Digital Door Knocking in the Age of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the ways we live, work and engage with one another. From Broadway shows to the 2020 Olympics, mass gatherings are canceled to slow the spread of COVID-19. States across the country are calling for residents to shelter-in-place and postponing their primary elections out of transmission concerns. Schools are closing for the remainder of the academic year.

As our nation navigates these uncharted waters, we can’t allow this pandemic to suppress civic engagement or voter participation; otherwise, the virus becomes a threat not only to public health but to the future of our democracy. Donald Trump’s lack of preparation and chaotic response to COVID-19 has accelerated the spread of the disease, strained our hospitals, hurt the economy and cost people their jobs. It’s clear Trump sees this crisis first and foremost through a political lens, worried about how it will impact his campaign for a second term, and seems to be searching for ways to turn it to his political benefit. We can’t allow him to use the crisis to further undermine democratic norms or further threaten the progress marginalized communities have made. Our rights — our lives — depend on defeating him in November.

Traditional campaign organizing brings together hundreds if not thousands of people for conventions, town halls, house parties, phone banks and canvass kick-offs where eager volunteers are deployed to knock on strangers’ doors. For decades, these conventional tactics have been the key components of winning field strategies. However, the need for social distancing and the threat of contamination have pushed pragmatic organizers to shut down in-person organizing activities.

In light of COVID-19, it has never been more important to quickly identify and adopt virtual organizing techniques that maximize civic engagement while maintaining a commitment to the health and safety of organizing staff and volunteers.

Since the 2016 election, we’ve seen a proliferation of politically minded technology startups re-imagine what civic engagement could look like in the digital world. These efforts will help us chart a path forward for organizing without rallies, selfie lines or door knocking. By way of example, enterprising political strategists launched organizingwhilecorona.com to help progressive campaigns and advocacy organizations bring their organizing efforts online.

The Human Rights Campaign has expanded our digital strategy by facilitating a number of virtual volunteer opportunities, including friend-to-friend engagement with Team by The Tuesday Company. This app is a crucial component of our 2020 organizing efforts; we are investing in distributed organizing and empowering our volunteers to engage their networks from their homes — or wherever they may be — about HRC and the pro-equality candidates and causes we support.

We are not advocating for a shift to mass outreach with spam text messages or paid ads. We are building a program that empowers our supporters to have meaningful, interactive conversations that recruit volunteers or register, persuade and mobilize voters. In short, text messages, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter DMs are the new digital door knocks.

Furthermore, there is strong evidence that friend-to-friend outreach can be nine times more effective than other types of voter contact. By utilizing volunteers’ existing networks for voter registration, issue persuasion, supporter mobilization and volunteer recruitment — friend to friend, one conversation at a time — the Team empowers HRC to virtually activate our membership of more than 3 million people nationwide in support of pro-equality candidates and causes.

Our virtual work doesn’t stop there. HRC has identified 57 million pro-equality voters across the country — a voting bloc composed of 11 million LGBTQ voters and millions more allies who can be motivated to elect pro-equality champions and defeat anti-LGBTQ politicians. Equality Voters are younger, more racially diverse and more often female than the general public. One-third of Equality Voters are less likely to vote in 2020. Just in the battleground states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, there are 2.5 million Equality Voters at risk of not turning out in November. Starting now and continuing through November, HRC volunteers nationwide are calling and texting Equality Voters in these four states to help our on-the-ground organizing staff engage and mobilize them.

Though COVID-19 has brought much of society to a stand-still, it has not mitigated the threat Donald Trump’s administration poses to LGBTQ people, immigrants, people of color or other vulnerable communities.

If we want to maximize our chances of electing a new president in November, we have to think creatively and adapt to virtual organizing techniques immediately. We must identify new tools and techniques that allow volunteers to impact the election through direct voter engagement from wherever they are and whenever they are able to help — especially if we are meant to be socially distant.

If we don’t, we risk a dramatic erosion of our rights and our democracy with another four years of Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Geoff Wetrosky is national campaigns director for the Human Rights Campaign, previously served as national campaign manager for the AFL-CIO and has worked on campaigns at every level of government from municipal to presidential, serving as a state director for Hillary Clinton ‘08 among other positions.

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