SANDRA SULLIVAN-DUNBAR FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Everybody hates political phone-bankers, right? Those people who don't know you but call out of the blue right when you are trying to get dinner on the table, or get your toddler to bed. They intrude into your private time and try to get you to vote for their preferred candidate. This is happening more as the primary season heats up.
And now we are even starting to text you.
I've texted people to encourage them to register to vote, to early vote, to verify their number and to identify supporters of our candidate. I have let those with felonies know that they are eligible to vote, when many have been convinced that they are not. I have identified voters who need a ride to the polls and connected them to transportation options.
During the special congressional election in Georgia last summer, as heavy downpours flooded parts of Atlanta, I texted voters real-time information about which routes to the polls were flooded and which were open, from my home in Illinois.
The truth is, grassroots campaign outreach is a necessity right now. So, I have found myself phone- and text-banking for progressive candidates, both in my home state of Illinois and around the country as a volunteer with Sister District Project.
Those of us who text-bank often get angry or crude responses to initial texts.
But when we respond as a human being, the person on the other end often apologizes -- "I thought you were a bot!" No, we aren't bots.
We're volunteers and we'd love to talk to you about the issues, and our candidate's record and plans. We probably have information you can't find on campaign websites, and we actually want to hear from you about your concerns. Since grassroots campaigns like volunteers to engage their own communities, you might even know the person who is texting you personally.
Texting, like other grassroots campaign outreach, gets out the vote. Nationwide, Democrats are a majority, but historically, Democrats have voted in lower numbers in midterm, and in state and local elections. The 2018 elections may be the Democrats' last chance to pull power back before gerrymandering and voter suppression are entrenched beyond the point of no return.
I've encountered a variety of reactions to texting as an outreach strategy. Some people find texting far more intrusive than phone-banking. Perhaps this is because texting is a new mode of outreach, or because in the smartphone era, each person's phone feels more individual and personal than did the family landline. In any case, I get a certain percentage of responses along the lines of "HOW DARE YOU call this number! I did not give you permission to text me!" Sometimes there are a few less publishable words thrown in.
In such cases, I apologize and promise to quickly take the person off of the campaign texting list -- and do so.
Some people actively thank me for texting instead of calling, because this feels less intrusive to them. They can respond on their own time, or not at all. Once I send my first text to an individual, I can be reached by text at any time between then and the election. This access is not directly to my own phone number, but through a platform that I access through my own laptop, where I can send texts and check for responses daily. I am like an on-call connection to the campaign, available to answer questions or respond to concerns generally within 24 hours.
Texting is particularly rewarding when it becomes a mode of in-depth, ongoing conversation. I have had rich engagements with the people I text about crucial issues, including our state budget crisis, taxes, public education, gun laws, the need for criminal legal reform and whether certain parts of our state have been forgotten by elected officials.
In this way, I've taught and learned a great deal about my candidate's policies, values, achievements, plans and mistakes, and about the challenges my community faces. Through texting, I can provide more context than you will receive from hyper-simplified television ads, often paid for by big donors with an agenda that is not about you and your interests.
In this era of gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money, we need tools of grassroots campaign outreach that can facilitate high-quality interactions between citizens on the ground. These human interactions are the counter-weight to dark money, and they are effective, as we have seen in recent elections in Virginia, Alabama and Florida.
Democratic engagement is happening here -- not machine politics, not backroom deals, not donor pressure, but engaged citizenship.
In short, if you start receiving texts from political campaigns in this incredibly important election year -- and I predict that you will -- please welcome them.
Sandra Sullivan-Dunbar is an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago, a volunteer for the Sister District Project and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.