Are you part of an advocacy organization or involved with a group of concerned citizens who are trying to make a difference related to a specific cause?
If so, this is your time to shine. It is election season.
A lot of people in advocacy approach elections at an arm’s length. They want to think they can succeed in their cause without engaging in elections. Elections seem messy, controversial and difficult. Of course, all those things are true. Democracy is messy. More often than not, you will find Americans complaining about the negatives of our election process. Unfortunately, we all too often witness the much greater flaws of autocratic systems where diversity and disagreement are punished instead of encouraged. The messy side of democracy may, ironically, be its greatest asset.
Since we are a democratic republic, elections matter. That is the time that candidates are listening most closely to voters. During the campaign, candidates make important determinations about what voters care about most. So if you are not speaking up during the election, you run the risk of being an afterthought for elected officials once they have moved on to governing.
You may not have the time or resources to build a robust political operation for your cause in time for the 2022 elections, but there are many powerful things you can do with relatively little time or organization and still make a big difference. In this blog is a list of the top 10 ways election newbies can advance their cause in 2022 using electoral engagement.
As an individual who cares about an issue, volunteering is a huge way to assist a candidate. The work of a campaign is hard. Candidates get worn out making calls and knocking on doors. If you strap on the walking shoes or show up at phone banks, candidates will be eternally grateful. They see you fighting in the trenches on their behalf and that will help create a bond. In many local and state campaigns, an awesome volunteer is much more valuable than a financial donation.
Organize a small group of people to meet and contribute to a candidate at a small event. When you can bring people together, your value to the candidate grows immensely. Money is critical for a campaign because it costs money to talk to voters. There is no reason to be shy about it. Some people are able to donate time and some are able to donate money. Both have their place. Candidates also like these events because your personal introduction to friends can lead them to other supporters who can in turn do other things on their behalf. Organizing has a popcorn effect.
You don’t need a formal organization to create a questionnaire that quizzes candidates on the issues. Ideally, you just need at least a modest-sized group of people or a coalition built around the same issue. Questionnaires can help nail down candidates on issues. They can also help inform candidates about your specific priorities. If you have a decent grassroots network for your cause, the questionnaire can be helpful in informing voters. If you are a 501(c)(3), you may also do candidate questionnaires, but I recommend speaking with your attorney as the questionnaire content needs to be more generic and clearly non-partisan.
Just like with the questionnaires, you do not need a formal organization to do this, only an informal coalition of people that are identified by a common name. Candidates like endorsements because it helps them show momentum and they appreciate it when people come alongside them during a difficult time. 501(c)(3)s may not endorse.
I will be honest that this isn’t my top go-to item. Candidate forums are often sparsely attended and those that do attend have largely made up their minds. The risk for you as an advocate is that if a candidate walks into a half-empty room, they are going to leave that event underwhelmed by your impact and level of support for your cause. However, if you have a persuadable audience and can pack a room, then I would give a candidate forum a shot. If done well, candidates leave impressed, and maybe, even be able to generate some healthy fear of the people-power behind your issue. 501(c)(3)s may host candidate forums, but all candidates must be invited and the content needs to be more on the generic and impartial side.
During election season is when candidates are most open to people and ideas. They want votes and you have one to give. Keep in mind that their time is valuable to them as they are working tirelessly to win votes, so be respectful. However, they are likely to listen and, more often than not, you may be introducing the issue and perspective for the first time. You are planting important seeds. Give them advice on how your position could help them gain more support for their election.
This is something 501(c)(3)s can do if they invite all eligible candidates. As I mentioned before, odds are that most candidates have never talked to anyone about your issue. Candidates are usually “regular” people who are just trying to make a difference and don’t have the benefit of years of policy research. Host an issues forum on your area of expertise as a way to educate and equip candidates. Most candidates want to devour policy information so that they can be more credible and intelligent when they speak to voters during their campaigns. Remember that they are busy folks, so plan location and timing as conveniently as possible.
Most candidate filing deadlines for 2022 have passed, but keep in mind that recruiting a strong candidate is the most important way to win elections and it costs nothing. It takes creativity, relentlessness and time. You will have to hustle, expect a good deal of “no’s” and make a lot of phone calls, but when you hit the mark and find a good candidate who shares your values, the payoff is enormous. This election season, pay attention to who in your coalition is following the election closely and appears motivated to make a difference. Think about whether their personal story and beliefs would fit the district, and if so, plant a seed in their mind about being a candidate the next time around.
A political action committee (PAC) is a generic term for the organizations set up at the local, state or federal level to pool the financial resources of supporters of a cause. Instead of everyone giving personally to a candidate, financial supporters give to a PAC. They do this because it is more simple to organize and it helps candidates and other political observers see the level of influence and support. Candidates may not make the connection when lots of individuals for your cause are supporting candidates directly. There are legal considerations in play, but a relatively small PAC is not terribly difficult to administer.
While this is for after the election, a lot of people miss this. If a candidate wins, obviously they are in a position to work closely with you. Send them a congratulatory note after the election, even for candidates who you didn’t fully align with. They will likely remember and appreciate it. However, do not overlook the losers. Send them a note thanking and encouraging them. Many will run again or could be phenomenal advocates for your cause even if they aren’t in elected office. They obviously are already willing to give up personal time to influence civic issues. Why not your issue? Little things, like taking the time to say “congratulations” and “thank you,” go a long way in politics.