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What Does Canvassing Mean?

Want to Knock on Doors This Election Season? Here's How to Get Started

COSTA MESA, CA - OCTOBER 20:  First-generation American volunteers canvass for Democratic congressional candidate Harley Rouda (CA-48) on October 20, 2018 in Costa Mesa, California. They said they are canvassing because their parents are not allowed to vote in the election due to lack of citizenship. Rouda is competing for the seat against Republican incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Democrats are targeting seven congressional seats in California, currently held by Republicans, where Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election. These districts have become the centerpiece of their strategy to flip the House and represent nearly one-third of the 23 seats needed for the Democrats to take control of the chamber in the November 6 mid term elections.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Volunteers canvass for Democratic congressional candidate Harley Rouda in Costa Mesa, CA, in 2018.

A 2012 study found that only 12 percent of Americans have participated in a political campaign. The percentage of Americans with an active belief in the supernatural power of witches is double this number. So what's holding people back? My guess is, in part, a fear of doing something new — especially something that involves talking to strangers.

The reality is that canvassing — which just means going door to door to help get out the vote for a political candidate or issue you believe in — is vitally important and is much less scary than people think. It's about participating: in our communities, in our national dialogue, and in our democracy. It's about holding people accountable and making sure as many voices can be heard as possible. It's also actually pretty easy with a bit of preparation.

Want to become a confident canvasser? Read below for my seven quick tips — then get out there!

1. Sign up through an organization that matches canvassers to campaigns.

There are several easy ways to sign up to canvass and all kinds of things you can canvass for. The first is simple: go to the website of your candidate of choice and sign up to volunteer. Another option is an organization like SwingLeft, which is set up to match you with nearby left-leaning campaigns that need volunteers. That's what I did last Election Day, and it felt good to know I was pitching in where somebody really needed my help. (For a nonpartisan option, check out VolunteerMatch.)

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Pro tip: Calling or emailing a city- or district-level political party is a great place to learn about hyperlocal campaigns or candidates. I absolutely loved canvassing for a school-board candidate in my hometown one year. I got to meet my neighbors, spend some time outside, and influence the direction of the schools my nieces attend.

2. Do a little bit of your own research.

No one who shows up to canvass is expected to be an expert on elections, voter turnout, or individual candidates. The campaign you volunteer with will usually give you a short script to stick to and go over the key highlights of the candidate and their campaign with you before you speak to any constituents. You'll have ample time to practice and pamphlets with you to prompt you if you forget anything. And you'll almost always head out with a canvassing buddy, so you won't be going it alone. (I've usually rallied friends to do things like this with me.)

That being said, I've always found it boosts my own confidence to spend time researching the candidate or issue before I go. It helps me articulate why I'm doing what I'm doing (in this case, standing on someone's doorstep with a clipboard). Remember that canvassing isn't just about the outcome, it's also about the experience and the process.

3. Go with the flow.

Political campaigns can be hectic. When you arrive, it could take a few minutes for someone to check you in. You might sign up to knock on doors only to find out upon arrival that what the campaign really needs is for you to sort voter pledge cards. Take it in stride. Trust that the field staff running the event will only ask you to do things they really need — and that everything makes an impact. Your work on-site might not seem glamorous, but it will definitely help.

Pro tip: If you are knocking on doors, you will almost always be assigned houses of supporters or people registered for the party of that candidate. Usually, your main job is to ensure they intend to vote and have a plan in place to do so. You're not expected to change anyone's mind.

4. Dress comfortably.

Be prepared to spend a lot of time on your feet, and dress for the weather! Some neighborhoods you'll be assigned while canvassing are so large, they require you to drive between houses, but more often than not, you'll be walking between stops. I've canvassed entirely within one apartment building and across multiple zip codes. Either way, I was glad to be wearing sneakers at the end of a long day.

Pro tip: Grab a campaign t-shirt or button if you can. That way, you act as a walking billboard wherever you go.

5. Don't take anything personally. Seriously.

This one is important. People have bad days. People have sleeping babies who wake up at the sound of a doorbell. People are conflicted about elections and don't want to talk to strangers about it. People are napping, or cooking dinner, or mad at their boss, or hungry, or a million other things that have nothing to do with being upset with you personally.

According to a 2018 article by Harvard Business School assistant professor Vincent Pons, door-to-door canvassing campaigns can actually persuade voters and affect national elections. It's worth it to keep knocking.

6. Let people surprise you.

A friend recently told me about a canvassing experience she had during a freezing New Hampshire Winter. She had lost a glove, and her hand was rapidly turning blue. When she knocked on the next door, the woman who answered went to her closet, pulled out a new pair, and insisted my friend take it with her.

Once, while I was out knocking on doors in rural Virginia, a woman I hadn't even spoken with ran up to me to offer water and snacks. She didn't care who I was canvassing for, she said, she just wanted to thank me for trying to get people out to vote. For every grump you may get, there's someone out there endlessly grateful for the time you've dedicated to preserving our democracy.

7. Have fun. Make a difference!

A few years ago, I got home from canvassing wondering if I'd really made an impact. When I checked my phone, I'd received a message from my brother's former mentor thanking me for getting out there and inspiring him to do the same. He promised to join a canvass that next week.

There are a million people out there who (justifiably) feel neglected or ignored by politics, especially in predominantly low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Canvassing is one way to ensure these communities are not forgotten or written off. For those of us with the privilege to move through the world (mostly) unafraid, this is a way to use our own voices to help amplify those of others.

Whatever you do, try to have some fun. Know that you are making a difference. You're engaging in the democratic process and ensuring the country we all believe in has a fighting chance at living up to its ideals. You're also out there talking to new people, which is a pretty cool and courageous act in this day and age.

In Judaism, we have this saying: save one life, save the world. I've always taken this to mean that each and every person is valuable and worthy of our attention and care. Taken this way, if you are responsible for just one person getting out there to vote, your time was certainly well worth it.

Image Source: Getty / Mario Tama
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