Pop quiz for all the U.S. citizens: what are your state’s voter registration rules? If you’re not sure, I suggest you brush up, because the 2018 midterms are knocking on the door. You might have even had a primary already! It’s really happening, everyone. And in an era where Virginia recently decided a tied House of Delegates race by pulling a name from a bowl, getting out the vote matters more than ever.
Say you’ve already got your own registration squared away. What then? Good news, fellow overachievers: there is yet more you can do. And that “more” is called a voter registration drive.
Registration drives aren’t just for overeager people with clipboards in grocery store parking lots. I, a self-proclaimed introvert, helped register voters during the 2016 election and still think about it daily as one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. There are few better paths to saving the republic than getting your fellow Americans registered. We’re holding our first registration drive at A-Camp this year because it’s that important.
But what can you do, exactly, as one person? Where do you even start? Melissa Wyatt, Policy Associate at Rock the Vote, gets those questions a lot. “I think people often are wondering how to fill out these forms accurately, concerned about making sure that they are following the law — of course — and a lot also come to us who want to make sure that they’re maximizing their efforts,” she says. “Especially if you’ve never run a voter registration drive before, there are so many different approaches that you can take and so many different things that you don’t think of until you have the experience in the rearview mirror.”
To save time you otherwise would have spent staring into that mirror, here are some ways you (yes, you!) can run the best, most civically engaged voter registration drive EVER.
1. Know your state.
“The first step that anyone should take is knowing their state laws and regulations around these drives, because that really can vary so much depending on where you are,” Wyatt explains. Some places only ask you to fill out a voter registration card request, others require day-long trainings that only happen once a month, and did you know that North Dakota stopped requiring voter registration altogether in 1951? Right. Add in state-specific rules about who can register (including folks with felony convictions, for example) and when (hands up for preregistration!) and there’s a ton to keep track of long before you get to the polls.
Fortunately, Rock the Vote is among a handful of organizations that provide state-by-state breakdowns of the registration rules in terms that actually make sense. “We try to help people understand the laws and regulations that they’re gonna be dealing with depending on the state, and we provide supplementary guides that run through FAQs and scripts of how to approach people,” Wyatt explains. “That’s what our guides try to get at: the things that you might not know to ask about.”
2. Integrate with existing community events.
See: A-Camp! For queer people and other marginalized folks especially, hosting a drive where we’re already congregating will get you a lot further than just trying your luck elsewhere. The opportunity to register may very well not reach us otherwise. According to Wyatt, “The reality is that going out into these communities has such an impact, because they don’t otherwise receive the resources and the system isn’t designed for them to participate. So getting out and engaging people — also providing information that demystifies the process and making sure they’re equipped with what they need to go out and vote — is so important. Creating a relationship with people where you can talk face-to-face about how important it is for them to vote and how much you want for them to vote can really be useful.”
3. Do a dry run.
I personally find the very sight of voter registration cards intimidating (better safe than sorry, perjury charges are no joke). If that’s a trait you share, Wyatt suggests walking through the process in advance — from all sides. “Practice how you handle a form, how you engage with people, and what you should say back depending on various responses,” she says. “It’s also important to practice registering yourself and see what it’s like to be on the receiving end.” (Fellow perfectionists, this one is for us. It’s gonna be okay.)
4. Double check everything in real time.
As great as the temptation may be to get the entire interaction over with — you have more people to talk to, they have lives to get back to, it’s probably at least a little awkward — you’ll be much happier later on if you look each form over right away. In fact, this is Wyatt’s biggest tip for the day of. “A lot of times people will accidentally put today’s date in the birthday slot or vice versa, or they won’t sign it, or there will be missing fields. Pretty much once the person’s gone, there’s not much you can do about that. It puts you in the situation of trying to find them again or contact them or something, which can get complicated. So just doing that quick check while they’re still there is key.” Accuracy check now, save yourself from having to chase a stranger down the street later!
Wyatt also suggests collecting folks’ follow up information as part of your drive to make sure they receive the reminders and information needed to actually vote. That extra effort can make a particularly big difference in states with voter ID laws. “Of course you need to get the forms from people at registration drives and submit them — but it’s also important to provide them those free resources so they can cast a prepared and informed ballot and actually know when the next elections are. That’s really key to translating the registration drive into actual voter turnout.”
5. Remember why you’re there — and have fun.
When you’ve been tabling for six hours and only gotten two completed forms, it can be easy to doubt the efficacy of this whole thing. But voter registration drives offer a path to political participation, plain and simple. And keeping that path open should be a top priority if you care about the direction America is going.
Wyatt points out that registration drives are critical to leveling the playing field around voting rights and civic education. “The reality in this country is that voting has evolved over the centuries, and people have fought long and hard for everyone to be included. But hundreds of years ago, voting was pretty much only meant for wealthy white men. That’s where the system started and what we’re still going off of today. So that also means that laws and systems and processes around voting in this country [make it so] that marginalized communities of all kinds are not included. Sometimes laws are specifically designed to make it harder for those communities to turn out… [and] voting can be kind of shrouded in mystery depending on where you live.”
If you can clear up that mystery for even one person, it’s worth getting out there. So clipboards up and look alive — I believe in you!
Downloadable Guides and Toolkits
National Organizations and Initiatives
American Association of University Women
Black Women Vote
League of Women Voters
National Voter Registration Day
REV UP Campaign
Rock the Vote
Spread the Vote
Official State Resources
District of Columbia
Registration Drives (Virginia Department of Elections
Voter Registration Drive Training Video (Virginia Department of Elections)
Guidelines for Conducting Voter Registration Drives (Virginia Department of Elections)