Five Ways to Promote Political Participation during a Pandemic
Articles - 3 min read

Five Ways to Promote Political Participation during a Pandemic

Vote mural in Providence, Rhode Island
Ready or not, November 3rd is right around the corner.
Election season is in full swing, and the past few months have been marked by a constant buzz about everything related to the election: the debates, the candidates, key issues, voter registration, and of course, the process of casting a vote.
Despite all of this buzz about the election, according to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout. The first step to increasing voter turnout is to ensure that people are registered to vote -- in 2014, 21.5% of eligible US voters were not registered to vote.
This year, on top of these historical trends, we are experiencing additional barriers to political participation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the two most popular methods of registering voters -- third party registration at public venues and motor voter registration -- have been halted, and new voter registration across 11 states in April 2020 had decreased by 70% compared to April 2016.
Public health concerns have also led to an extreme shortage of poll workers, and as a result, there has been a reduction in the number of open polling sites across the country. It’s not difficult to see why: individuals 60 years or older are at high risk of developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, and this demographic accounted for 56% of poll workers in the 2016 general election.
On top of this, the USPS warned that deliveries of mail in ballots could be delayed in 46 states. The combination of all of these issues will magnify voter suppression for historically disenfranchised groups.
But aside from the gloomy reality of the lack of political participation in this country, the past few months have brought visibility to another fact: We live in a time where information can be spread almost instantaneously.

Here’s a perfect example:

Within ten minutes of the now infamous fly landing on Mike Pence’s head during the vice presidential debate on October 7th, there were over 100 “Fly on Mike Pence’s head” Twitter accounts.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if people channeled this kind of energy into spreading awareness about something a bit more valuable than the fly on Mike Pence’s head?
Thankfully, people are doing just this.
Specifically, individuals and organizations alike have been using digital and physical platforms to bring awareness to the importance of political participation, and encouraging folks to take part in the process. Many groups are now taking things one step further and challenging barriers to participation by sharing resources on how to register as a voter, helping people create a plan for voting day, and providing tips on how to make sure that your mail-in ballot gets counted.
We’re leading up to what many people believe is the most critical election of our generation and we all have a part to play. Here are five ways that people are broadening the reach of information to voter information in the middle of a pandemic.

1. David Dobrik promotes voter registration on Instagram

Youtube star David Dobrik recently took to his massive 11+ million following on Instagram to urge his followers to register to vote. Dobrik, who is not a citizen, expressed that while he himself cannot vote, the next best thing he can do is use his social capital to promote political engagement. Partnering up with the New York based organization HeadCount.org, Dobrik announced that he would give away Teslas to 5 lucky followers who shared his post, tag a friend in a comment, checked their status and registered to vote via the voter-registration portal run by HeadCount.
The result?
The single largest voting drive in the 16-year history of HeadCount. Founder Andy Bernstein commented on the nearly 120,000 individuals who registered from Dobrik’s post: “We’ve registered close to 1 million voters over our lifetime, and more than a tenth of that has now come from David.”
Even more impressive is the fact that Dobrik was able to reach Gen Z and millennial voters, the demographic that has historically been the least involved in political participation. A study by the Knight Foundation found that Americans aged 18 to 24 are the age cohort least likely to say they will vote in 2020, and 38 percent say they don’t have enough information to decide who to vote for.

2. Phone banks help to reach unregistered voters

The pandemic has made it virtually impossible to promote voter registration through door-to-door grassroots efforts, and phone banking has been a necessary tool to continue this work in a socially distant manner. A few weeks back, I participated in a phone bank to register voters in Texas, a state that has seen success in their voter outreach efforts. The Houston Chronicle reported in July that Texas had 16.4 million registered voters, up 15% from 2016, which is one of the highest upticks in new voter registration in the country. Phone banking efforts are especially crucial for the ten states -- including Texas -- that don’t offer online voter registration. During the phone banking event, volunteers reached out to Texans and offered to check their voter registration status during the call, and notified them of the nearest venue where they could register safely in person. Volunteers also helped residents locate the nearest Voter Palooza, which are pop-up, drive through registration stations scattered throughout the state.

3. Brands market more than their products

Unsurprisingly, brands have found a way to insert themselves into the conversation around political participation through digital ads, email campaigns, and even offline efforts.
Many of the signs that I’ve seen in storefronts also use QR codes to take shoppers directly to websites like vote411.org, where they can check their voter registration status, register, and find personalized information like polling locations and which candidates will be on your ballot, all in one place.
A storefront sign at a Warby Parker in Seattle, WA urges shoppers to visit vote411.org.

4. The arts as an avenue for voting advocacy

The cross sections between the arts, humanities, and democracy are a fascinating space, and my favorite method of voting advocacy that I have seen is through public art.
In the Chicago area and across the country, artists -- both professional and amateur -- have taken the streets with their paint brushes and palettes to send messages through vibrant, powerful designs. It’s incredible to see the intersectionality of these murals, many of which push for voter participation, but also address issues like police brutality against black and brown bodies, and illustrate the act of voting as a symbol of moving towards dismantling these issues. The accessibility of public art has also helped to fill a void in urban spaces which I have found myself very thankful for.
John Lewis VOTE mural in Providence, RI. Jonathon Wiggs / Boston Globe
Will these efforts be enough to push back against pandemic related setbacks? As the one week countdown to November 3rd begins and ballots start to flow in, we will begin to see the answer to this question more clearly.
Navigating a presidential election during a global pandemic has made it clear that the tools we need to spread information quickly and effectively, are right in front of us. However, the goal is that the urgency to reduce barriers to democratic participation lasts beyond the circumstances of the pandemic, and that the mentality to vote like it is the most critical election of the generation lasts for elections beyond this one.
Whatever the turnout, I am hopeful that this election acts as a catalyst to turn our attention to overarching barriers to democracy, like information silos, and voter suppression of historically disenfranchised groups. With these issues in mind, we can continue to broaden the reach of communication, and creatively re envision how we think about access to information.

The Telnyx.org Impact Initiative empowers organizations to make a positive social impact through universal communications. Do you know an organization using communication technologies to promote civic engagement, or solve other social causes?
Send them our way! Check out more information here.
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