Knocking on Doors

Canvassing, or knocking on doors, is the campaign activity of systematically going to voters’ homes and having a conversation. Face to face interactions are the most powerful way to persuade voters to vote for your candidate or to show up to the polls on Election Day, and canvassing is the best way for a candidate to carefully track the progress of convincing voters to vote for them.

Persuasion and “get out the vote” (GOTV) canvassing happen at different times in the electoral cycle, and have different associated techniques and talking points.

Purposes of Door-to-Door Canvassing

  • Persuading swing voters
  • Cleaning the voter database
  • Increasing voter turnout (GOTV)
Sister District 2018 candidate Maria Collett with two canvassers from our Washington, DC team.
Sister District 2018 candidate Maria Collett with two canvassers from our Washington, DC team.

Canvassing for Campaigns

Presidential elections vs. off-year

Presidential election years have the highest voter turnout, because the election is covered constantly by every media outlet for nearly two years before Election Day. Presidential elections happen every four years, and “mid-term” elections happen every two years. The “odd” years which are neither a presidential nor a midterm are widely considered “off-year” elections. But, state, local, and special elections are happening across the country all the time! For example, in 2019 alone, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, and New Jersey all had state legislative (and some gubernatorial) elections. And, elections are taking place in 63 of the 100 largest cities in the U.S.

Here at Sister District, where we focus on state legislative elections that happen every year, we don’t think that any year is an “off” year!

Canvassing in off-years can feel very different from presidential or midterm years. If you’ve only canvassed once in your life, it was probably during “get out the vote” (GOTV) weekend for a presidential candidate. At the end of two exhausting years of constant advertisements, news coverage, and fights around the dinner table, many voters are tired of hearing about the race for president. And when canvassing for a presidential election, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t know there was an election about to happen!

But in off-year elections, voters typically are not overwhelmed by the electoral cycle when you knock on their door – in fact, they may not even be aware there’s an important election right around the corner. Voter education and mobilization is especially important in off years.

Canvassing for downballot campaigns

The “top of the ticket” refers to the highest office on the ballot during that election – usually indicating a federal or gubernatorial office (president, US Senate or House of Representatives, or governor). State and local seats are considered “downballot.” They’re listed literally farther down on the ballot, and depending on how big your ballot is, they may even be on separate pages.

Group of Sister District volunteers gather together for a photo at their canvass launch.
Group of Sister District volunteers gather together for a photo at their canvass launch.

Who Canvasses – Volunteers or Campaign Staff?

Both! Of course, the very best canvassers are always the candidates themselves. Especially for downticket races, where candidates’ name recognition (or “name ID”) is typically very low, it’s important to make a personal impression. Campaign staff also spend a big chunk of their time knocking doors, especially during the long persuasion phase when volunteers may not be as engaged. But, volunteer enthusiasm can have a big impact on voters when talking face-to-face. After all, if you’re willing to spend your free time helping a candidate get elected, there must be something special about them!

What to Expect When You’re Canvassing

As a volunteer, you’ll be given a “canvass launch” address to go to, where you will pick up your materials and get your canvassing assignment. Early in the electoral cycle, canvassing shifts usually launch from the campaign office, but by GOTV weekend there are typically many launch locations spread throughout the district. They could be anything from a supporter’s garage to a local church or a big parking lot.

When you arrive, you’ll be asked to sign in and be given a short training by campaign staff or a “super volunteer.” You’ll also be given a stack of campaign literature and a “walk packet” of doors to knock. The packet will have voters’ names and addresses, a map, and space to indicate what type of interaction you have at each address. If you are able to talk to the voter, you’ll record how likely they are to vote for your candidate. If you can’t reach the voter, you’ll record why (not home, inaccessible, moved, etc.).

Then, you’ll hit the doors! Your “turf” might be a bit of a drive away, but once you get there it should be easy to walk from house to house. A good walk packet will have addresses grouped by evens and odds, so the canvasser can knock every door on one side and then switch to the other side of the street. Or, it can be fun to knock in pairs; each person can take one side of the street.

Once you’re finished with your packet, be sure to return it to the campaign office, along with any lit you didn’t use. The campaign will then enter all of the voter information you collected into their database, and redistribute the lit to other canvassers.

Sister District Co-Founders Gaby, Lyzz, and Lala canvass for Elizabeth Guzman in the historic 2017 Virginia elections.
Sister District Co-Founders Lala, Lyzz, and Gaby canvass for Elizabeth Guzman in the historic 2017 Virginia elections.

Do’s and Don’ts of Canvassing

Group of Sister District volunteers gather together for a photo at their canvass launch.


  • Bring your own water, snacks, clipboard, and markers. The campaign may provide all of these items, but you’ll be an immediate superstar if you come prepared! Markers and pens are always in especially high demand.
  • Bring a backpack or tote bag to carry campaign lit. Lit is often oddly sized and slippery because of its glossy finish; without something to carry it in, you’ll quickly end up with a mess in your back seat or at a voters’ door.
  • Write personal notes on campaign lit you leave at doors. The majority of doors you knock won’t have anyone answer. If you’re leaving lit, use your marker to write a quick personal, specific note (“Hi Rita – please vote on Nov 5!”).
  • Dress appropriately for the location and weather. Are you canvassing in a purple district? T-shirts or buttons with super progressive messages probably aren’t appropriate. Remember: you are representing the candidate when you’re talking to voters. So be sure to dress the part!


  • Ever leave lit in a mailbox. It’s a crime!
  • Leave a walk packet unfinished. If you’re hungry or tired, it’s better to take a break and finish the packet than bring it back unfinished. Unfinished packets create an organizational mess for the campaign.
  • Walk across lawns. Be respectful of people’s property – remember, to them you’re a stranger!
  • Deface or destroy opponent’s yard signs. When emotions are high, it can be frustrating to see evidence of the opposition right in front of you. But those signs are someone else’s property!
Lyzz and Lala join Cheryl Turpin and her team of canvassers.
Lyzz and Lala join Cheryl Turpin and her team of canvassers to get out the vote!

Canvassing Terminology

Like any specialized activity, canvassing has its own jargon and shorthand. But with a little practice, you’ll sound just like a seasoned campaign operative in no time.

  • Shift: To stay organized, campaigns typically ask canvassers to go out in shifts, set at particular times (usually a morning shift and an afternoon shift). You might hear campaign staff talk about “shifting” canvassers; this refers to the process of sorting canvassers into appropriate time slots.
  • Launch Location: The “home base” canvassers work from. This is where you’ll pick up and return your literature and walk packet. You might also be offered refreshments and a restroom, or a chance to meet the candidate! For especially large, important canvassing days, campaigns often try to get a local celebrity or another politician to help launch the shift and get canvassers energized.
  • Campaign Literature, or “Lit”: Brochures, door hangers, flyers, and any other campaign materials intended to inform voters. Remember, never leave campaign lit in a voters’ mailbox – it’s illegal!
  • Walk Packet: The list of voters (and their addresses) you’re responsible for knocking. Sometimes your “packet” is virtual and on a mobile app, but it’s often still printed paper.
  • Turf: The geographic area defined in your walk packet. Campaigns often try to cut turf in a way that makes sense for a canvasser on the ground. For example, a single retirement community or a neighborhood between two main roads.
Sister District 2018 candidate Maria Collett poses with campaign signs at a canvass launch location in Pennsylvania.
Sister District 2018 candidate Maria Collett poses with campaign signs at a canvass launch location in Pennsylvania.

Read more about canvassing on our blog!

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