In the United States, unlike most major democracies, election law is primarily set by the state. Additionally, elections are run by local officials — usually elected in partisan elections. For those involved in elections (candidates, supporters, and voters), there are two significant consequences to this aspect of American democracy. First, every state has its own rules and timetables for registering to vote and for voting. Second, even within those rules, local officials have a lot of discretion that can influence the results of elections.
To win, campaigns need to do two things. First, they need to communicate a message that connects to potential voters. Second, they need to get those potential voters to vote. The messaging part is like the tip of the iceberg. It occurs above the surface. At this time of the cycle, advertisements are a rising tide. Depending upon where you live and what races are competitive, political ads are slowly becoming more and more omnipresent (ultimately peaking in the week before the election when ads for consumer goods will all but disappear from the air). But political ads are run out of the campaign headquarters and involve the local activist very little. It is the part beneath the surface — the get out the vote campaign — that requires a good field operation and local effort.
For most of the campaign cycle, the local effort is focused on voter registration (as well as finding candidates for local offices and helping those local candidates raise money). While federal law has put in place several tools to make it easier to register to vote, people still need to register to vote (and re-register when they move). Particularly if you live in a precinct or city or county that tends to vote Democratic, an unregistered voter is a lost vote. At this time of year, however, the clock is dwindling on the time to register new voters for November’s election.
Most states do not allow voters to register on the day of the election. (Ten states do allow people to just show up on election day and vote.) The most restrictive states (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas)require voters to have registered by thirty days before the election (effectively making this Friday the deadline for in-person registration and Saturday the deadline for mail-in registration). However, another twelve states have a deadline before October 14.
As the window for registration closes, however, the window for early voting opens up. Approximately thirty-five states have some form of in-person, “no excuse,” early voting. Even before early voting begins, local activists have a significant role to play. Just as election authorities have discretion as to the size and location of election day precincts, they also have discretion as to the numbers and location of early voting centers. In some states, while there is a date by which local election authorities must have locations for early voting, local election authorities have the option to start earlier. Additionally, in some states, it is up to the local election authority whether or not they will open an early voting center on Saturday or Sunday. Needless to say, local pressure can make a difference between early voting being easy for large numbers of voting and the election authority doing their best to undermine early voting.
Particularly, in states with early voting, the key for field operations is identifying Democratic voters and getting those votes to the polls. Getting somebody to vote early has three big advantages for a campaign. First, the campaign does not need to spend any more resources on persuading that voter. Second, even if something goes wrong in the rest of the campaign, that vote will not change. Third, that is one less voter who will be waiting in line on election day or who might have some problem arise that will prevent them from voting on election day.
On the lines issue, while most states have laws that require employers to give employees time off to vote, not everybody knows about these laws. Additionally, depending upon when the polls open, the employer can meet the requirement by giving the time off in the morning. If the lines are long, the employee may still run out of time and not be able to make it back at the end of the day to vote. While local Democrats have fought for years over this issue, the difficulty of getting enough election judges and Republican resistance to opening more precincts tends to result in precincts being much larger in the cities than in rural and suburban areas. As such, long lines on election day mostly impacts Democratic voters. Getting as many voters as possible to cast early votes in heavily Democratic precincts can reduce this problem and maximize the Democratic vote.
Early voting is one of the reasons why a key feature of the modern campaign is a heavy reliance on data to supplement field operations. As noted above, identifying likely supporters of the entire Democratic ticket early and tracking who has cast an early vote allows the campaign to shift its resources to persuading swing voters and encouraging those who have not yet voted to vote. Given the stark partisan divide in this country and the dwindling number of true swing voters, this aspect of field operations has become crucial to Democratic success in presidential election years. (The difficulty in convincing Democratic voters of the need to vote in off-years has been an equally crucial feature of Democratic failures in the off-year election.)
Besides the Clinton campaign, most state-wide candidates — whether for Senator or Governor or some other state office — have a plan for field operations to get out the core Democratic vote as early as possible so that they can move their focus to persuading the tiny fraction of swing voters that could decide the close states. For the plan to work, the campaigns need volunteers in their field offices. In most states, while you may need to do a little searching between the Clinton campaign, the big state-wide campaigns, the local party organization, and the state party organization, you can find a nearby field office on the internet. With cell phones and computers, it’s even possible for people to do canvassing and phone banking from home. Please make contact with a local campaign as soon as possible. The country you save may be your own.