How to Start a Voter Registration Drive

12 steps to running a safe, legal and effective sign up by the May 3 registration deadline (in a pandemic, no less)

How to Start a Voter Registration Drive

12 steps to running a safe, legal and effective sign up by the May 3 registration deadline (in a pandemic, no less)

Don’t let the (relative) gangbusters turnout in the 2020 presidential election fool you: The work to get people to the polls is not over.

Philadelphia’s 2021 Municipal Primary is happening now, with mail-in ballots arriving now, and polls open on May 18. The outcome of the primary will decide our next district attorney, city controller, members of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Municipal Court and state Supreme Court. You can learn more about all the candidates in our 2021 primary voter guide and our guide to all the judges running for office.

In order to vote in the primary, you’ll need to register first—by May 3. And you might want to help some other people register, too.

Here, 12 tips from local experts to help you safely and legally navigate a voter registration drive during the pandemic.

1. Educate yourself on voting rules and regulations

Before you register others—or yourself—to vote, it’s important to read up on voting rules and regulations. You can read about voter eligibility requirements on the Department of State website when reviewing the PA voter registration application.


  • You must be a U.S. citizen and a resident of Pennsylvania for at least 30 days before the next election, to register to vote. For prospective citizens, following this rule is crucial as registering prematurely can bar a person from obtaining U.S. citizenship, entirely.
  • You must be at least 18 years old to vote.
  • The last day to register for the 2021 Municipal Primary is May 3, 2021. The primary is on May 18, 2021.
  • Act 77, which P.a. Gov. Wolf signed into law in 2019, allows P.a. residents to vote by mail up to 50 days before an election. Mail-in ballot applications must be received by the county office by 5:00 p.m. on May 11, 2021.

2. Plan out how you’re going to convey clear, comprehensive information to new voters

Especially when registering young people or new citizens to vote, it is important to clearly explain the above voting rules so that you don’t register someone who is ineligible to vote. Non citizens who vote in national or state elections could face harsh penalties like imprisonment or deportation, or ruin their chances of securing U.S. citizenship.

Broke in Philly logoKendra Cochran, the director of civic engagement at interfaith organization POWER, has overseen various voter registration efforts before and during the pandemic. She recommends making an informational one-pager to explain some of these rules, especially if you are running an in-person registration drive. You can use the sheet as a script for verbal conversations, or give copies to the people you encounter.

3. Get to know your neighborhood and utilize partnerships

Sometimes, it can be more productive to join an online voter registration effort than to start a drive yourself. Reach out to local organizations in your community to see what already exists.

4. Know your limits, and get creative

Even with a one-pager, it can be hard to verify a person’s citizenship or age by word of mouth. That’s why, up until this year—with the onset of the Covid-19—the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) would only register new voters at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) building at 30 N. 41St.

Due to the pandemic, the group is utilizing tactics like phone banking for already-registered immigrants, hosting informational Zoom webinars, and following up with people about things like their polling location and election dates.

5. Stock up on supplies

  1. Voter registration driver center city
    Photo courtesy of Sheyla Street / Philly Youth Vote

If your goal is to register a large number of voters, you’re going to need a large number of voter registration forms. You can get free copies at the city commissioner’s office, and most libraries and post offices should have forms, too.

Registration forms can also be downloaded and printed from the P.A. Department of State website. However, if printing yourself, be sure that you are printing everything, Cochran warns, as voters cannot register via an incomplete form.

6. Schedule regular drops to the commissioner’s office

Keeping completed registration forms in a safe place, like a secure envelope, and dropping them off at the commissioner’s office within 24 hours can help your team stay organized and ensure that forms are accepted.

“Organizations will collect these paper applications, and they never make it down there, or they make it down there and it’s not in a timely fashion and folks miss the date,” Cochran says. “So if you’re going to do paper I would say have a plan to drop it off within 24 hours of collection.”

She recommends designating a team member who is in charge of collecting the completing forms and making these drops.

7. Stand outside community centers or high traffic areas

College students help register voters on campus for the November 2020 election
Photo by Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

Covid-19 has changed the way people interact in public settings, meaning that you’re less likely to run a successful drive outside a supermarket, for example, than in years before, Cochran says.

“People are generally going to their destinations and heading home,” she adds. “And even if you find people out walking around, unless you’re a trusted source in the community, people won’t stop for you.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any high-traffic areas that you can take advantage of. Go to places where people feel comfortable, and have time to talk, she says. Because POWER is an interfaith organization, it utilizes congregations. But you can also consider setting up at outdoor events, farmers markets, community meetings, or even Covid testing/vaccination sites.

8. Be distinguishable, and give people space

Especially in the age of Covid-19, people are less likely to approach you if they don’t know you, or your organization, Cochran says. She recommends simple ways of distinguishing yourself like wearing an identifiable T-shirt, or holding a sign, to let people know what you’re doing while keeping a six foot distance.

9. Know your target

Understanding the people you are registering, and their level of exposure to civic engagement activities can help you determine what combination of the following tips work best for your community.

“I called it, ‘knowing your target,’” says Piri Pantoja, who coined the phrase while running a voter registration drive for the 2020 presidential election at Temple University.

On campus, his target was students, who, he found, were more interested in registering to vote if they understood why civic engagement mattered. So, his efforts included educating students about the platforms the candidates were running on.

“Saying ‘this is what’s at stake in this election,’” Pantoja says. “Make sure we’re mentioning key things on the ballot, because nobody’s going to know if they’re not trying to get involved.”

For Cochran, knowing your target also means knowing how much assistance they would need in the registration process. The people POWER serves are often marginalized, she says, so her group makes sure to not only educate them on voter requirements, but to walk them through all steps of the process. That includes not only helping them fill out the form, but collecting it, and dropping it off for them.

“If they are not typically interested in voting or it’s not at the top of their list, it’s not going to become the top of their list because they filled this form out,” Cochran says. “That form will fall by the wayside nine times out of 10.”

10. Register people with a tablet, or your phone

Voter registration driver center city woman holding QR code
Photo courtesy of Sheyla Street / Philly Youth Vote

Everybody has a smartphone nowadays, Cochran says. So even if you don’t have a lot of money, printing access, or a large parking lot for a drive-through registration, you can register people to vote. The voter registration form at allows you to submit all the information electronically, which is the fastest and simplest way to ensure the registration goes through.

“You have to be innovative, nowadays, don’t let money be your barrier,” Cochran says. “If you can’t afford a tablet it’s fine, you can do it right on your phone, it works just the same.”

You can use disposable styluses (which you can purchase in bulk on Amazon) with your phone, as well.

11. Set up a “drive through” registration

If you’re trying to limit physical contact due to the pandemic—or if all that walking seems like a daunting task—consider hosting a drive through registration.

You can do this by partnering with an organization that has a parking lot, and setting up a table, van, or tent with volunteers and supplies. (Think drive through COVID-19 testing site).

POWER hosted a drive through voter registration drive during the 2020 presidential election, which was a huge success, Cochran says. To facilitate the drive, they partnered with local congregations and helped people register online by using tablets and disposable stylists.

12. Do not incentivize voting*

Incentivizing voting in certain elections is against the law (though not in local races, which is why The Citizen’s upcoming Voter Lottery is a-ok!). So, if you’re giving out stickers or candy, make sure you’re giving them out to everyone—not just those you register to vote.

“We want to make sure that we’re aboveboard in all that we’re doing,” Cochran says. “We want to make sure that we don’t give anyone any reason to claim voter fraud or any type of registration fraud, we want to make sure that we’re doing things the right way.”

*Unless you’re The Philadelphia Citizen and you’re working on the 2021 Voter Lottery!

The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.

Photo courtesy of Sheyla Street / Philly Youth Vote

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