An Honest Guide to Engaging New Voters

By Colline Ferrier June 28, 2016
A canvasser engages a potential new voter in 2012. (Project Vote)

Now that primaries are over, we can expect to see more people out in public spaces, trying to engage and assist new voters in registering to vote for the big election in November. I give these folks out on the ground a round of applause because this is no easy task! Here, I will outline some tips and tricks that I have learned at Project Vote, which may help some organizers and volunteers as they try to engage new voters in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts through the summer and fall.

To offer a little background, I assist Project Vote’s team with gauging the level of compliance with the Motor Voter law—which requires government agencies, such as the DMV, to offer voter registration to clients—in many states across the country. As an “investigator,” I travel to various states and visit local public assistance and motor vehicle offices with the intention of collecting information about their voter registration activities.

But, I gain more insight than that.

I spend a majority of my time in each state, speaking with the individuals who use those agencies’ services. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to individuals who often face extreme odds, such as homelessness, poverty and hunger, as well as those who are simply frustrated with spending so many hours at the motor vehicles office. These experiences have shaped how I engage with the public, both in my role at Project Vote and in my everyday life.

“You may find that this list and my thoughts are rather blunt, but I believe in Project Vote’s mission of ensuring all citizens have a chance at casting a ballot that counts, and I take my role seriously.”

Below, you will find a list of tips and tricks that I use in my role of investigator to approach people and get results. These tips can also be used by organizers and volunteers who hope engage new voters.

You may find that this list and my thoughts are rather blunt, but I believe in Project Vote’s mission of ensuring all citizens have a chance at casting a ballot that counts, and I take my role seriously. With that being said, I believe the first in this list is most important, and it is not so much a tip or a trick, but rather, a necessity.

  1. Ask everyone. Do not make assumptions. I feel this needs very little explanation. If you can’t do this, then you have already failed.
  2. Be engaging. Smile! Even if it is hot, raining, or whatever you’re feeling, just smile. I know, this advice comes with some bad feelings for some of us. But, the truth is, when you’re trying to get someone’s attention, the first thing they will notice is your face. In addition to a friendly smile, watch your tone of voice. You should sound like you want to be there doing what your doing. If you sound bored, you will lose that person’s interest because it seems like you have none yourself. Also, look that person in the eyes more often than not. It makes you come across as genuine, but don’t go too crazy with making eye contact!
  3. Get it into their hands. Generally, if there is something that you want that individual to fill out, sign, or read, the only way of getting them to actually do it is if they are holding it. (This, however, is not a justification for being forceful.) I have one tricky way of doing this. While asking an individual if they are interested in updating their voter registration information, ask them if they could hold your clipboard for just a quick second, and when they are finally holding it, tell them the card is on there to complete.
  4. Dress appropriately. Now, I feel like I am fashionable person and sometimes, I like to push the envelope. But, there is a time and a place for that. Like many tips on going to a job interview, wear minimal and understated jewelry and clothing. You should try to come across as relatable. Then, there is the other end of the spectrum. Try not to dress like me on a Wednesday night: sweatpants, a sweatshirt with five visible holes, and hair that has given up on life. You get the picture.
  5. Actually listen. If they are a talker, you better listen! Plus, if you are trying to get them to listen to you, you should be prepared to allow a reasonable amount of time to listen to what they want you to hear, even if you are not interested.
  6. Be sympathetic, patient, and not overbearing. I know from experience, people leaving the DMV or who have completed any other type of errand are frustrated, be it mildly frustrated or ready-to-blow frustrated. So, be kind. If they don’t want to speak with you, that is their right. Do not pursue this individual (especially for legal reasons) or yell at them for their attention. And never use a person’s physical traits or choice of attire to gain their attention. “Hey! You! With the Gucci glasses!” is not cool and it is never going to work. This is not an action you need to take in order to get your next card filled out. No one likes to get called out like that, I promise.

This approach to canvassing is not for the faint of heart, and the act of trying to get someone on the street to chat with you for a few minutes about voter registration or voting is also not for the faint of heart. Overall, be confident in what you’re doing. Show that you are excited and unafraid to be out there, doing the important job of helping your fellow citizens take the first step to engaging with one of our most precious rights, the right to vote. I wish you luck in these endeavors.