Truth be told, it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic.
For too long, too many campaign operatives were comfortable with the status quo, assuming that decades-old traditions didn’t need to be questioned or continually tested. No longer.
COVID-19 is precipitating change across the political spectrum. It’s forcing ballot measure campaigns, in particular, to throw “best practices” out the window.
That’s because volunteers and field organizers can’t organize door-to-door canvasses or run phone banks from cramped campaign offices, inhibiting their ability to collect qualifying signatures.
Meanwhile, voters’ media consumption habits have changed rapidly, with more people spending more time on more screens than ever before.
The challenges of adapting to our new socially distanced reality have led some initiative campaigns to conclude that this isn’t their year. In fact, ballot measures in nearly a dozen states made the difficult decision to stop pursuing a place on the 2020 ballot and save their efforts for 2022 or beyond.
Yet others have taken a leap of faith, finding new methods to gather signatures, mobilize volunteers, and persuade voters. No modern-day election has ever been run under the conditions we find ourselves in now, and the result is a moment of breakneck-speed innovation.
As one example of how these innovations are unfolding, let’s look at the task of gathering qualifying signatures for ballot measures. Now, we know that the pandemic has rendered in-person signature drives impossible in many states, and inadvisable in others.
Instead, many states have issued executive orders, and courts have made judicial decisions allowing ballot measure campaigns, for the first time, to collect qualifying signatures electronically — protecting democracy and public health at the same time.
The firm I help lead is working on a new path forward, establishing some of the initial infrastructure to collect legally valid signatures online. When you have just a few months or weeks to collect thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of required signatures, every day counts.
So for ballot measure campaigns in Michigan and Massachusetts to name just two, we’re building a first-of-its-kind user flow for collecting legally valid signatures online.
It leads people from a streamlined landing page, where they enter their legally required personal information, to an e-signature page, where their information is automatically inserted onto an electronic replica of the paper petition.
From there, all that remains is for the person to add their electronic signature to complete the process. This fulfills the fundamental goal of the signature-gathering process: showing widespread support for an initiative from voters in the state. And it does so through a modern, secure, and safe process.
This new digital approach to gathering signatures comes with a unique set of concerns and potential benefits. The concerns are significant: It could open up new avenues for more radical measures to qualify for the ballot while exacerbating the inequality rooted in the digital divide.
But the potential benefits are significant as well. Electronic petitions empower people who are homebound, pandemic or not, to participate in an important part of the democratic process.
They also allow campaigns to use digital ads to spread the word about their initiative, cultivating a larger community of supporters along the way. Furthermore, when people can sign a ballot initiative petition online — instead of during a short, often unplanned, in-person interaction — they can do their own research and confirm that it’s an initiative they truly support.
In future cycles, states may choose to revert to the traditional requirement that signatures be collected only in person.
That would be a mistake.
Leveraging digital tools to grow our movements and expand access to the democratic process should continue long after this pandemic, and consultants’ commitment to innovation shouldn’t end when this crisis is over. In truth, it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to drive these innovations in the first place.
By finding new routes to victory, we’ll ensure that this pandemic doesn’t take the wind out of the sails of our democracy. We’ll continue to fearlessly navigate these uncharted waters because November won’t wait, and there’s too much at stake right now to give up.
Jake Levy-Pollans is a Vice President, Strategic Services at Trilogy Interactive. A recipient of the American Association of Political Consultants’ 40 Under 40 Award, he also served as the Minnesota Digital Director for President Obama’s reelection campaign and as Digital Engagement Director for Wellstone Action.