Heroes of 2020: Grassroots Organizers Had to Get Voters to Show Up in a Pandemic. It Worked.

By Elle Meyers

December 29, 2020

For these organizers, communication was the key to getting voters through an election unlike any other.

To say that 2020 has been rough is putting it mildly. But even amid the death, division, and chaos, people have stepped up and shown us that there is still good in the world. While some of them reject the “hero” label, the sacrifices of these Americans deserve recognition for their impacts on our lives. Today, we are shining a spotlight on those who helped get out the vote, even during the coronavirus pandemic.

For the grassroots organizers who got out the vote to elect Joe Biden, reaching existing and potential voters in the midst of a historic pandemic was all about one thing: communication. 

While Biden ultimately won the 2020 election with room to spare, the country’s embrace of mail-in ballots and record-breaking voter participation meant this election was like no other. And grassroots organizations helped drive that success. They engaged individual voters in their communities, tackling issues like voter suppression and transportation to the polls, all with the goal to make every voice heard. 

When it came to communication during the election, language was one of the big barriers Terry Ao Minnis saw out in the field. Minnis works as the senior director of census and voting programs with Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

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In the weeks leading up to the election, Minnis and her team got information to voters in languages other than English. They created and distributed fact sheets about the election, the voting process, and steps to take after voting. They also created a multilingual hotline for election-related questions, and worked with partners in different states to translate information into more than 11 languages.

“Our elections can be extremely daunting, I think that’s true even for native-born voters,” Minnis told COURIER. 

She explained that voting information issued by the government is often written at a high grade level, in ways that are sometimes unnecessarily complicated. That makes it harder for people to vote, especially those who are learning English. Minnis also said English learners are often subject to increased scrutiny at the polls. 

“Unfortunately we have seen incidences where people are anywhere from unfriendly to hostile, including poll workers. People may get accused by challengers of not being eligible to vote simply because of the way they look or the or the accent that they have,” she said. 

How language is treated can differ widely, even within one state. For instance, some counties in Georgia conduct their elections entirely in English, others include Spanish. But many Asian languages are left out completely. 

“So, you can imagine somebody for whom English is a second language, who already has some difficulty trying to access a complicated system and it can be extremely daunting,” Minnis said. 

Meeting the Youths Where They Are (Social Media, Of Course)

Other groups worked to communicate and encourage voters who were disappointed with the candidates after the primaries where they already were: social media. Sabina Roberts, research director for Settle for Biden, found many young people weren’t excited to have Biden as the Democratic candidate. So her group set out to encourage people to still turn out to vote.

“Our main challenge was, how do we convince a large group of people that were very cynical about Biden?” Roberts told COURIER. 

They chose to engage with young voters through social media messaging on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. They created their own memes, and the movement grew rapidly. 

Heroes of 2020: Grassroots Organizers Had to Get Voters to Show Up in a Pandemic. It Worked.
Courtesy of @settleforbiden

“We wanted to simultaneously be honest and not hide his flaws but also argue that his flaws aren’t so bad that we shouldn’t be voting for him. There’s still a lot of positive things that will come from his presidency,” Roberts said. 

Settle for Biden was created by college kids that all attended different universities, Roberts said. The group began as a few text messages between friends and grew into well over 200,000 followers on Instagram. And they are not stopping now. 

“We’re not planning on going away at all. It may not be under the name Settle for Biden, but our organization is still going to be here and the idea is to have this account that’s highlighting progressive policies, incorporating humor, and having really digestible information,” Roberts said. 

How Do You Reach 2.5 Million Young People? Try Five Different Tactics.

Environmental groups also worked to boost voter turnout during the election. The Sunrise Movement, which advocates for political action to address climate change, worked to elect Biden because he has pledged to tackle climate change, unlike President Donald Trump. 

The group focused on turning out younger voters in key swing states like Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin Arizona, Colorado, and Florida. They ultimately reached 2.5 million young people in those states using five different “voter contact tactics,” including peer-to-peer texting, postcards, phonebanking, relational organizing, and “vote tripling,” where volunteers encourage people at polling places to text friends and family to get out to vote. Or in other words–a whole lot of communication. 

“Since the summer, Sunrise has been deploying money, volunteers, and resources to have a major impact on youth turnout in the 2020 General Election,” the group said in a statement. “If you include our efforts in the Presidential and Congressional primaries, our total voter outreach for the 2020 cycle crosses 8 million voters.”

The work these organizations did throughout the 2020 election made a real impact: Nearly every state in the United States hit a new high for voter turnout. A larger percentage of eligible voters cast a ballot this year than in any of the elections in the last 120 years.

READ MORE: Heroes of 2020: An ER Doctor and a School Nurse Saved Lives in Two Different Ways


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