By Piper Serra
Just before the heat wave set in, the 2018 TurboVote Summer Associates hit the streets of the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn to do some old-fashioned, in-person voter registration. Before we began, Quinn, executive assistant to the CEO and community organizer, gave us an overview of the New York voter registration process and some best practices for canvassing in the city. Although several of the summer associates are from New York, not all of us had experience helping people register to vote in person. For me, navigating the registration form was intimidating. Luckily, Quinn—who always carries a stack of blank New York state voter registration forms with him—is an expert on New York politics and was able to explain the entire process of voting in New York, multiple primaries and all. Even armed with this information, I think we all felt apprehensive.
Quinn suggested we use the phrase, “Hi, can I help you register to vote?” to open conversations with people on the street, and, each armed with blank, pre-stamped forms, we split up for an hour of canvassing. I found the afternoon somehow both energizing and exhausting. It was rewarding to not only to talk with people who weren’t registered to vote but also to get affirmation from those who were already registered. Following Quinn’s advice for this abbreviated voter registration session, I made sure to reach out to young people, who are more likely to be unregistered to vote. I also had success speaking to restaurant workers, several of whom were working but happy to take a stack of forms back to their co-workers and friends. These interactions were particularly productive because it appeared that these people were more likely to be successful in registering their friends than I would be registering strangers on the street.
There were, however, some limitations to our method of voter registration. DUMBO is primarily filled with professionals and tourists. Many of the people I reached out to were either not New York residents or were on their lunch break and uninterested in speaking with me. In short, I didn’t feel like we had the right technique to target the pool of people who are eligible to register to vote in New York. It felt good to get voter registration forms in people’s hands, but as soon as the person walked away, promising to fill out the form when they got home, I suspected my task was incomplete, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to follow up or provide further support as Election Day approaches.
Furthermore, I knew that if we had been using TurboVote to register voters, many of the logistical, or process-related, issues we encountered could have been avoided. Because TurboVote offers assistance with voter registration, including pre-filling some registration information and directing users to online registration where available, it gives people more control over their civic engagement experience. TurboVote also gives people the option to update or check their registration details, which we weren’t able to do registering people on the street.
After registering voters, we discussed the practicality and success of our hour-long excursion. Between the five of us, we gave out around 20 forms and had one person complete and mail the form. In contrast, back in the office, we learned that in the average hour, TurboVote signed up more than 270 voters across the country. I realized registering people to vote in person, although important, wouldn’t be enough to reach higher levels of voter turnout. Handing out paper registration forms with the hopes people will send them in, find their polling location, and remember to vote on Election Day is difficult, complex, and time-consuming for organizers to do without the help of innovative tools. The experience, overall, helped me to better understand the role technology and innovation can play in supporting and strengthening networks of organizers and activists in the civic engagement space.