7 Precinct Organizing Best Practices - National Democratic Training Committee

Grassroots energy has been off the charts post-2016, and we saw the results of it in the midterm.

In talking to local leaders across the country, we hear of county after county that has seen record numbers of Democrats stepping up to be a precinct captain.

In 2018, many counties actually out-recruited Republicans for the first time.

How can we leverage that kind of energy?

Many counties find success by building a team of elected or appointed precinct captains, or PCs who take responsibility for building relationships with Democratic voters and getting out the vote in their neighborhood.

Last cycle, NDTC ran a program throughout Illinois called “FLIP: Flipping Locally in Precincts,” in which we trained PCs in the ways to best serve their neighborhoods.

Here are the best ideas we’ve heard from local leaders around the country on how they organize their precinct.

Precinct Organizing Best Practices:
Choosing  Leaders

You will need a person or a team of people to manage a precinct program. This might be your local county chair or another member of the local committee.

We previously spotlighted Bethe Goldenfield, Chair of the Warren County Democratic Party, who has been of great help to her community in electing more Democratic precinct executives and is a great example of a county chair that can take the lead.

Someone with Votebuilder and organizing experience is ideal. Most importantly, they will make sure PCs have what they need and communicate with them to make sure they follow through.

While PCs are responsible for talking to voters in their precinct, the party should make some decisions centrally so all PCs are working toward common goals on a shared timeline across the county. These decisions include:

  • Targeting – Determining who precinct leaders will focus on talking to
  • Data entry – Tracking every conversation and what was learned
  • Training – Providing precinct leaders with the skills and resources they need to succeed

Of course, you don’t need to be a pro at all of these things to get started.

If your PCs aren’t comfortable using Voterbuilder (or don’t have access), you can start by using a spreadsheet you are comfortable with and make using Votebuilder a long-term goal. We also offer the first, online, interactive, free Votebuilder training to help them out, if you can get access!

If your PCs are new to voter contact, you might want to start with one or two precincts while you look for training opportunities (like our course on Field Tactics) to learn more.

Setting Goals and Sticking to Them

We all share the same goal - to elect Democrats up and down the ticket. But, the way we get there looks different in every county. We spoke with Chuck Cook, one of our trainers and a professional organizer who volunteered to organize his own county: Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

He developed a precinct organization that has increased Democratic turnout as much as 10 percent. In Anne Arundel County, their appointed precinct captains are expected to canvass all of the Democrats in their precinct once each quarter.

During their state’s legislative session, conversations with voters are issue-based. Before elections, conversations encourage people to get out and vote.

Every county will have a different capacity and different goals. You may be able to canvass the entire county, or you may target a small number of precincts. Or, you might try to canvass those areas four times a year, or start with a canvass a month or so before the election and a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) program.

You can expand beyond canvassing, too. Depending on the number of volunteers you have and the area where you live, you might find phone banks are more realistic.

But Not Too Many Goals…

Every time you contact a voter you should have a specific ask in mind. Depending on what the rest of your county’s program looks like and what data is most beneficial to your party and local candidates, you might:

  • Collect updated email addresses
  • Identify new volunteers
  • Collect demographic information (Who has children in local schools? Who is a union member?)
  • Increase voter turnout
  • Identify support for specific issues
  • Get permission to text voters with GOTV reminders (if your county has a texting program)

Whatever goals you choose, remember: if it’s not recorded, it didn’t happen. Whether you are using Votebuilder or relying on spreadsheets, make sure you have tracking mechanisms in place before you start voter contact.

Let People Help In Their Own Way

Some people like to knock doors, others like to make calls. Others are happy to talk to a few voters in their precinct each night, and others want to stage a day of action to talk to as many voters as they can.

Some precinct captains may feel comfortable pulling lists and entering their own data in Votebuilder. Others will feel uncomfortable using Votebuilder at all.

While the county party should set goals about who their PCs will talk to and how often they will talk to them, they should expect the way a precinct leader achieves those goals to vary.

But, just like it’s important to confirm and remind volunteers on a campaign to make sure they turn up, it’s important to communicate with PCsto make sure they accomplish what they have committed to. Also, make sure PCs have what they need to succeed - like voter lists.

In the beginning, you should anticipate that PCs will need a lot of help. But, you may be surprised to find that in a relatively short time, some precincts will basically run themselves.

Invest in Training - It Matters!

Training pays huge dividends. It improves the effectiveness of volunteers when talking to voters and improves the accuracy of data collection. Even experienced volunteers benefit from a refresher.

Hosting an in-person training session is a great way to onboard new precinct captains - it also provides an opportunity for PCs to get to know one another, build relationships, and learn from one another.

If you have less experienced folks stepping up to be PCs, consider setting up mentorship opportunities where less experienced volunteers canvass or make calls with a more experienced volunteer, staff member, or candidate.

You can also talk to your state party about training opportunities, ask experts in or near your community to lead an in-depth training for committed volunteers and leaders, and sign up for updates from organizations like The Analyst Institute so you can learn best practices and share them with others in your party.

You should also plan on coming to an NDTC live training when we’re in your state.

Build Relationships. Recruit. Repeat.

Like everything in politics, a good precinct program is relationship-driven. There is nothing more powerful than people organizing their own communities and building connections among their neighbors.

As precinct leaders build relationships, they will recruit more people who share Democratic values and want to get involved. With every new recruit comes an opportunity to build more relationships and bring more people in.

Be Realistic and Ready to Build

With the pressure of a dangerous administration in the White House, a split-control Congress, and battles to win in our own backyards, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and get burnt out.

Bethe Goldenfield, was extremely aware of those pressures, and of how busy people are:

“We made it very flexible because we realize people have a lot of responsibilities. There’s a continuum from doing a small amount to doing a lot, and we understand that. Whatever they can do would be beneficial.”

It can be enticing to create big and flashy goals. For example, talking to every voter in the county is an admirable goal. That said, it probably isn’t realistic.

Start small with achievable goals, get some organizing wins under your belt, and build from there.

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