- Political organisations have seen rising interest from volunteers since March, largely because of shifting work conditions from the pandemic.
- With extra time on their hands, volunteers are attending virtual events, phone banking from home, writing postcards, and doing other forms of digital organising.
- Knock for Democracy, an organisation created by Alex Kramer and Lee Taglin, saw a 50% increase in their subscriber list, a five-fold increase in their social media following, and more volunteers coming to their weekly meetups.
- Cory Alpert, former chief of staff for Mayor Pete Buttigeg’s campaign in the southeast, said this momentum will force campaigns to think critically about building “meaningful volunteer engagement programs” for long-term engagement.
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In 2018, Alex Kramer and Lee Taglin were part of the team that launched Knock for Democracy in the hopes of demystifying political involvement ahead of the year’s midterm election. The organisation partnered with four Congressional races in the New York City area and became a hub for interested volunteers who were seeking out pre-vetted canvassing and phone banking events. Volunteers associated with Knock for Democracy knocked on 17,000 doors. All four of the candidates won their respective races, flipping their districts from red to blue in the process.
At the time, both Kramer and Taglin were working full time in the New York theatre industry – Taglin on the producing side and Kramer as an actor who also picked up writing gigs. While Knock for Democracy and its mission were top priorities for them, it remained a passion project. They spent much of 2019 gearing up to make an even bigger impact in the 2020 election cycle, fully expecting to juggle their political activism with their full-time jobs once again.
That all changed with COVID-19. Like so many workers – and so many young workers, in particular – Taglin and Kramer’s livelihoods were put in jeopardy. With theatres shut down across New York, Kramer’s acting jobs have ground to a halt. Taglin was furloughed at the end of April.
While the Knock for Democracy founding members are quick to emphasise how devastating the pandemic has been, they also confirm that the shift in working conditions for so many people has created new opportunities for volunteers to get involved in their organisation.
Since March, the Knock for Democracy subscriber list has grown by nearly 50% and the organisation’s social media following has grown by five times, the duo reported. In 2018, Taglin and Kramer saw an average of 30 to 40 volunteers at their weekly events. In 2020, that average has shot up to 77 volunteers for each weekly virtual gathering. In August, that number has increased further to an average of 120 volunteers. Since the pandemic began, they have also been more consistent in their marketing efforts on email and social media.
“After our initial reluctance to overburden people early on during quarantine, we’ve found volunteers to be generally very responsive to frequent reminders about action opportunities,” Kramer said.
The pandemic conditions have allowed Taglin and Kramer to devote more time to leading it as well.
“My time is wide open,” Kramer said. “The operation we’ve been able to build has been much more robust than I think it would have been otherwise because we’ve had this additional time without work. As frustrating as that might be, we are trying to use it as productively as possible.”
Taglin and Kramer have used the additional time they have picked up to build out the volunteer base and organise trainings and phone bank events via Zoom. Knock for Democracy is focused on 10 key Congressional races in battleground states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia.
“Having this outlet and being able to work with Alex and our team to do this meaningful work has been hugely rewarding and, I hope, meaningful to our politics,” Taglin said.
Knock for Democracy isn’t the only political organisation seeing increased participation as a result of COVID-19. According to Joe Fuld, a political consultant and president of The Campaign Workshop, overall engagement in politics is up in 2020. He’s witnessed this firsthand in the campaigns he’s working on, but he also notes a surge in voter registration and an increase in the number of people who are willing to respond to political surveys while in quarantine.
“We have seen more folks hosting virtual events, doing text banks and remote calls,” Fuld said. “We also see old-school tactics coming back, like writing postcards and phone banking from home, since folks have extra time on their hands and also feel a need to be more involved.”
Amanda Litman, cofounder and executive director of Run For Something, which recruits and supports progressive candidates interested in running for local office, has observed this trend in her organisation as well. While attendees of Run For Something’s slate of virtual events may show up initially to explore volunteer opportunities, feedback about the events has indicated they’re also offering a much-needed semblance of community during quarantine.
“It’s not as fun as being in a room full of people with wine and snacks and good speakers and that way to randomly interact with strangers who also care about something you care about,” Litman said. “But it does at least begin to replicate the feeling you get when you leave one of those events.”
Virtual events may not be quite the same as their in-real-life counterparts, but in Run For Something’s case, they have still motivated an impressive wave of engagement in 2020 races. Fifteen thousand people have signed up to run for local office with Run For Something since the beginning of 2020, Litman said. Most of those sign-ups have come since March, she added.
“People are eager for something to do,” Litman said. “When we put out opportunities for people to send texts or write postcards on behalf of campaigns, people are quite happy to jump on those opportunities, which is great.”
Tommy Vekhayn, a full-time college student and EMT based in Saint Michael, Minnesota, has jumped on opportunities to campaign on behalf of Republican candidates in his area, which his busy schedule doesn’t typically allow. For the last few months, he’s been going door to door and making calls daily in an effort to register voters and “convert them to the GOP.”
“My involvement has significantly increased because COVID-19 has shut down many activities and financial needs for me personally,” Vekhayn said. “Plus, it’s made me see firsthand how important politics really are in our daily lives. It seems easy just to say, ‘It’s Capitol Hill. It doesn’t really affect us at all in the grand scheme of things.’ COVID-19 has shown us that our lawmakers really are the ones steering the ship.”
Not all volunteers are approaching their political involvement with the same consistency as Vekhayn. Cory Alpert, who worked as the Chief of Staff for Mayor Pete Buttigeg’s campaign in the southeast and now runs the political consulting firm South & West, also confirms a greater interest in campaign work in 2020 due to pandemic conditions, but notes that sustaining that interest remains a challenge.
Although one of Alpert’s clients is currently seeing more than 100 new people join his campaign volunteer program on a weekly basis, “the problem is that there’s a lot of interest at that ground level, and people are attending those sessions for a bunch of campaigns and organisations,” he said. “It makes it challenging to move people from that initial session to the first phone bank or text bank. However, because of the sheer numbers, that’s still a massive increase in volunteer interest and capacity.”
As a result of these developments, Alpert predicts that campaigns across the board will be forced to “build meaningful volunteer engagement programs and really invest in digital organising.” Structures will need to be put in place within campaign organisations to channel the surge in interest in political work.
Regardless of the level of structure offered to campaign workers and volunteers who are using their wider bandwidth to get more involved in the 2020 election, organisers like Kramer don’t take them for granted.
“If we take a step back, it’s pretty phenomenal that people are choosing to spend their time this way and meeting this moment in the way that they are,” he said.