austin:
|Clipboards : One per person, or 2-3 per team. If you don’t have a ton of clipboards, ask each volunteer to bring one. It’s not a big ask on your part. If you have more people than you can possibly muster up clipboards, have visibility signs for Obama and signs that say "Register to Vote Here!" You can also put 8x11-sized signs on the backs of your clipboards. It helps put people at ease and prove that you’re not selling something.|
|Flyers : Print out flyers from Obama’s website. Chose ones that match issues in your area. I really like "Barack Obama on the Issues" – it’s very basic and covers the key points of his platform. We also always have some in Spanish with us.|
|Information Sheets : I include a handout that explains how to fill out the card, answers basic questions, includes my contact info and where to turn the materials back in, and also lists city ordinances that protect free speech and voter registration.|
|Voter Registration Cards : We have both in-person and mail-in forms. Ask your local registration office how to handle this part.|
|Fun Stuff : We have stickers for Obama, stickers for Democrats, handouts on Senate Candidate Rick Noriega, invitations to upcoming events, flyers on how to volunteer, etc. This is also great for when you meet people who are already registered. Then you can give them information about how to vote and how to get involved!|
|Don’t Forget a Pen! It is very hard to register voters without a pen. You might want to pack a spare, too. Nothing worse than running out of ink in the field.|
How do I get cool stuff? Contact your local campaigns for Senate, Representative, and state legislature. They should be happy to give you stuff. Obama stuff? You will probably have to pony up. I ordered about 1000 Vote for Change stickers to put on volunteers and on new voters. There are tons of stickers you can buy. You get a price break when you order in high volume.
You can also make your own, since yours is an all-volunteer event and isn’t funded or paid for by the campaign. Consider printing a quarter-sheet (i.e. an 8x11 sheet that you cut into 4 small flyers) on why you support Obama for president. Make sure to write "printed by volunteers at their own expense" on the bottom.
Remember that you’re not just registering voters—you’re also doing visibility, encouraging people to vote for Obama, and reminding people of the election. You may be the only contact that voter has between now and November 4th, so try to cover all of your bases.
Success! Volunteers return with filled-out forms and an immense feeling of satisfaction at having helped Obama, other Democratic candidates, and our country.
1. Pick a Location. You want high traffic, lots of people, in an area that should favor Obama and Democrats or has low registration rates.
2. Pick a Date and Time. Post it on my.barackobama.com.
3. Recruit Volunteers to Help Set Up. Assign tasks and materials, plan to meet the day of your event two hours early to get it all together.
4. Recruit Volunteers to Participate in the Event. Again, use myBO, contact local clubs, groups, make flyers, etc. You can do a LOT with only 4-6 people, so don’t sweat it. Do the best you can.
5. Check Local Rules. No law-breaking! Find out what regulations apply in your area. How soon do you have to turn the cards in? Can ex-felons register?
6. Prepare Materials. Informational, registrational, and Obama-tational. Since yours is an all-volunteer event, you can make your own Obama materials to pass out too. Don’t forget directions to your location and sign-in sheets.
7. Train Volunteers. Cover all the rules and regulations, and explain how to register voters. We also do a role-play for new folks, and make them practice approaching each other.
8. Register the Voters! This part is the most-fun. Remember that you’re an embassador for your candidate, so be on your most Obama-like behavior.
9. Collect Finished Forms. Make sure to turn them in to your local elections office in their required time frame. We have five calendar days here in Austin.
10. Reward Volunteers! Maybe the second-most fun part. Here’s how:
Reward Your Volunteers!
Here at the Travis County Democratic Party, we have a big sheet that lists all of our voter registrars. Each time they work a shift, they get a sticker. People like earning stickers, folks. Here's one of our volunteers proudly displaying her sticker. We also have a "thermometer" that shows how many registrations we’ve collected. As you can see, this photo is a few weeks out of date!
You can also hold special events, invite them to parties at your Democratic HQ, or just bring snacks and cold drinks for them for after the shift. We give small (less than $5) gifts to some of our best volunteers, too. Most of that is donated from local businesses. Most importantly, send a thank-you email. Speak from the heart about what their efforts mean to you. Also, use your myBO email tool to send it to all of the people who signed up, especially those who didn’t show—let them know what fun they’re missing out on!
Which brings me to tonight. I’ve had this diary in the works for a long time – taken all the photos, planned how to explain it. But posting it today is extra significant, since this evening our volunteers will reach a major milestone in their efforts: today we will register our 1000th voter. One thousand new voters in Central Texas, the great heaping majority of which are eager and excited to vote for Barack Obama this November.
These 1,000 registrations came in batches of three and five cards at a time, and in heaps of 85 at Netroots Nation last week and 85 at the annual Juneteenth parade to celebrate Texas Emancipation. We only have about 8 to 10 volunteers per week over our four shifts, but these folks have done something really amazing. It has been a slow and steady process, but our 1000th voter is proof that if we stick with it, we can work together to achieve something bigger than ourselves.
Tonight we’re registering voters at a huge outdoor concert, and afterwards we’ll sit down and celebrate the achievement of our volunteers. Without their hard work and commitment, we wouldn’t have gotten here. Whether they came one time or every week, they’ve all helped make a difference. Even registering one voter can make all the difference—for that person, and for the election.
I hope that those of you who read this will go out and register at least one person before the election. Honestly, I’m most inspired by people who come in for the first time ever and get that first registration, because they’re overcoming their own personal barriers in order to participate in making the change that our country so desperately needs.
I’m going to close with this great video about Barack Obama’s time doing voter registration on Chicago’s South Side. I love this video, it inspires me to keep going even when it’s 103 degrees in the shade. I guess you could say that down here in Austin, we really are fired up and ready to go!
Now go find or create an event. Barack Obama has given you to the tools to create positive change in your community. What are you waiting for?
Update, 9:42 p.m.: We registered our 1000th voter! In fact, we registered our most-ever at the event. We're now up to 1023 registrations! Fourteen people showed up to help register, and afterwards we celebrated with some cold drinks and watermelon. Congrats, volunteers, and thank you again for all of your commitment, enthusiasm, and integrity. Here they are, working hard to change this country vote by vote!