Like most New England states, Connecticut has a long tradition of running horrific paid GOTV programs. Veteran operatives have seen it all—mutinous canvassers, ACORN-style groups lying about voter contacts and local activists demanding cash to pay “their people” on Election Day.
Sometimes it’s better not to ask questions. But from my experience, there are ways to avoid replicating the common pitfalls of paid get-out-the-vote operations—the kind of pitfalls that can mean flushing thousands of dollars down the toilet or sending the organizer on a one-way trip to campaign finance purgatory.
Last cycle, we launched an effort to clean up the paid GOTV business. If you’ve got some of the same issues in your state, here are a few steps you can use as a starting point.
Play by the same rules: The key to running successful paid GOTV programs, wherein canvassers and drivers are recruited to knock-and-drag supporters to the polls, is getting every campaign that will run one to play by the same rules. For starters, discuss this at an early coordinated campaign table conversation. Once you agree, announce together that all campaigns in the state will operate the same way. If operatives want paid GOTV work, they will need to play by these rules. Push hard to do these programs the right way, but be sensitive that it’s a big change in some areas.
Work with community leaders, but on your program: Most communities have small-time political bosses or operatives who typically were given cash payments before Election Day and tasked with recruiting grassroots muscle. These local politicos—the practice goes—are the ones who dole out the cash to their staff independently. That’s problematic, to say the least. If you run into this, explain that your campaign is doing things differently and will be doing the hiring directly this year. Keep the leader involved by, say, asking him for suggestions, but then interview and hire these folks independently.
Moreover, explain to the leader that the people he recommends will be held to standards and let go if they don’t meet them. Also, let them know that you will ask for his help if problems arise. Operatives and community leaders can be a great source of recommendations, just sure they understand the expectations of the job and that their people aren’t untouchable.
Pay for specifics: This is a simple idea that requires additional planning on your part, but you should pay your staff by the hour or by the shift. Drivers who don’t do voter contact should be paid less. If a driver will knock, pay them the same, but offer a gas card.
Thinking of paying by the door knock, call, voter registration or absentee ballot request? Be careful—you’ve left yourself wide open to fraud. Bonuses and other forms of compensation can be tools to encourage performance, but basing an entire pay structure on knocks or voter registrations will encourage a system of manufactured results and faulty data.
Treat it like a real job: Don’t start a day of your operation until all staff sign real contracts that your attorney approves. The agreement should define the responsibilities, relationship with the campaign, payment process and termination policy. Work with your legal team to ensure daily reporting is a condition of the job. In states with longstanding paid GOTV programs, many workers will fight this, but this is non-negotiable. Doors knocked and basic results should be the minimum.
Staff should be trained before they start. As a baseline, the agenda should include the goals of the program and how each individual fits in, basic messaging, a thorough review of the script and walk sheets (with role playing) and administrative questions. A good training that sets a culture of accountability and helps the paid GOTV team feel like they are a part of the campaign is the first—and most important—step in quality control.
Do quality control, but don’t lose your mind: Well-trained staffers who feel like they are part of your team will produce better work. It sounds like a corporate cliché, but it’s also true in the campaign world. Accountability in a paid program, though, isn’t all about trust falls and singing “Kumbaya.”
Set clear standards, review progress each night with your canvassers and give clear next steps to those who aren’t meeting the goal. Don’t be afraid to fire early, and often, based on the standards outlined in your training and contracts.
Build in waves: Even if you can only afford a three-day advance start with a handful of workers, do it. Treat these first days as “dry runs” and replicate the schedule, reporting, quality control and payroll systems you’ll use during Election Day GOTV. It is easier to identify and fix problems when there are 15 canvassers then when there are 1,500. Ideally, the first trained canvassers will go on to become your canvass leaders.
Have a tight payroll system: Paying hundreds (or thousands of staff) is an enterprise unto itself. It will cost you time and money. Don’t tread lightly on this or you’ll lose staff and be answering tough questions from local TV reporters. If your operation is big enough, consider doing the payroll operations professionally—firms like PoliOps and others specialize in operations work for large projects.
Check cards have taken off, but you’ll run into problems when you use cards with high fees that aren’t universally accepted. I’ve seen campaigns lose staff when canvassers learned that their pre-paid check cards didn’t work in many locations.
If you do go the check-card route, consider that there will be fees. If you want to pay someone $100 for election day work, consider throwing in an extra $5 to make up for the fee, or tell people that they are actually being paid $95.
Dan Kelly has consulted on, managed, or led field operations on 24 campaigns in ten states and managed nearly 300 full time staff. In 2010, Kelly managed Dan Malloy’s campaign for governor in Connecticut, defeating two of the top ten self-funders of the cycle.