The last time we had a normal general presidential election, in 2016, 64 percent of Philadelphians voted—lower turnout than in the previous two elections. That nail-biter of a race came down to fewer than 50,000 votes statewide—proof that no matter what side you’re on, every vote really does count.
That is especially true this year, as we face what may be the most important presidential race in at least a generation, in what no one could consider normal circumstances.
Of course, you’re going to vote. (Right?) But that might not be enough this year. Ensuring voter turnout is at the levels we deserve in the birthplace of American democracy requires all of us to step up in new ways to see that our friends, neighbors, young people and new voters all vote—whether at the polls or via the mail.
Below, some ideas for how you can get out the vote and help this unprecedented election run smoothly—even at a safe social distance.
Ways to help get out the vote in 2020
1. Register voters
Without the opportunity for in-person registration drives and canvassing, the pandemic has caused a serious slow down in voter registration. As the Inquirer reported, between the November 2015 election and the 2016 primary, Pennsylvania’s voter rolls grew by a net 200,528 voters, compared to 68,311 voters this year (even with more than an extra month between the 2019 election and the primary in June).
Unregistered Philadelphians include folks who recently moved and forgot to update their registration; newly eligible 18 to 20 year olds who have not yet registered; and previously incarcerated people—including those on probation or parole—who don’t think they can register. (They can.)
According to a 2017 Pew survey, 62 percent of these eligible but unregistered voters have never been asked to register.
Join local organizations like POWER, Philly Youth VOTE (more on that below) and plug into national registration efforts with Rock the Vote and Register2Vote (and donate to support their efforts here).
2. Canvass from your couch
Peer pressure—it works.
You can help get out the vote with text and phone banking (and social media blitzing) from the comfort and safety of your couch. Reach out to people you know—friends, family, neighbors and colleagues—first. Apps like VoteWithMe and Hustle make it easy to reach out at scale.
“I think our own personal networks are often overlooked,” says Jen Devor, co-founder of Better Civics, a nonpartisan nonprofit launching this fall to revolutionize civic engagement and voter participation. “We assume that our friends and family are going to vote, but we don’t know—we have to make sure that people are committed and have a plan.”
Especially this year—when everyone is confused about when/where/how they can vote safely while making sure their vote is indeed counted.
Pick up the phone or draft a template text including concise details about why you vote, why you think it’s important, and why they should care (personalize that part if you can). And include resources to help them be more informed voters—regarding both the candidates on the ballot and the actual voting process.
“You can tell people to vote all day, but if people don’t go into the polls and make an informed decision, it’s not gonna stick,” says Devor. “It’s not going to create that culture of voting that’s so important.”
Once you’ve covered your own network, plug in with local efforts focused on a cause you believe in; or become a Voting Squad Captain with When We All Vote; or campaign for a candidate you support (do your research here).
3. Encourage a culture of (informed) voting
Long-term, we’d love to see Election Day made a holiday—as it is in many places around the world. For now, if you’re an employer, you can give your staff PTO so they have the opportunity to work the polls and participate in all things election related.
That’s one thing Committee of 70 (C70) is pushing for as part of WeVote, its initiative to promote a culture of voting in businesses, organizations and communities in the region. (Local organizations like PECO, CHOP, and the Free Library are participating partners.)
WeVote partners also have the opportunity to host C70 for (virtual) election info sessions for their employees. The training walks people through the vote-by-mail process, what to expect at the polls this year and more. “It gives people a chance to ask a real person questions and get immediate answers,” says C70 Chief Advancement Officer Lauren Cristella.
They also provide continued support leading up the election to make it easy for you to communicate with your staff. “We create graphics and sample text for email outreach and social media campaigns; send reminders and nudges; and keep you informed about any changes in election law and deadlines,” says Cristella.
You can also hang a sign—like this one—in your window to inform and inspire passersby.
4. Stay informed
There are so many (potentially changing) details to keep track of this year. Stay up to date on all Election Day news; research candidates and ballot questions; find your polling place (which may have changed); learn about relevant events; get points for completing civic-engagement activities and so much more with C70’s app.
And make sure you’re getting your information from reliable sources—there’s been a recent proliferation of politically funded “local news” sites that push partisan messages to readers. Check out Rutgers’ guide to evaluating the news, or outsource that research and get NewsGuard, a free browser extension and app that provides detailed information and reliability ratings for more than 5,800 news websites.
5. Help the youth vote
Plug in with Philly Youth Vote and Vote That Jawn and send folks to When Philly Votes’ upcoming registration drives to help these local orgs working to register thousands of eligible young Philadelphians.
Black Lives Matter at School and Philly Youth VOTE! / Caucus of Working Educators put together a comprehensive student voter kit chock full of resources for sharing information about voter suppression and voting rights, how to vote in PA, and how to get involved in local efforts to organize the vote. Check it out and share it widely.
You can also push for legislative change to make it easier for young folks to vote by mail. To apply for a mail-in ballot online, you need a Penn-dot ID—which many youth don’t have. The alternative involves printing, signing and sending a form, next to impossible if you don’t have a home printer.
The simple solution? Allow anyone to use a social security number and e-signature to apply online. (Get with the times, Pennsylvania.) Sign this petition and spread the word.
6. Help elders vote safely
Make sure the older folks in your life stay safe and away from the polls this election—and still vote. Give them a ring and make sure they have a plan, and if they don’t, walk them through the vote-by-mail process. You can even help them fill out the ballot application online or offer to print one out and drop it off.
Encourage them to mail their ballot as soon as they receive it; wouldn’t hurt to follow up with another call before October 27 to make sure it’s been sent.
7. Work the polls (or recruit your low-risk friends)
As folks who have been serving for years—many over the age of 60—step back due to Covid-19 concerns, we need young, healthy people to step up and work the polls.
We’re expected to have about 100 fewer polling places than usual on November 3—about 730 instead of 830—which means we have many more spots to fill (and lines will likely not be as horrendous as they were in June, when we had only 190).
You get paid, and each polling place will be equipped with Covid-19 safety materials like anti-bacterial disinfectant wipes, gloves, FDA-approved surgical masks for poll workers, hand sanitizer, alcohol screen wipes, tape to mark out social distancing.
Virtual training will be offered and in-person training will happen in small groups (20 or fewer), says Amanda Feifer O’Brien, judge of elections in the second ward.
Sign up with The Voter Project and join the Poll Worker Caucus Facebook group to learn more and stay in the loop. And sign up for updates from LeBron James’s More Than a Vote, which announced this month a multimillion dollar push to ensure there are enough workers to keep polling places open, especially in Black districts.
8. Advocate for legislative action
Yes, the recent update to our voter code has helped, but as Committee of 70 Policy Director Pat Christmas wrote to me, “We don’t want Pennsylvania to be the Florida of the 2020 presidential election; we risk a disastrous election and notoriety for years to come if the Legislature doesn’t step in.”
That’s the message we need to send to our legislators, who are in the midst of their summer recess and aren’t scheduled to resume until September 15. Reach out to your representative—especially those who are up for reelection—and beg them to reconvene for the sake of our democracy.
Then urge them to make critical legislative changes as laid out by the Committee of 70 here.
Here’s a summary:
Extended Window to Pre-Canvass Ballots
With Pennsylvania counties allocating staff and resources to run essentially two major elections at the same time ‒ one by mail and another in person ‒ the ability to begin processing a high volume of mail ballots will help avoid delays in public election results after polls close.
Returning Mail-in Ballots at Polling Places
Voters must have the option of returning their completed mail-in ballot to their polling place on Election Day. Due to tight vote-by-mail deadlines and US Postal Service delivery issues, thousands of voters will inevitably find themselves without a reliable way to return their mail-in ballot.
Emergency Flexibility for Poll Workers and Polling Places
It is critical that ‒ at least for the November 3 election ‒ county election officials have the latitude to deploy poll workers anywhere within the county and exercise limited polling place consolidation, setting a cap of 4,000 to 5,000 voters per location.
9. Normalize Election Week
Election Day will not be a thing this year; we simply won’t know the results of the election for days after the polls close.
Run the numbers and you’ll find that—without drastic changes to our voter code that are unlikely to be passed in time—it will be impossible for our commissioners to count the hundreds of thousands of expected paper ballots in the last four hours of November 3.
The more we normalize that fact—the less everyone is surprised not to go to bed with a clear winner—the less believable inevitable calls of voter fraud will be.
10. Vote early
If you don’t plan to vote in person, being proactive is the name of the game. You can apply for your mail-in ballot now, and thanks to Act 77, Pennsylvanians can start sending in ballots on September 14.
We can’t predict the impact of potential USPS slowdowns and it’s likely the convenient drop boxes some of us used back in June will be out of the picture, thanks to a lawsuit from the Trump campaign. So it’s best to allow plenty of time for your ballot to reach the commissioners office. Send yours in as soon as you receive it (after September 14 of course).
Starting September 29, we can vote early at satellite locations around the city! At these sites, you can request, complete and hand in your absentee ballot in one fell swoop.
It’s election season in Philadelphia. Are you all set to vote?