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Isolated, but energized: Political activists make sure Americans register to vote—from a distance

March 29, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

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As Americans heed scientific experts’ warnings to stay home and distance themselves from others amid the coronavirus pandemic, political campaigners and get-out-the-vote activists have been forced to close offices, cease door-to-door canvassing, and move to entirely online efforts.

As former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 staff said in an email to supporters, “This is a weird time for campaigns.”

In today’s day and age, most volunteer-based organizations have a sizable online presence. Owing to the widespread need for social distancing, however, the digital tools that were meant to complement on-the-ground efforts are now becoming the main show.

Biden, for example, used to connect one on one with supporters on the campaign trail. Now that the majority of Americans are staying indoors, the 2020 candidate has shifted to hosting virtual town halls, FaceTiming supporters, and posting informational videos online.

“It’s a challenge and an opportunity to try to replicate those moments in this new virtual, digital age,” says a Biden campaign official. When it comes to the campaign’s momentum, however, it’s just about “shifting that energy to be more online.”

Nonpartisan get-out-the-vote organizations are going through the same changes during this time of social distancing.

When We All Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on increasing voter participation in every election, has ramped up digital strategies in recent weeks. The organization is cochaired by notable individuals like Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, Selena Gomez, Megan Rapinoe, and others.

“We were always a digital-first organization, but now we are a digital-only organization,” Kyle Lierman, CEO of When We All Vote, tells Fortune.

The organization has had to cancel in-person events like its 2020 kickoff rally in Detroit, but they’re connecting with volunteers via Facebook Live and Slack instead. House parties are going virtual, and conversations with partners are continuing.

“It’s not a huge change in our work, because this is what we were always doing,” notes Lierman. “But instead of registering folks to vote at church or at their workplace, they might be doing it by sending them a text or jumping on a Zoom conference call.”

Last Wednesday, When We All Vote hosted a “couch party” on Facebook Live and Zoom, encouraging volunteers to text registration information to eligible voters from the comfort of their own homes. Nearly 10,000 people signed up for the event, which included a texting tool training (with guest appearances by cochairs Tracee Ellis Ross and Lin-Manuel Miranda) and an Instagram Live with DJ D-Nice.

Throughout the night, volunteers from around the country texted more than 400,000 eligible voters—eight times the organization’s goal—and nearly 13,000 people started or completed the voter registration process.

“A lot of people have this impression that advocacy is going to rest in the next few weeks, and it is not the case,” says Emily DaSilva of Outvote, a tech platform that allows users to join campaigns and reach out to supporters from home. It was used by When We All Vote volunteers to text eligible voters during Wednesday’s couch party.

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The app has a history of success: Outvote users sent more than a million messages across every state in the U.S. during the 2018 midterms, calling for folks to turn out to the polls. The platform enables users to text either their own contacts or a list of contacts provided by an organization.

“The speed at which you can mobilize voters and the ability you have to track communications and follow up promptly is stronger with digital work,” says DaSilva. With organizations forced to ramp up this side of their work during the pandemic, she said Outvote has seen an uptick in both users and interested clients.

Vote.org, another digital tool in the get-out-the-vote movement, has remained active during this time of crisis. The website is a one-stop shop for voters’ informational needs, providing tips and tools on how to register, find a polling place, get an absentee ballot, and more, depending on state regulations.

“This is our Super Bowl,” says Desiree Barnes, a Vote.org representative. “This is kind of the contingency that we did not want to see have to be enacted.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, several Democratic presidential primaries around the country have been postponed, creating confusion around absentee ballot deadlines, mail-in voting options, and more.

Vote.org created a comprehensive list of all these changes to help voters looking for information, and has been reaching out to partners to provide support. Additionally, roughly 166,000 people signed up to receive notifications on election changes, says Barnes.

“There’s clearly a hunger out there” for information, she adds.

Vote.org is particularly focused on reaching low-propensity voters, the population who doesn’t typically turn out for elections.

“It can be 75° and no rain out, and voter turnout amongst low-propensity voters is harder,” says Barnes. “But add a growing national or international pandemic to it? Yes, we’re extremely concerned.”

But as an existing tech platform, Vote.org is well-equipped to make sure these voters stay informed, even if they don’t leave their couch before Election Day.

“If we’re not hitting your inbox on email, you can find us on Twitter. If you can’t find us on Twitter or social media platforms, if you’re not engaged that way, we can text you,” says Barnes. “There are just so many different ways to get in touch with voters.”

And getting in touch is vital. If voters don’t have the information they need—or if the information is too complicated to reach—they’re not likely to register, or make it to the polls, or mail their ballots in on time.

When We All Vote is dialing up its efforts behind vote-by-mail options, says Lierman. “The work that we are doing to get the word out—public awareness, public education—is more important than ever as things change.”

For example, the Democratic parties of Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming have each decided to hold their primary elections entirely via mail. In Alaska, one doesn’t need to be a registered Democrat to vote in the primary, so any registered voter can download and mail in a ballot. In the other states, however, eligible voters have to register with the party by a certain date in order to receive a ballot in the mail. These and other rules vary by state, and can be off-putting to new or infrequent voters—especially as conditions change throughout the pandemic.

That’s why “information is mission-critical and powerful at this point,” says Barnes. “The best part of the Internet is access to information.”

Tech also helps keep the volunteers sharing that information actively engaged. Events like When We All Vote’s couch party consolidates efforts and boosts enthusiasm.

“There are thousands of other people doing this with them, together, at the same time,” says Lierman. “So even though we’re all staying home, we’re still working on this together, and together we can make a huge impact.”

Do you still need to register to vote? You can do so at Vote.gov.

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