Souls to the Polls – Milwaukee (STTP), in collaboration with VoteRiders and over 300 local churches, is reaching hundreds of thousands of voters, using creative grassroots organizing tactics to overcome the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. COVID-19 has raised a flurry of concerns about the upcoming elections, including safely and effectively voting by mail, capacity issues at in-person polling places, and even further confusion over voter IDs.
Traditional voter contact methods such as door-to-door canvassing and voter registration + voter ID events have been significantly curtailed by safety issues related to COVID-19, notes Anita Johnson, VoteRiders’ Wisconsin Voter ID Coalition Coordinator. STTP and VoteRiders are stepping in to fill the gaps that could make it challenging for Wisconsin residents to vote properly and safely this year.
First, STTP hired and trained parishioners at participating churches to call their church members. The callers asked each church member if they were registered to vote. If not, the callers helped them over the phone to get registered.
They then instructed each individual how to vote by mail, where ballot drop-off points exist so they could cast their ballots early and avoid possible postal delays, and what identification they would need for casting a ballot in person or by mail. If the individual did not have the correct ID to vote, VoteRiders then assisted them in securing acceptable identification.
“This approach was a good workaround for COVID restrictions,” noted Anita. “We were doing outreach primarily through the churches in May and June, and now we are branching out to other groups.”
Second, Anita and her team developed volunteer training programs that could be conducted via Zoom anywhere in the state, without the need for face-to-face meetings. They are key to recruiting and training volunteers.
Third, phone-banking was expanded to largely replace door-to-door canvassing. “We haven’t been able to canvass door-to-door the way we normally would with the pandemic, but phone-banking has managed to fill the gap,” Anita said.
As the pandemic situation has evolved and social distancing guidelines have shifted, VoteRiders and STTP have been able to find limited opportunities to engage with voters at a few public events, such as in recognition of Juneteenth. Having a presence at Black Lives Matter marches has provided valuable connections to younger people and the opportunity for them to register right away.
In Wisconsin, anyone who is a registered voter can request an absentee ballot.
In light of COVID-19, all registered voters who have not already requested an absentee ballot will receive absentee ballot applications for the upcoming elections. A copy of the voter’s photo ID must accompany their first absentee ballot request, and one adult witness must sign the absentee certificate envelope and provide their address.
To facilitate the collection of absentee votes, the Election Commission has set up drop boxes in city libraries. Voters can still take ballots directly to the Municipal Clerk’s office as well.
Confusion and uncertainty can keep people from attempting to vote, and lack of familiarity with the details could result in missing key steps in the process. In order to best ensure that their ballots will count, VoteRiders and STTP encourage voters to vote early.
Together they are organizing events called “Early Vote Sundays,” during which member churches can invite their entire congregations to early voting sites and help guide them through the process.
There is still work to be done, and help is always needed. People from around the country can contact VoteRiders to volunteer, doing such essential tasks as calling voters, helping people register to vote, and assisting in obtaining valid IDs.
Listen to this podcast from Pod Save America featuring Pastor Greg Lewis, Souls to the Polls Executive Director. The interview starts around minute 56.