There are two major ways to make impact the upcoming midterm elections: Vote, and mobilize other voters. For the latter, you don’t need to donate large sums of money (which, of course, not everyone can do) or get into long political arguments on Facebook (studies have shown that this doesn’t change people’s minds anyway)—in fact, the most effective way to rally other voters is to knock on doors.
Door-to-door canvassing entails ringing doorbells to speak with voters, either to campaign for a specific candidate or voter measure or to help people make a plan to get to the polls on election day. Research shows that it can work—one study by political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla found that front-door conversations about transgender issues genuinely changed people’s attitudes, although another study they conducted analyzing 49 field experiments showed less effective results when it comes to persuasion campaigns. In any case, studies have shown that canvassing can get people to the polls. According to the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies, “many results suggest that it is the dynamic interaction of authentic person-to-person contact that is most important in determining whether a method will successfully mobilize voters.”
“The purpose is to have face-to-face contact for people who will be voting,” Elana Leopold, co-founder of political consulting firm Seneca Strategies, tells SELF (Leopold also co-founded The Broad Room, a group that helps train young women for activism). “The first couple of doors can be kind of scary, but once you get into your groove it can be really exciting.”
Midterm elections have notoriously low voter turnout, although the good news is that, according to polls, young people are more likely to vote this year than in previous midterm elections. Even so, door-to-door canvassing can really make a difference right now, during these last few days before election day. If there is a candidate or ballot measure you feel strongly about or you want to remind others that their vote is important, consider canvassing. No idea where to start? Read on for 10 canvassing tips on everything you need to know about door-to-door canvassing.
1. First of all, you don’t need to be an extrovert or a policy expert to canvass effectively. You just need to care about an issue or a candidate, and be willing to speak with people about that.
“I joke that it’s like trick or treating, when you’re just knocking on strangers’ doors,” says Erin Gabriel, who has been canvassing in her home state of Pennsylvania since the presidential election in 2000.
Saskia Young, the director of Swing Left Academy which educates activists about how to engage voters, says that you really don’t need to be outgoing to be successful—and she trains canvassers for a living. Young tells SELF, “I am the world’s shyest human being. I still get nervous canvassing. It’s OK, and it’s something you work through.”
Plus, you don’t need to be a policy expert or know absolutely everything about the upcoming election. “‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer when having conversations with voters,” Young says. “Speaking from the heart, and telling your own story of why you are there and why you care is the most effective thing that you can do.”
2. Find a group that will give you training, talking points, and turf.
You don’t need to go through official channels to canvass for a candidate or cause you care about, but it’s probably a good idea for first-timers. “Initially, it’s good to have a base and have a group as opposed to going solo,” Jacquelyn Martell, a labor organizer with 32BJ SEIU, tells SELF. “It doesn’t have to be the direct campaign—you can also organize with labor unions, or other organizations that represent candidates.”
An advocacy group or candidate’s campaign will typically give you a list of homes to visit during a certain day or shift, selected for a specific reason—the campaign hasn’t visited them before and believes they are a likely voter. The organization will also walk you through main talking points, using a script with specific messaging based on campaign research and the candidate’s message. Groups provide canvassing tips, safety tips and provide literature you can hand out. Plus, you can usually canvas with other volunteers, which is helpful for safety and morale (Young says that newbies can request a more experienced partner to show them the ropes).
“Sometimes people are afraid that they will show up to canvas and be left on their own, but every campaign has field staff of people trained to do exactly this,” Leopold says. “You will never be left completely alone. Canvassing is one of the best resources you can offer a campaign as a volunteer.”
3. Rehearse your talking points.
Stacy Staggs, who has helped register voters in her home state of North Carolina, also does lobbying with the Little Lobbyists group for kids with complex medical needs. Staggs advocates for the programs and policies her five-year-old twin daughters require for ongoing medical care, and tells SELF that going over the material makes it easier for her to speak with voters and lawmakers even though public speaking makes her nervous.
“There are a lot of us who are new to the world of actually getting out and doing something aside from donating money, and I think that it can feel intimidating to go and talk to people who you don’t know,” she tells SELF. “Be very familiar with what your material is, and what the 30-second spiel would be in support of it.” Again, if you’re canvassing with a local group, they’ll provide talking points, oftentimes with options to choose from and ways for you to mold these to your own background, way of speaking, etc. The idea is to equip canvassers with the information they need but allow them to shape what they’re saying so that it feels and sounds genuine.
4. Think of what you’re doing as helping people out, not hassling them.
Experienced canvassers say that shifting your mindset really helps make door-knocking a positive experience, for both you and the people you speak with.
“You’re not bothering people, you are offering them helpful information,” Staggs says. “When you look at it through that lens, it makes you a little bolder and allows you to take that step to ring the doorbell or knock on the door.”
Martell says that smiling and staying positive can go a long way, even if you’re feeling exhausted after a long day. For Martell, staying upbeat helps her reach more potential voters. “I’m able to connect with them on a personal level and relay the message,” she says.
Deanna Reed, a regional coordinator for Woke Vote which works to get people of color to the polls, says that focusing on why you feel compelled to canvas can help you push through any shyness, and will also galvanize voters. “It makes a difference when you have someone on your doorstep that is passionate about why they are there,” she tells SELF. Reed is currently canvassing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and says that each morning her group of canvassers circles up to share inspiration for the day and spur each other on.
5. Make sure you listen to voters, too.
Gabriel says that she will talk to voters about the candidates she’s canvassing for—then ask what issues matter most to them, and which candidates they are considering. “You get some really interesting stories,” she says. “People respond better if they think you are listening to their concerns.”
Reed, who unsuccessfully ran for a city council seat in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama last year, says that taking the time to listen to constituents is crucial. “A lot of the areas we go to are the people who are typically counted out,” she says. “They don’t get visits, and the resources aren’t poured into their communities. So they appreciate us showing up.”
6. Recognize that some people won’t be interested in what you have to say—and that’s just part of the gig.
Staggs says that some people may have already formed their opinions and don’t want to discuss their voting choices, and others might be busy when you knock. It’s possible that someone may be short with you, but try not to take it personally or let it knock your confidence.
“I’ve knocked on hundreds if not thousands of doors and I have only had someone be rude to me once,” Gabriel says. “People are less likely to be rude to you in person than they are on Facebook. So just stick to the issues. And if something happens, you smile, wish them a good day, and move on to the next house.”
7. Always keep safety in mind.
Whichever group you canvas with will have their own safety guidelines, but general ground rules apply. Young says you should never go inside someone’s home, only speak with them at the door. If you get a strange feeling about a person, trust your instincts and move along. Martell recommends that you canvas with at least one other person, and carry a fully-charged cell phone with a portable backup battery—especially if you’re in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Reed says you should make sure to get your canvassing partner’s contact information, plus the phone numbers of your group organizer and whoever handles transportation, just in case you get separated.
8. Dress comfortably and bring snacks.
You’ll probably be walking most of the time, so wear shoes that are comfortable for you to walk in. In terms of clothes, wear something comfortable and appropriate for the weather, that you feel confident and approachable in. Some campaigns will give you a t-shirt or jacket to wear, or have a suggested “uniform.” Make sure you have some water, a portable snack like trail mix or a granola bar, and a bag to carry campaign literature in. A clipboard might be helpful, too.
9. And when you ring someone’s doorbell, be extremely clear about why you are there.
Martell says you should immediately introduce yourself, share which group you are with, and explain why you knocked on their door. If you have a list of specific people to talk to, confirm you’re actually speaking with the person on your list. The structure of your actual conversation will depend on the group you’re canvassing for—some places recommend that you ask people if they have a moment to talk, others suggest jumping right into your quick spiel without asking permission.
10. Finally: It’s ok to be scared. But know that canvassing works.
“Even if people are afraid, they should do it,” Young says. “There’s a ton of resources and support out there for them. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”