Phonebanking for Virginia

Obsessing over impeachment? Do something productive to restore democracy.

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5 mins read
Phonebanking selfie provided by the author.

So let’s talk about the activist bang for buck–your basic ratio of effort to results when it comes to helping Democrats win elections.  There are a lot of activities open to volunteers trying to make a difference: postcards, texting, canvassing, donating, phonebanking. They all have their value, but judged purely by ‘bang-for-buck,’ I have to give the prize to good old-fashioned phonebanking.  

On the above list, donating and canvassing are probably higher impact, but they both have significant costs. Donating obviously costs money, so your bang is directly limited by your possession of bucks.  For canvassing, the limiting factor is time. Most experienced campaign hands agree that canvassing–knocking doors–is the single most effective way to persuade and turn out voters, and I wholeheartedly urge you to do it if at all possible.

I am planning to canvass this weekend, but here’s the thing: to knock doors in what is arguably 2019’s most consequential election–the Virginia legislature–will require ten hours of driving for me. To make that worth it, I’m going for the whole weekend. I’m psyched to do it, but there is no universe in which that’s not a huge amount of time and effort on my part.   

Now let’s compare it to phonebanking. 

Today, after spending more time than I want to admit obsessing about each update on the impeachment crisis, I decided Enough Handwringing! Time to do something constructive to change who’s in power by flipping the VA legislature. So I logged onto NGP VAN’s Virtual Phone Bank or VPB, which is used by all the campaigns I volunteer for, spent a few minutes reviewing and practicing the script, and quickly made 28 dials to voters in Larry Barnett’s district. The yield was low–one conversation–but my total time was only 45 minutes and my total cost was $0.00.  

And that conversation was actually very friendly–with a young man who didn’t want to tell me who he was voting for, but said he was definitely going to vote. And then he went out of his way to thank me for volunteering–which trust me, is not how MAGA people talk when you reach them.  

I’ll be honest: I don’t love phonebanking. Most people don’t. It can feel awkward calling strangers, the yield is low, and I’ve yet to read a script that sounds like something I’d ever say IRL.  But I’ve been to enough phonebanks to know that when you do have a conversation with a voter, it feels really good.

And then there’s the impact: we phonebank for a reason. It remains an incredibly important way to reach voters. Frankly, when you factor in time and cost, it’s probably the most effective method of voter outreach. The main problem is that it’s really labor intensive–which means every volunteer can make a measurable difference to a campaign’s ability to get through their list.  

Need any more reasons?  Larry Barnett, the Virginia candidate I was calling for today, ran in 2017 and lost by only 128 votes. And his was not the only close race that year: Shelley Simonds tied her GOP opponent and ended up losing the race in the equivalent of a coin toss

With elections this insanely close, every half hour you can give, every voter you talk to, could end up deciding the race. And given that we only need to win two seats in each chamber to flip the legislature, every voter you talk to could decide whether the folks in Virginia have common-sense gun laws, reproductive freedom, access to health care, clean energy policies, and whether the Equal Rights Amendment becomes the law of the land.  

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