This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. The authors are professional evaluators. One holds a leadership position in the Wisconsin Democratic Party as chair of its Environmental Caucus.
When the realities of social distancing hit home in the second week of March, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler already had a plan for remote campaigning — one he had rejected just weeks before as impractical.
With Wisconsin’s annual spring election looming and a crucial Supreme Court seat at the top of the ballot, Democratic Party leaders were already poised for a final push of in-person voter canvassing. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced Wikler and his colleagues to upend their approach. In a recent interview, Wikler explained that the idea for an all-remote voter turnout effort was sparked in mid-February by an inquiry from one especially prescient donor. After thinking it over, Wikler and his team responded to the donor that the late-in-the-game shift couldn’t work. But weeks later, after the party successfully helped elect Jill Karofsky to Wisconsin’s high court, they had proven themselves wrong.
The work of an organization like the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) is where politics becomes operational, which is what makes its efforts this spring particularly interesting to us as professional evaluators. As consultants whose work involves assessing how parties and people make political and policy change, we wanted to know more about the role Wisconsin Democrats played in this victory. Confronted with new realities and rules, how did the state party adapt and learn? In a high-stakes political year in a battleground state, how did the spring election help the party get ready to turn out voters in the fall?
Readying Wisconsin volunteers and voters
The pivot away from in-person to socially distanced get-out-the-vote efforts actually entailed two substantial shifts: one on the part of party activists, and the second by voters themselves. The state Democratic Party had to reorient its staff and volunteers to reach Wisconsinites on their phones or devices rather than at their doors. And they needed to spur those voters to request absentee ballots, fill them out and send them back to their local city or county clerk.
The party had to first get the right tools into the hands of volunteers around the state, according to Wisconsin Democratic Party officials. “I felt really supported by DPW. They gave us three different platforms to use,” Vernon County Democrats Vice-Chair Randy Skinner told us. Those platforms enabled volunteers to send texts or call voters by either dialing manually or autodialing.
“We fanned all of that out to our email lists,” Skinner said, and local party volunteers could pick whichever tool matched their comfort level for contacting voters. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) also received crucial support from the DNC, which has invested heavily in lists of cell phone numbers. Having the ability to send text messages to an accurate set of numbers was an important advantage. As Wikler pointed out, their data indicates that people look at 97 percent of their texts, an “open” rate that is much higher than other methods of voter contact.
Get-out-the-vote efforts and a helping hand
A fascinating feature of this story is the way that the pandemic helped change the tenor of volunteers’ outreach, not only the tools they used. The state party chair and local leaders in Vernon County described a dynamic in which volunteers offered voters information on COVID-19 resources and methods for voting safely, instead of sticking solely to a political pitch. Vernon County Chair Wayde Lawler said the message to voters was, “‘we want you to be safe, first and foremost, and to be able to exercise your rights.’ It was almost like an offer, rather than an ‘ask,’” he said. County Party Vice-Chair Skinner recounted that “people were happy to hear from us.”
“We helped them walk through the process of getting an absentee ballot,” he said, a task that proved successful because volunteers were armed with practical and valuable information, which made it easier for those volunteers who view calling friends and neighbors as an otherwise awkward chore.
Wisconsin’s remarkable shift to absentee voting
Wisconsin does not have a robust tradition of absentee voting, despite being a “no-excuse absentee voting” state that allows voters to obtain ballots without providing a justification. Moreover, because remote voting has taken a backseat to casting ballots in-person, Democratic operatives in Wisconsin generally lack experience with elections weighted toward remote voting. But through a combination of luck and savvy hiring, Wisconsin Dems added that tool to its arsenal as well, officials said. Wikler told us that DPW’s senior elections director had previously run a much more extensive absentee voting program, for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) in 2016, than what is typical in Wisconsin. (Kind’s sprawling Western/Central Wisconsin district is gerrymandered to be difficult for Democrats.) Once the need for radical rethinking became obvious, having an expert on staff gave DPW an invaluable head start.
It’s too early to know for sure what combination of forces changed the absentee ballot “game” in Wisconsin, but change it did. In a normal Wisconsin spring election between 10 and 15 percent of ballots are absentee, with the proportion swelling to 20–25 percent in fall contests. Last month absentee ballots accounted for 73 percent of the total, or 1.1 million votes. This is all the more remarkable given that Republican-instituted voter ID requirements pose an obstacle to potential absentee voters with limited computer and internet access.
Absentee ballots and voter engagement.
There’s a lot for a political party to like about absentee voting. As a get-out-the-vote matter, once someone’s submitted an absentee ballot, that’s one fewer voter whom the party has to get to the polls. And because absentee ballot requests are public, the transparency of the process makes it possible for a political party to track each step: from the voter’s initial request, to the local clerk sending out a ballot, to the clerk ultimately receiving a filled-out ballot. This permits the party to do multiple “touches”: to check in with voters and remind them of key races and issues, all while urging submission of a completed ballot and offering information that can assist in overcoming obstacles to the process.
Tracking ballots as they’re requested and returned also can help the party make course-corrections on voter turnout methods and messages while they count — focusing and re-focusing on where efforts can be most fruitful. Wikler talked about being able to “try different tactics, look at who actually requested absentee ballots and lean in on the most successful ones. Because you get regular infusions of data about who’s requested an absentee ballot, you can test and validate your learning much more quickly than in a world where you only find out on Election Day.”
From Election Day to election season
But for many elections in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the real sea change will be the way that absentee voting shifts the whole timeline and rhythm of campaigns.
“Election Day is no longer election day. It is a period that lasts weeks or months,” Wikler said. Tactics must be layered, repeated and adjusted over time to make sure that they are fresh, compelling and actually turn out voters. If early tactics are effective, though, the number of targets decreases.
“In this environment, all the old logic about the decay rate of different tactics goes out the window,” Wikler said. “There’s a lot of research about how TV ads or door-knocks or any tactic only has an effect for a few days, 10 at most. But if people can take the action you’re asking even when it’s far from Election Day, it suddenly becomes worth investing much earlier.”
The party as a learning organization
The only certainty in upcoming election cycles is that unpredictable things will happen. That benefits campaigns that seize each opportunity to test processes and systems in a real-world environment and adjust their tactics accordingly.
DPW seems poised to do both. Wikler’s principal takeaway from April is that it’s crucial to build a party organization that learns and adapts: that sees the need to pivot during campaigns as a feature and not a bug. Both Wikler and his Vernon County colleagues pointed to DPW’s deep investment in training for volunteers, even during a period when all activity moved online, as a factor in the state party’s success.
The electoral cycle in Wisconsin seems to benefit the type of “learning organization” that Wikler says he’s striving for. As opposed to states that vote on candidates for all office levels at once, Wisconsin’s judicial and local offices are contested each spring. In years such as 2020, this provides a “dress rehearsal” for the November presidential election, a situation that Wikler and colleagues plan to use to their full advantage.
A tactic to watch? Or a historic anomaly?
DPW staff will gain additional insight into what worked well and what did not when they review the record of who voted in April. But as external observers who study advocates’ effectiveness, we see many interesting issues to watch during the upcoming political season.
Among these are the budget implications of a get-out-the-vote campaign that mostly features absentee ballots. Although remote voting appears to have some clear campaign benefits, what type of staffing and support does it take to do this well and maintain momentum over several months, or longer? And how does that compare to what parties traditionally budget for in-person voter canvassing?
And it has to be asked whether April in Wisconsin was a “black swan” election. Did newly homebound volunteers just have more time to spend contacting voters, and did the pandemic make their homebound neighbors uniquely receptive to those calls? Did Wisconsin volunteers and voters come out more strongly because Republicans’ blatant voter suppression sparked a particularly intense backlash? If by the fall Wisconsinites are back to work, commutes and soccer practice, will volunteers do less outreach and will voters be less receptive to the party’s offers of help? And will volunteers call fewer friends, family, and strangers if Republicans’ voter suppression efforts are less flagrant?
If the Wisconsin Democratic Party truly can learn and adapt on the fly, as it seems to have done in April, it could be a game-changer for the state and even the country. For his part, Wikler is confident they can. We look forward to seeing if time bears him out.
David Shorr and Kathleen Sullivan are independent evaluation consultants who help community organizers, nonprofits and grantmakers boost their impact in the policy and political arena. They can be found on Twitter: @David_Shorr and @Katilist.