Get Out The Vote season is my favorite time of year. It’s like my birthday, Christmas, and the Tony’s all rolled into one. That sleepless night before a debate. The warm glow after finishing a canvass shift. The deep satisfaction of making a call list…and checking it twice.
But this year, I got my favorite GOTV present ever: voter contact via SMS.
After working on a dozen campaigns, I’m wary of newfangled technology that promises to make life easier with a few clicks. So despite the buzz about the Bernie Sanders campaign’s success with the Hustle app, I was a little skeptical when my colleagues and I began working with two activist organizations to use SMS for voter registration and GOTV.
But after providing scripts and strategy for two organizations doing GOTV this cycle (as well as using it for event turnout for an issue-based client), I’ve gone from Scrooge to Head Elf in just three short steps.
So if you’re considering ways to siphon off some of those pre-election jitters, pour yourself a glass of pre-season egg nog, fire up the Netflix queue, connect your phone to WiFi — and read on.
Step 1: Hocus Pocus
Texting for votes: like Santa Claus or The Great Pumpkin, it seems too good to be true. Votes are only earned by trudging through slushy driveways, dialing the same area codes over and over until they haunt your dreams, and checking off tiny boxes with pens that always run out of ink at the least fortunate moment…right?
But unlike magical holiday creatures, these apps are the real deal. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders’ campaign gave many people their first taste of the new world of GOTV-via-SMS with Hustle, and other companies are offering similar services, including Relay, which was created by former Bernie staffers, Stone’s Phones, which uses paid operators rather than volunteers, and Handstack, which seems more geared toward company outreach with customers. (If you know of other options for SMS conversations with activists, please holler @mrcampaigns!)
There are some differences between platforms, but they all work in basically the same way: you download a peer-to-peer messaging app, get a list of contacts from your local organizer, and read over the pre-written scripts, just like you would at a phone bank. Then the texting begins, as you click “send” over and over (and over and over) again, making your way through the list one message at a time. Once you’re done, you head back to the main dashboard to filter through your replies and send folks the answers they need.
Step 2: It’s a Wonderful Life
My first foray into texting GOTV was using Hustle to inform voters in Ohio about the state’s voter registration deadline. Five minutes in, I started to see the appeal. Ten minutes later I was falling in love with the ease and effectiveness of this technology. Every time I hit “send,” another person got a reminder about the looming deadline—and I didn’t even have to worry that I was interrupting their Pumpkin Spice Latte break.
I was nervous that the replies would be rude or downright nasty. I’ve heard it all in my days of knocking doors and phone banking—would texting be that different?
There were still a good amount of wrong numbers (see below) and “please remove me from your list” requests, which I was able to easily handle within the app. But for every “go away” response I got, I also found someone who was jazzed about the election or looking for a link to pass on to that last buddy who had mentioned they didn’t know where to register or vote early. I had my pre-filled list of replies based on what folks wanted to know, and I was able to text back quickly and give them the exact info they needed. (Bonus: web addresses are so much easier to text than to read out over the phone.)
But wait – there’s more:
- No one gets your phone number (big +1 advantage over phone banking, where people might call you back in the middle of the night wondering how you got their digits).
- The app uses your phone’s data, NOT your SMS plan, so as long as you’re connected to WiFi, you’re golden.
- As a volunteer, you get one central place to manage all your replies (no juggling scraps of paper on your clipboard).
- And the one that makes my former-field-director heart grow 3x larger: using SMS systems also results in much cleaner information coming in from volunteers. No data entry process, and you can easily see which volunteers are most active—and give those busy bees more contacts to reach—and which ones are moving more slowly and might need some of their names reassigned.
Step 3: Love, Actually
I’ve spent a day knocking on doors to get 10 answers. I’ve called pages of phone numbers to leave 20 voicemails. Yet in just 30 minutes of Hustling, I texted 400 people—and dozens of them wrote back. Even the wrong numbers now knew about the voter registration deadline. If we had been on the phone, they would have hung up before I was able to share that information.
And I was hungry for more. Another 500 contacts later—send-send-send while watching TV one night—and I was a true believer. I spent the next day giving passionate speeches over lunch and running around the office, helping coworkers set up their accounts.
While the political campaign world is still figuring out exactly how effective texting vs. calling vs. canvassing is at actual mobilization, there’s no doubt that this new model is incredibly efficient from a bulk outreach standpoint. It’s starting way more conversations per volunteer-shift AND sharing really important details that are harder and harder to convey over the phone.
Plus, it feels like a game—every time I’m catching up on Westworld, I feel a twinge of regret that I’m not texting for votes instead. So I do both. GOTV multitasking FTW!
New trick = such a treat
As with all new technology, organizers are going to need to figure out how to improve SMS peer-to-peer messaging programs as we go. It’s definitely possible that the effectiveness of this tool will wane as activists get more texts and get more selective with replies. And just like your Rolodex of holiday card recipients (#millenniolds), you’ll have to keep your contact list updated to get the best results. Right now, a lot of the numbers people are using are coming straight from the Voter Activation Network (VAN), and there are quite a few wrong ones to sort out from the bunch.
But even so, these new SMS programs are changing the game by turning the task that sometimes feels like the trickiest part of field work—getting boots on the ground and voices on the phones—into a treat. One text at a time, we’re meeting people where they’re at and reminding them how they can be involved in shaping the future of local, state, and federal politics.
Before this election season ends, YOU can be a part of that movement too, and try out this new technology for yourself. Keep your eye out for the many groups who are using SMS to GOTV on your key issues.
With just 7 days to go, there’s not a lot of time left to make your mark on this election. I’m not saying you need to hurry…but you should definitely think about Hustling.
— M+R (@MRCampaigns) October 31, 2016