precinct organizing

7 Steps to Launching a Precinct Organizing Program in Your County

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Grassroots energy has been off the charts for the past year and a half. It feels like there are more Democrats than ever excited to knock doors and talk to voters.

As I talk to local leaders across the country, I’ve heard of county after county that have seen record numbers of Democrats stepping up to be a precinct leader. 

This includes my county, where I’m proud to be an elected Precinct Committeeman (Illinois is working on changing that to Committeeperson). In 2018, like many counties across the country, we out-recruited Republicans for the first time.

But what do we do with that kind of energy?

Many counties are finding success by building out a team of elected or appointed precinct leaders who take responsibility for building relationships with Democratic voters and getting out the vote in their neighborhood.

In this blog, I’m excited to share implementation ideas I’ve heard from local leaders across the country.

1. Choose a leader (or leaders)

You will need a person, or a team of people, to manage a precinct program. This might be the chair, another member of the local committee.

Someone with Votebuilder and organizing experience is ideal. Most importantly, they will make sure that precinct leaders have what they need, and communicate with precinct leaders to make sure they follow through.

While precinct leaders will take responsibility for talking to voters in their precinct, the party should make some decisions centrally so precinct leaders are working toward common goals on a shared timeline across the county. These decisions include:

  • Targeting – Determining who precinct leaders will focus on talking to
  • Data entry – Tracking every conversation and what was learned
  • Training – Providing precinct leaders with the skills and resources they need to succeed

Of course, you don’t need to be a pro at all of these things to get started.

If your leaders aren’t comfortable using Voterbuilder (or don’t have access), you can start by using a spreadsheet you are comfortable with and make utilizing Votebuilder a long-term goal.

If your leaders are new to voter contact, you might want to start with one or two precincts while you pursue training opportunities (like our course on Field Tactics) to learn more.

2. Set goals, and stick to them

We all share the same goal - we’re going to elect Democrats up and down the ticket. But the way we get there looks different in every county.

I spoke to Chuck Cook, one of our trainers and a professional organizer who volunteered to organize his own county: Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

He developed a precinct organization that has increased Democratic turnout as much as 10%. In Anne Arundel County, their appointed precinct captains are expected to canvass all of the Democrats in their precinct once each quarter.

During their state’s legislative session, conversations are issue-based. Before elections, conversations encourage people to get out and vote.

Every county will have a different capacity and different goals. You may be able to canvass the entire county, or you may target a small number of precincts. Or you might try to canvass those areas 4 times a year, or start with a spring canvass and a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) program.

You can expand beyond canvassing, too. Depending on the volunteers you have, and the area where you live, you might find that phone banks or mail are more realistic.

3. You can have multiple goals, but not too many

Every time you contact voters you should have a specific ask in mind. Depending on what the rest of your county’s program looks like and what data is most beneficial to your party and local candidates, you might:

  • Collect updated email addresses
  • Identify new volunteers
  • Collect demographic information (Who has children in local schools? Who is a union member?)
  • Increase voter turnout
  • Identify support for specific issues
  • Get permission to text voters with GOTV reminders (if your county has a texting program)

Whatever goals you choose, remember: if it’s not recorded, it didn’t happen. Make sure you have tracking mechanisms in place before you start voter contact, whether you are using Votebuilder or relying on spreadsheets.

4. Let people help their own way

Some people like to knock doors, some like to make calls. Others are happy to talk to a few voters in their precinct each night, and others want to stage a day of action to talk to as many voters as they can in one day.

Some precinct leaders may feel comfortable pulling lists and entering their own data in Votebuilder, while others will feel uncomfortable using Votebuilder at all.

While the county party should set goals about who their precinct leaders will talk to and how often, they should expect that the way a precinct leader achieves those goals will vary.

But just like it’s important to confirm and remind volunteers on a campaign to make sure they turn up, it’s important to communicate with precinct leaders to make sure they accomplish what they have committed to. Also, make sure that precinct leaders have what they need to succeed - like voter lists.

Especially at the beginning, you should anticipate that precinct leaders will need a lot of help. But you may be surprised to find that in relatively short time, some precincts are basically running themselves.

5. Invest in training - it matters!

Training pays huge dividends. It improves the effectiveness of volunteers who are talking to voters and improves the accuracy of data collection. Even experienced volunteers can benefit from a refresher.

Hosting an in-person training session is a great way to onboard new precinct leaders - it also provides an opportunity for precinct leaders to get to know one another, build relationships, and learn from one another.

If you have less experienced folks stepping up to be precinct leaders, consider setting up mentorship opportunities where less experienced volunteers canvass or make calls with a more experienced volunteer, staff member, or candidate.

You can also talk to your state party about training opportunities, ask experts in or near your community to lead an in-depth training for committed volunteers and leaders, and sign up for updates from organizations like The Analyst Institute so you can learn best practices and share them with others in your party.

You should also plan on coming to a National Democratic Training Committee Training when we’re in your state.

6. Build relationships. Recruit. Repeat.

Like everything in politics, a good precinct program is relationship-driven. There is nothing more powerful than people organizing their own communities, building connections among their neighbors.

As precinct leaders build relationships, they will recruit more people who share Democratic values and want to get involved. With every new recruit comes an opportunity to build more relationships and bring more people in.

7. Be realistic and ready to build

With the pressure of a dangerous administration in the White House, a Republican-controlled Congress, and battles to win in our own backyards, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and get burnt out.

Bethe Goldenfield, Chair of the Warren County Democratic Party, was extremely aware of those pressures, and of how busy people are:

“We made it very flexible because we realize people have a lot of responsibilities. There’s a continuum from doing a small amount to doing a lot, and we understand that. Whatever they can do would be beneficial.”

When I was a volunteer coordinator on a local campaign, I often saw volunteers who felt like they couldn’t do enough - there were too many campaigns they wanted to help, too many voters to contact, and all of that was on top of their already busy lives. My motto became:

“Feel good about what you can do, feel no guilt about what you cannot.”

It can be enticing to create big and flashy goals. For example, talking to every voter in the county is an admirable goal. That said, it probably isn’t realistic. It almost certainly is not the most effective use of limited time, money, and volunteer power.

So start small with achievable goals, get some organizing wins under your belt, and build from there.

Categories Field Tactics

Before running head first into local politics, Joel was a music teacher, curriculum developer, and trainer working in public schools and on research funded by the National Science Foundation. After an unprecedented number of Democrats stepped up to run in 2017’s consolidated elections, Joel worked to elect the first democrats ever to serve in the history of his local township. In his free time Joel serves on his local library board, builds spreadsheets (for fun), and composes music for odd assortments of wind instruments.