How to Be a Catalyst for Political Change, Wherever You Live
A lot has happened since I started this post. There seems to be no end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic, at least in the U.S. And now the unjustified murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers has thrown the country into turmoil. I’m angry, sad, and scared, and it’s hard not to feel helpless and hopeless. I began writing this post as a cheery guide to activism in an important election year, but that cheer has transformed into a sense of dire urgency over the past week.
To quote Swing Left’s podcast, How We Win, “The best antidote to anxiety is action.” Anxiety seems to be an understatement right now, and action is more than just an antidote; it’s the only path forward. It’s clear that racial justice is the most important issue we’re facing, and if you are not personally affected by these injustices, I highly encourage you to figure out how you can be the best ally possible. This is a good start. My post will address broad ways to get involved in political activism, but I have no intention of understating the importance of racial justice and the ways people are confronting it right now and always.
One piece of good news is, even if you’re self-quarantining or living overseas, there is plenty you can do remotely to ensure our leaders reflect our interests, beliefs, and rights. This should come as no surprise to anyone, but just to be clear: I identify as a strong liberal, and, though I do not always agree with the Democratic Party as an institution, this means I am dedicated to electing Democrats—the right Democrats—to office at the local, state, and national level. Much of my activism advice will reflect that.
Whether or not you’re thrilled about Joe Biden, if there’s one thing this week has made clear, it’s that there’s a lot more at stake than the presidency. On a federal level, Democrats stand to keep control of the House and flip the Senate, meaning there are a ton of swing districts that need your help. Further downballot, there is no shortage of state, county, and city races that are just as important. Plus, many volunteer opportunities revolve not just around one political candidate but around voter turnout or a particular cause or issue. I’ll highlight some specific organizations and campaigns later in this post, but I encourage you to determine what’s meaningful to you and find a way to help.
This is definitely a departure from my normal content, since, well, this is a travel blog, after all. However, since the coronavirus has restricted travel, I wanted to write about another topic I care deeply about. If you’re here for the travel content and have no interest in progressive U.S. politics, go ahead and skip over this post. I should also note, if it wasn’t already obvious, that this post is focused on U.S. politics, but if you’re based in another country and have tips on getting involved there, I’d love to hear from you!
Ways to Get Involved
I’ll start with my favorite method of activism. Textbanking is incredibly easy, doesn’t require a huge time commitment, can be done from anywhere, and allows you to reach the biggest number of voters in the shortest amount of time. Different organizations and campaigns use different tools, but don’t worry, you won’t actually be sending texts from your personal number. These organizations/campaigns provide training, scripted responses, and a forum (usually Slack) for any questions or doubts you may have.
Software like Spoke, Hustle, TextOut, or ThruText will connect you with a list of voters and pre-written initial texts. All you have to do to start is click “send” on those texts; you can usually send several hundred in under a minute. From there, you wait for voters’ responses, and then you choose the best response from a library of scripts. If you only have a few minutes, send a small batch; if you have all day, keep sending!
Texting programs vary quite a bit: programs I’ve participated in include providing info on how voters can register to vote by mail, answering policy questions about a particular candidate, or surveying people about a specific issue. Some are focused on persuading voters, others are about listening and collecting data. You can always decide which programs you want to participate in, so choose the ones that speak to you the most.
Many recipients don’t respond at all, and that’s okay. You will, without a doubt, get plenty of rude and ignorant responses, but you learn very quickly not to take these personally, and the positive responses always outweigh the sting of those. When it comes to textbanking, it’s really a numbers game, but you’ll be amazed by how many people you’re able to inform, persuade, or at least push a little bit in the right direction.
Write Letters and Postcards
Another great way to get involved at home and on your own schedule is to send letters or postcards to voters. Some organizations focus on particular issues, others on voter turnout as a whole.
My favorite is Vote Forward, which aims to increase voter turnout. Sign up for a list of low-propensity voters, download and print the letter template, fill it in with the recipient’s name, a few sentences on why voting is so important to you, and your name, address the envelopes, and send! Don’t have a printer? Order prints online and have them shipped to you. Staples charges about $0.10/page and offers free shipping.
I hate making phone calls, and, to be honest, the idea of calling strangers and asking them about politics absolutely terrified me the first time I tried it. If you’re like me, don’t let that put you off! You’ll get over your fear far quicker than you think, and knowing you’re making a difference will give you an extra boost of courage. You can start calling voters without leaving home. All you need is a computer.
Like textbanking, you won’t be calling from your personal number, and you’ll be given an initial script and scripted responses. Many campaigns use auto-dialers, which save you the trouble of disconnected numbers and voicemails and instead connect you with real people. Sure, a lot of people who answer won’t want to talk, but when you reach people who are open to a conversation, the personal touch of a human voice can make a huge impact.
Canvassing, or going door-to-door to speak to voters, is not a safe option at the moment, but hopefully we’ll be able to get back to it sooner rather than later, so I’ll include it here. In my opinion, this is the most intimidating form of activism, but it’s also the most impactful, as nothing leaves an impression on a voter like face-to-face interaction with a passionate volunteer.
The campaign or organization will set you up with everything you need: a list of voter assignments, a map of their locations (usually accessible in an app), a script, and any survey questions they want you to ask. Canvassing is always best with another person, but if you don’t know anyone who’s interested, the campaign will set you up with a partner.
Wear comfortable shoes, bring water, and start knocking! If you don’t live in a swing district and are not invested in any local elections, see what’s around you. There’s likely an important race within an hour of you, and canvassing outside of your neighborhood can be a fun way to explore new areas.
I have an incredible amount of respect and regard for the people out on the streets this week protesting George Floyd’s murder. If you feel safe enough exposing yourself to coronavirus risk, there are protests happening all around the world. Look into what’s planned around you, find out the best ways to participate, and add your voice. You can find some useful safety and legal resources for protesters here. And if you’re not ready to face crowds just yet, keep this enthusiasm for protest alive until the pandemic is behind us.
Call Your Representatives
I’m not going to lie: until a few years ago, it hadn’t really ever occurred to me that I had a direct line to my representatives. But I do, and elected officials pay a lot of attention to constituent feedback. My former U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass said in a town hall meeting that voter feedback truly drives the actions she takes as a politician. The sheer number of bills to read and issues to consider means she sometimes overlooks ones that would otherwise be important to her. Constituent comments are how she decides which to prioritize.
You don’t need to be a political genius to make a call, and the phrasing never has to be perfect. Find your representatives’ contact information on their website, share your name and location, and provide a comment. It can be as simple as, “Please tell ___ to support bill ___,” or you can give in-depth feedback or ask questions. Usually, the staffer will make a note of your position and thank you for your time. That’s it! It only takes a minute! And if that’s too much, Resistbot is a chatbot that makes it absurdly easy to write to representatives.
Call your U.S. senators and congressional representatives regularly, but also make a point of calling your city councilmember, state reps, and others who may not receive as much direct feedback.
These are difficult times financially for many of us, but if you’re limited on time and have some padding in your bank account, donate to a candidate or cause that matters to you. If you received a stimulus check from the government and don’t need all of it, share your gratitude by donating to an important cause. Always research the organization first to ensure your funds are being used well.
This may be an obvious one, but be an informed voter! If you usually only vote in major elections, consider also casting ballots in smaller, local elections. And if you live in a state that allows you to do so, register to vote by mail. Vote by mail always increases voter turnout, but since the coronavirus might make it difficult to get to the polls this year, registering to vote by mail is more important than ever.
I want to mention here how frustrated I’ve been by people this week who have said, “Stop protesting! Stop being angry about racial injustice! Just go vote!” The fact of the mater is voter suppression is a lot more widespread than most of us know. There are structures in place that make it difficult for certain groups—particularly those most impacted by racial injustice—to cast votes or have their votes fully counted. It’s up to the rest of us to make sure our votes are heard and that we elect officials who vow to ensure voter rights for everyone.
Where to Volunteer
This is by no means a complete list, but here are some progressive organizations and campaigns you can get involved with.
- Open Progress Text Troop – “Progressive change through the power of human-to-human, digital conversation.” Text Troop is an extremely well organized volunteer texting community with a variety of programs. This is where I devote most of my textbanking time these days.
- MoveOn Text Team – “As a MoveOn Text Team member, you’ll join a nationwide community of passionate volunteers using the power of peer-to-peer (p2p) text messaging to mobilize members and voters across the country to take meaningful action to resist the Trump agenda and build a more inclusive, progressive future.”
- Indivisible’s Payback Project – “The Payback Project is launching a new peer-to-peer textbanking outreach campaign to engage voters across nine target states to take action with Indivisibles in their area and mobilize locally to flip their Senate seats.”
- Resistance Labs – “Resistance Labs works with a diverse mix of progressive candidates and campaigns that are working to build a better country. Our volunteer texting team (2,200+ strong) helps move people to take action in their local communities.”
- ACLU People Power – Calling, texting, or translation opportunities from the ACLU’s platform for grassroots action
- Democrats.org – Ideas for online organizing, engagement, texting, and virtual events from the Democratic National Committee
- Red2blue – Opportunities to help out with texting, creative services, fundraising, postcarding, phonebanking, and social media management for progressive campaigns
- Real Justice – “Join the fight to reform our criminal justice system from home!” Calling and texting opportunities
- We Got the Vote – Since Florida’s Amendment 4 was passed, We Got the Vote focuses on “mak[ing] sure everyone can register to vote and have their voices heard.” Volunteer opportunities include calling, texting, canvassing, hosting events, helping with data entry, and providing legal support.
There are so many important races around this country that I can’t even list a fraction of them. For now, I’ll focus on U.S. Senate seats that we have a good chance of taking back in November. Even if you’re nowhere near these states, there are always opportunities to help out remotely!
- Mark Kelly – Democrat running for Senate in Arizona to replace Republican Martha McSally
- Theresa Greenfield – Democrat running for Senate in Iowa to replace Republican Joni Ernst
- Steve Bullock – Democrat running for Senate in Montana to replace Republican Steve Daines. He doesn’t seem to have a volunteer sign-up form yet, but you can sign up for updates from his campaign
- Jaime Harrison – Democrat running for Senate in South Carolina to replace Republican Lindsey Graham
- Cal Cunningham – Democrat running for Senate in North Carolina to replace Republican Thom Tillis
Other Senate swing seats are in Colorado, Georgia (x2), Kentucky, Maine, and Texas. Since these states have not chosen their Democratic candidate yet, I won’t link to a specific campaign, but I encourage you either get involved with your candidate of choice before the primary or volunteer once the candidate has been decided. If you’d like to see who’s running in those states and when the candidate will be chosen, I made myself a spreadsheet to keep track. I’ll try to keep the spreadsheet and the list above updated as primaries occur.
Other Sources of Information
- Black Lives Matters – How You Can Help – Yes, I linked to this already, but it deserves another mention. There’s so much you can do to fight for racial justice, and it’s important that you do your own homework to figure out how you personally can make the biggest impact. This link has a ton of resources to get started.
- Mobilize – Find events in your area, or search for remote opportunities. This site aggregates events and opportunities from a large selection of organizations. You can filter by location, activity type, date, organization, and tag to find the perfect fit.
- Chop Wood, Carry Water – Subscribe to this email newsletter for daily ideas on other ways to make an impact, including hot issues to call your senators and representatives about.
- How We Win podcast – This podcast from Swing Left covers a variety of progressive issues, shares the best ways to get involved, and features important interviews. I always find it incredibly uplifting and love listening to it like a pep talk before I volunteer.
- Democrats Abroad – This one’s for you, my expat friends!
Questions You May Have
Does any of this actually make a difference?
Would I be writing this post if it didn’t? Less snarky answer: yes! Vote Forward saw a 3.9% increase in voter turnout for letter recipients in Alabama’s 2017 U.S. Senate special election. Another study found that door-to-door canvassing increases voter turnout by 7.1%. Here’s a New Yorker article on what calling your congressional representative actually does. And I can provide plenty of anecdotes about people I’ve persuaded in just one text, call, or door knock.
But what if I live in a liberal city and/or state already?
Hey, I’m registered to vote in Los Angeles, so I can relate. First, I would say that there are always opportunities to get involved outside your area. No matter where you live, you can text or call into other states. Alternatively, find nearby districts elsewhere in your county or state, and go for a drive. Or even grab some friends and travel to a neighboring state for a weekend of canvassing or voter registration.
Second, even if you’re represented entirely by politicians who identify as liberal, there’s a good chance they disagree with you on important issues. Until my recent move, my city councilman was a Democrat who shares my alma mater. On the surface, I was chuffed about voting for him! But upon further research, I learned that he definitely doesn’t practice what he preaches, and he’s done plenty to show that he’s only interested in serving his wealthy, white constituents (obviously not unique for a politician!). My new U.S. congressman isn’t too dissimilar, so I gladly voted for a lesser-known Democrat in our March primary. Heck, I even wrote multiple letters last year to a neighborhood council candidate I strongly disagreed with—and his unhinged post-election email shows I was right on the nose to distrust him.
Anyway, my point is you can reach voters anywhere in the country, and there are always local races to get involved with. Incorporate researching local politicians into your activism. Even if you spend ten minutes reading up on a representative’s policies and decide you agree with everything, great, send them a letter encouraging them to keep up the good work.
My schedule is already way too busy. How can I add anything else to my plate?
I get it! Believe me, I get it. You don’t have to make a big commitment; just see what works with your schedule. Attend one weekend meeting per month, spend twenty minutes a week texting, commit to one phonebanking shift, or give however much you can give. The great thing about remote activism is it’s a lot easier to fit into a busy schedule.
What if I don’t know that much about politics?
First of all, the fact that you’re even reading this means you have some sort of interest in politics and therefore probably know a lot more than most. Second, the organization/campaign you volunteer with will provide all the information you need and will always have people around to answer questions. In my experience with phonebanking and canvassing, voters don’t usually grill you on policy details, and, even if they do, it’s always okay to say, “I’m a volunteer, and I’m not sure about that, but you can check out the website here or contact someone here.”
Getting political texts, calls, and visitors is so annoying! Why would I want to be part of that?
I feel you, but it’s all part of the political process, and nothing will change if we don’t reach out to voters. Every organization and campaign I’ve volunteered for is excellent about following FCC guidelines and leaving people alone if they text back “STOP,” ask to be put on a do not call list, or request to be removed from a canvassing database.
Am I wasting my time if I get a bunch of wrong numbers/addresses, refusals, and staunch opponents?
Not at all! Texting, phonebanking, and canvassing are great for persuading voters, but they’re also incredibly important data collection activities. Yeah, it’s definitely a little disappointing when someone says you’ve reached the wrong person or they’re flat-out opposed, but every bit of data you can give the organization or campaign will improve future outreach.
Can I volunteer if I’m not a U.S. citizen?
Generally, yes! Check with the specific organization or campaign you want to volunteer for, but most are happy to have non-U.S. citizens help out. There are regulations that prohibit non-citizens from donating money to campaigns, but donating your time is usually a-okay.
I know that’s a lot to take in, but you don’t need to do everything at once. Think about one action you can take today to start becoming more politically active, and start from there. We’re well overdue for a change, and it’s up to you and me to make that happen.