On August 1st, the New York Times published an opinion piece suggesting that progressive grassroots organizations that popped up post-2016 aren’t materially different from digital fundraising efforts used by large scale, top-down national groups and campaigns. The piece then argues that when those organizations offer volunteering opportunities, they are generally not a good use of time or resources, and may often just be thinly veiled attempts to raise money.
We heartily agree that progressive organizations must do more than disingenuous fundraising. But we would disagree with the implication that all post-2016 progressive organizations are simply recycled Obama-era fundraising machines, or that all remote volunteering opportunities are poor uses of time.
For Sister District, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Since late 2016, we’ve built a network of over 50,000 volunteers organized into 120 local teams and affiliates. They work together, often in person, to make meaningful impacts in local and distant races and causes. And our robust research program has demonstrated that remote volunteering for Democratic campaigns can be helpful – and possibly even decisive.
We believe the value of this work depends on the quality of the volunteering program, and that ongoing, rigorous evaluation of tactics is a key to long-term success. The effects of any campaign activity, in isolation, are likely not earth shattering. But in concert, these efforts can have a major impact on election outcomes, particularly down-ballot where races are often decided by a tiny number of votes.
The authors of Monday’s piece referenced a postcarding study we conducted in 2019 to bolster their suggestion that “the odds that a volunteer contact can help get people to the polls may be canceled out by the odds the contact will turn them off entirely.”
Context is key to understanding the results of our study. Since 2018, Sister District Action Network has conducted 14 large-scale randomized controlled trials on less well-studied, remote voter engagement tactics like postcarding, letter-writing, and texting. Typically, these studies utilize volunteers to write and send the materials, using scripted messages, and are subject to our quality control processes. Most of these studies have found an appreciable positive effect on voter turnout, compared to the control group. In other words, most of the time our voter outreach efforts are associated with higher turnout.
The effects are often small. But small increases in turnout like the ones we routinely see in our studies can have a decisive effect on elections. This is particularly true in down-ballot races, which are often decided by a handful of votes. In 2017, just one vote allowed Republicans to retain a majority in the Virginia House of Delegates. And in 2020, just 1,813 votes kept Democrats from flipping the Minnesota state senate.
But not all voter engagement programs are created equal–the quality of voter outreach matters. Among other factors, these include how well volunteers are trained, the quality of the voter list, and the quality of the message being delivered. Tactics also vary in efficacy depending on the candidates themselves, the type of election, and the voters targeted, making it difficult to generalize about tactics from our, or any, individual study results.
The authors suggest that in-person canvassing for hyperlocal candidates is really the only worthwhile way to volunteer on a campaign. We disagree. Canvassing for local candidates is certainly an excellent and impactful choice. But canvassing isn’t possible for everyone. And high quality remote volunteer programs can augment local canvassing efforts, helping to identify voters who support a candidate, recruit local volunteers, and free up local volunteers to focus on canvassing.
We have found that treating our volunteers as treasured partners in our shared mission is critical. We engage them thoughtfully, ensuring that our teams work in coordination with local organizers and candidates on the ground, and including them as research assistants in studies investigating the value of their volunteering efforts. Far from a ‘churn and burn’ operation, Sister District has built lasting and sustained local teams this way, which are now nearly six years strong. And in addition to providing their Sister District candidates with field and small dollar fundraising boosts, our teams also work on local elections, ballot initiatives, and other civic projects.
Our research program augments and informs our volunteer opportunities. We study best practices for voter contact and volunteer engagement, and the results get translated right back into our electoral program. We believe in the power of people to influence change, and we believe in optimizing that power through repeated testing.
Our continued testing is paying off. As just one recent example, in 2021 we found a particularly effective tactic that involves writing postcards to voters directly about issues they specifically care about. Now, we’re working to replicate these findings so we can use this tactic at scale.
Building progressive power in our state legislatures has never been more urgent. We are at an inflection point for our democracy. Our future depends on marshaling all the resources at our disposal to get people involved in civic life – including voters and volunteers. We must build local power, including by redistributing progressive power from blue areas, and deploy our treasured volunteer capacity shrewdly – including through well-designed, high quality remote volunteering opportunities. Rigorous research methods can help us improve the tools at our disposal, and test and scale innovative approaches. Hyperlocal canvassing is powerful and necessary. But there are impactful ways to participate from wherever you live – and it will take all hands on deck to keep our ship steady.