Opportunity Knocks: Canvassing in the Time of Covid

Opportunity Knocks: Canvassing in the Time of Covid

Opportunity Knocks: Canvassing in the Time of Covid

While Democrats abandoned in-person door knocking because of the pandemic, Republicans never stopped. Democrats have finally decided to end their unilateral disarmament.

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Phoenix—With less than two weeks to Election Day and early voting already underway, Joe Biden’s campaign is finally resuming in-person canvassing in battleground states. It’s about time. The Biden team’s decision earlier this year to impose a moratorium on door-knocking—a party line that local candidates, too, felt pressure to follow—and opt instead for an “invisible campaign” of ads, calls, and texts was a costly blunder. In-person canvassing is one of the most effective tools a campaign has at its disposal: It motivates volunteers, persuades undecided voters and increases turnout up and down the ballot. Which may be why the Trump campaign—and state GOP organizations—never stopped knocking. So it’s welcome news that, after months of condemning canvassing as both dangerous and ineffective, top Democratic operatives have suddenly changed their tone.

The challenge now, especially in the midst of a spike in Covid cases across Midwest battleground states, will be to canvass responsibly—to protect voters’ and canvassers’ health. That will take careful planning and a rigorous set of safety protocols, but it can be done. We know, because we’re doing it.

For the past month, we have been knocking on doors for Democrats in Arizona with CASE Action, a political advocacy group affiliated with the hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE Local 11. When the pandemic hit in March, more than 85 percent of UNITE HERE members lost their jobs. At the same time, CASE Action halted its in-person campaigning. But as the summer wore on, union members remained jobless—and phone-banking proved inadequate. “We were going on the phones, and it was really terrible,” remembers Rachel Sulkes, UNITE HERE Local 11’s communications director. “We were just not going to win.”

The union’s solution was to hire its own unemployed members to canvass in Arizona and help flip the state blue. That way, all of them gained a living wage, health care, and benefits—while also coming together to fight for those same rights in November. To ensure the team’s safety, CASE leadership worked with Dr. Saskia Popescu, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, to develop a Covid-19 safety protocol that protects both canvassers and the voters we canvass.

Popescu recalled that at first she was skeptical of in-person door-knocking. But she changed her mind after calculating just how low-risk canvassers’ interactions with voters could be. Canvassing consists in brief, socially distanced, open-air conversations, with canvassers wearing masks and face shields. For a virus that spreads through long, up-close exposure in contained spaces, it is the archetype of a low-risk activity. When done right, Popescu says, canvassing “really isn’t any different than going to get takeout food.” Our canvassers also submit to daily symptom screening and temperature checks, regularly disinfect their hands, and wear masks and face shields at all times within the office and carpooling (no more than two canvassers per car, in separate rows, with windows down).

The protocol is working. While coronavirus cases are on the rise again in Arizona and across the nation, the total number of cases in our 300-person team from in-person canvassing this summer has been: zero.

The result is the single largest Democratic field operation in Arizona—and one of the largest in the country. Come November, CASE Action canvassers will have knocked over 650,000 doors and spoken to around 130,000 voters across Maricopa County. Over the past two months, other UNITE HERE locals have drawn from CASE’s model to begin in-person campaigning in Florida, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, states where the presidency likely will be won or lost.

In the best of times, canvassing is hard work. During a pandemic, and beneath the unyielding Arizona sun, it can be grueling. But for many of our fellow canvassers, the risk of losing the election is much greater than the risk of knocking on doors. Trump’s callous response to the pandemic cost them their livelihoods (and their health care). They have a deeply personal and immediate stake in the outcome of the election. There is a reason that the foot soldiers fighting for Democrats are working-class union members—essential workers in our economy and now essential workers in our politics.

Some commentators have warned that canvassing during the pandemic might generate backlash. That does not match the reality on the ground. We and others on our campaign have yet to encounter a single voter who feels unsafe in our presence. (We’ve had doors slammed in our faces for being Democrats—but that’s different.) Just the opposite: Our contact rates—the number of conversations per doors knocked—are well above those of the average canvassing operation. Voters are at home and willing, even eager, to talk. A significant number of them, whether in the mostly white North Phoenix suburbs or the Latinx neighborhoods to the South, remain genuinely on the fence about the election, or else simply apathetic. Locating these voters this close to an election can be challenging. But it will make all the difference in November, and a well-trained, in-person canvassing operation is the best tool Democrats have to get it done.

Just as important, survey data show that young, low-income, minority voters—key pillars of the Democratic base—are disproportionately hard to contact remotely, particularly by phone. With confusion mounting over voting procedures, in-person canvassing may be the only way to reach many Democratic-leaning voters in time to prepare them to turn out for this election. Here in Arizona, we have already helped thousands of voters complete and send off their mail-in ballots, including many who might never have voted had we not knocked on their doors.

Most organizers get this. “There is nothing better than face-to-face contact,” Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, told Time in September. Which makes perfect sense: If we have learned anything from six months of semi-lockdown, it is that our personal lives are poorer for being channeled onto phone lines and squeezed into Zoom boxes. The same is true of our politics.

Democrats are waging the final leg of this campaign under unprecedented conditions, with case counts rising again and no end to the pandemic in sight. Covid-19 will upend campaigning well beyond November 2020—in important local and midterm elections, where in-person canvassing is even more essential to boosting turnout. Our experience in Arizona has shown that a Covid-safe approach to canvassing is absolutely possible. If Democrats want to pull off lasting victories in the months and years to come, it will be absolutely necessary.

The authors are canvassers with CASE Action, an economic justice organization in Phoenix.

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