Go Knock on Doors

Today’s Democrats can learn from the organizers of 1964, whose efforts to register Black voters across the South transformed the meaning of democracy in our country.

Students in Mississippi, aiding in voter registration efforts during the summer of 1964
Gene Smith / AP

About the author: Daniel Judt is a graduate student worker at Yale, where he studies American history.

Barring extreme developments, there will be no Voting Rights Act of 2022. As a result, in Arizona, Georgia, and many states in between, it will be more difficult to register to vote, more difficult to vote by mail, and more difficult to vote in person in the fall midterm elections than it was in 2020. Democrats and progressives must immediately figure out how to build winning political campaigns in swing states where election laws may suppress turnout, especially among the poor and people of color.

We can begin by mounting a robust, coordinated field campaign. I’m not talking about the usual efforts of slogans and yard signs, but tens of thousands of paid canvassers employed full-time by Democratic groups, people who will pound the pavement for eight hours a day in every swing state, training with veteran organizers as they go. To my knowledge, this kind of ground campaign—at that kind of scale—doesn’t exist today. The last time it did was back in 1964, when young people, workers, and organizers fanned out across Mississippi to register Black voters in what became known as the Freedom Summer. Their efforts transformed the meaning of democracy in our country.

The language of “democracy under attack,” while not wrong, is too abstract to capture the challenge we face. Last year, Arizona’s Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law that removes voters from the Permanent Early Voter List (Arizona’s name for its list of voters to automatically receive mail-in ballots) if they haven’t cast a ballot in the past two elections and don’t respond to a warning about their removal. This change, made to a system in place since 2007, means that hundreds of thousands of Arizonans who may not have voted recently but who are used to receiving their ballots by mail will now need to vote in person if they wish to vote at all. The law erects an additional hurdle between what politicos call “low propensity” voters and the ballot box. (The assault continues: Just last week, Republican state lawmakers introduced a bill that would eliminate the early-voter list entirely.)

I’ve singled out Arizona because in 2020 I was a field organizer with Unite Here Local 11, the hospitality workers’ union that serves Southern California and Arizona, in its electoral campaign in Maricopa County. There, I saw firsthand that we have to meet voters where they are: emotionally and politically, but also physically. I knocked on thousands of doors and I met hundreds of low-propensity voters, many of whom were poor people of color who were wary of contact with the state. Driving to the polls, kids in tow, after a day of work but before dinner, was one task too many. But many were on the early-voter list—nearly 80 percent of Arizonans were in 2020—which meant that they could vote right there and then. If their ballot hadn’t shown up in the mail, they may not have voted at all.

In a purple state like Arizona, making it even slightly harder for low-propensity voters to cast a ballot can tip an election. That is why we need a new Freedom Summer. There are no shortcuts when it comes to combatting voter suppression. No TV spot can walk a voter through their voter-registration form. No digital advertisement can wait for a voter to go find their mail-in ballot. No phone-banker can drive a voter to the polls. We have to knock.

My fellow canvassers in Arizona, some 400 strong, were a mix of university students and veteran union members. Many had just lost their jobs to pandemic layoffs. Across four sweltering months, behind masks and face shields, we spoke with more than 250,000 voters. Of those, more than 48,000 voted for Joe Biden despite having not voted in 2016. By our estimate, our canvassing operation turned out well over 10,000 Democratic voters who would not otherwise have cast a ballot—the same margin that gave President Biden the state.

Our campaign was distinct from a standard field operation in three key respects. First, whereas a typical campaign relies on volunteers to do the actual door-knocking, we hired full-time canvassers. It is difficult to emphasize the difference this makes in the quality of a field operation. In a volunteer-based campaign, field organizers spend their days corralling canvassers into a couple of extra shifts. In Arizona, we knew that we could count on a consistent, dedicated team, which meant that we could focus on what actually matters: training our canvassers to talk with voters.

Canvassing is a skill. It takes a lot of time to get comfortable pushing a voter beyond their fears and despondency. Every day of our campaign in Arizona began with an hour-long training. Canvassers learned about policy platforms and election laws, discussed what they were hearing on their shifts, and practiced talking with undecided and disaffected voters. This sustained political education—hours of training followed by dozens of conversations with voters, six days a week—is critical for an effective field campaign.

Not for nothing were most of our canvassers union members and most of our leaders union organizers. Union members are used to dealing with unfair elections where the law is stacked against them. They are used to hearing “no” over and over from a scared or skeptical colleague and working, together, to change their mind. Union organizers are accustomed to helping workers overcome their fears and become leaders in their own right. They have experience counteracting antidemocratic measures designed to box out working people of color (such as laws that make it more difficult for agricultural workers to unionize, or the common anti-union tactic of threatening pro-union immigrant workers with deportation). If we want to mount a meaningful response to voter suppression in 2022, having unions lead the way would be a good start.

In Phoenix, I watched canvassers engage voters in long, personal conversations about what they wanted from their government, and then help them translate those desires into a commitment to vote. Then we followed up, twice circling back to confirm that commitment—or to try again to secure it—from August to October. When mail-in ballots were delivered, our canvassers returned a fourth time to those same voters and urged them to fill out their ballot on the spot. If the voter had to vote in person, we made a voting plan and personally checked in—a fifth, sixth, seventh time—until the voter confirmed (with a photo) that they’d cast their ballot. We did this with every single voter who said they would vote for our candidates.

This emphasis on door-knocking cuts against the prevailing logic among Democratic-campaign strategists. There was no other significant progressive door-knocking operation in Arizona in 2020. Indeed, nearly every democratic campaign in the country replaced door-knocking with phone-banking. Pandemic safety may have been the immediate reason for this, but it was also a convenient excuse. In an era of targeted digital advertising, the idea of speaking with voters face-to-face, one by one, over and over, is viewed as romantic and wasteful. Few insiders were sad to see in-person canvassing disappear.

Those insiders are right in one sense. The standard canvassing operation—understaffed, dependent on untrained volunteers, timid in its approach to voters—is pretty near useless. But the conclusion to draw from this is simply that bad canvassing operations are bad. Consistent, personal, face-to-face connections with voters still win elections. In response to the voter-suppression laws passed in Arizona, Unite Here Local 11 is already planning to mobilize more than 1,000 workers to canvass in 2022. That is double the number we had in 2020. But it will not be enough: The effort must be nationwide.

The comparison to the Freedom Summer completes the historical parallel that Democrats are attempting to draw between their response to last year’s spate of voter-suppression laws and the civil-rights movement’s response to Jim Crow. The legislative victories of the movement were possible only because of the extensive grassroots organizing that took place across the South, town to town and door-to-door, for decades prior. There would have been no Voting Rights Act of 1965 without the Freedom Summer of 1964. That equation holds true for our own time. If we want a Voting Rights Act of 2023, we need a Freedom Summer of 2022.