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Phone a friend: Democrats look beyond campaign volunteers to boost turnout

Vote Tripling group works with Democrats to leverage ‘friend-to-friend’ turnout

An average voter might not listen to a campaign volunteer calling to say that this is the most important election of their lifetime. Voters have heard that line before. But that voter might be more inclined to listen to that same message, and actually vote, if they hear it from a friend who isn’t usually involved in politics.

That’s the theory behind Vote Tripling, an organization working to boost Democratic turnout. Robert Reynolds, a behavioral scientist, founded the group after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

This year, Vote Tripling is teaming up with 10 Democratic Senate campaigns, including those of incumbents Tina Smith of Minnesota and Doug Jones of Alabama; 13 state parties, including Colorado and Florida; a handful of House campaigns; and several national groups, including Voto Latino and Swing Left. 

“This organization recognizes that oftentimes, the best people to talk to undecided/infrequent voters are their friends and loved ones,” Smith campaign spokeswoman Jennah Rivera said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

The goal is to get voters to encourage three of their friends to vote as well. Reynolds acknowledges this “friend-to-friend” relational organizing isn’t new. But he said his group addresses a “gaping hole” in Democratic turnout efforts: Most “friend-to-friend” organizing has been centered on campaign volunteers. 

“Volunteers or activists, like me, are actually not very good at friend-to-friend voter turnout,” Reynolds said in a recent interview. “The best people the Democrats have for friend-to-friend voter turnout are what we call nonactivists. And those are people who vote for Democrats but do not volunteer for campaigns.”

Reynolds said the vast majority of Democratic voters are “nonactivists,” and they’re more likely to be closely connected to infrequent voters.

“We’re saying, the people who are most disengaged are actually most powerful,” Reynolds said. 

Vote Tripling trains Democratic campaigns and outside groups on how to engage nonactivist voters. Reynolds said they haven’t invented any new technology, but have honed a new organizing process. They focus on two programs: a texting program and an in-person program at polling places. 

For the first, campaigns text voters asking them if they will commit to encouraging three friends to vote, and if they’ll share their friends’ first names. The campaigns then send those voters another text closer to Election Day, reminding them about the three friends they pledged to encourage to vote. 

At polling places, campaign volunteers will greet voters after they’ve already cast their ballots. Reynolds said that’s a key difference from traditional organizing at polling places, where volunteers typically engage voters before they enter. 

Reynolds said people who are “glowing” from having just voted are more inclined to commit to text three friends and remind them to vote. Reynolds also noted that volunteers must abide by laws that prohibit electioneering within a certain distance of a polling place.

Like most other aspects of campaigns in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has affected Vote Tripling’s polling place program this year. Reynolds acknowledged there will be fewer voters casting ballots in person on Election Day, which could make the strategy less effective. But he said the strategy could also be a more efficient use of volunteers because polling places are consolidating. The group is also advising a “no mask, no ask” policy under which volunteers do not approach voters who aren’t wearing face coverings.

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