By: Cheri Sicard, NORML Women’s Alliance - Los Angeles
A voter education project is a rewarding bit of activism that can make a real difference in your community. Best of all, you can do it completely from home and on your own schedule. You can even do it in your pajamas in the middle of the night if you choose!
Adequate (not exceptional) research and organizational skills and a little bit of writing are all that’s necessary to pull off a successful voter education project that will inform and empower the voters in your area to make educated choices about who they put into office.
We at the NORML Women’s Alliance LA County put this into practice the first time in the 2012 primary election in order to inform LA voters about their judicial candidates, since we feel judges have a huge impact on citizens and voters usually know nothing about the people they are putting on the bench. However, the process could be used to research and inform about candidates for any and all offices.
While there are several tasks to do under each of the headings, creating a successful voter education project breaks down to just 3 simple steps: Organize, Compile, and Disseminate.
Just 2 people, working diligently for a week or so, were able to put together the report you see at this link. We’ll be using this as an example throughout this tutorial, including the actual emails and questionnaire we sent to judicial candidates as examples. If you have more volunteers, it’s even easier as it is simple to delegate tasks so nobody has to take on too much. Suggestions of how to delegate can be found at the end of this document. Ready to get started? Here we go!
Part I Organize
You can streamline your project by organizing it from the beginning. This section has the most tasks, that’s because starting out well organized makes the rest a matter of simply “filling in the blanks.” Here’s how the NORML Women’s Alliance of LA County did it with our Primary Election Judicial Voter Guide:
A. Research the election and the candidates. In other words find out who all the candidates are.
B. Decide what you want to ask, in other words come up with a questionnaire that asks questions relevant to your issue. Here’s a link to the questions we asked judicial candidates. You may or may not need/want to run the questionnaire by an expert. Since we were dealing with legal issues and wanted to make sure our questions were worded in a professional manner, we ran our questionnaire by one of our attorney members.
C. Divide candidates (if you have enough volunteers) and come up with a list of the necessary contacts. A Google docs database is handy for this, especially when working in a committee. Include phone numbers, email addresses, websites, and if you can get it, campaign manager contacts too.
D. Write an initial contact letter introducing the project and asking the candidate if they would be willing to answer some questions that could better help your membership make an informed voting decision. We felt it better to make an initial contact before hitting them with the hard questions as we didn’t at to scare anyone off in the beginning (plenty of time for that). Here’s the initial emailwe sent to LA judicial contacts.
E. Some of the candidates are not going to answer you. Get ahead of the game and prepare a “nudge” letter to encourage those who don’t answer at first. If you keep sending these you will eventually get more responses. The second listing on this page is an example of an follow up "nudge" email
F. Some candidates will tell you they will participate and answer your questions, but then never actually do so. Prepare another “nudge” letter to encourage those who said they would participate but never actually did. Further down this page, you’ll find an example of ours.
G. It is helpful to have a 3rd request for both of the above scenarios. Every time we sent out another “nudge” we got another response or two (even if it was a response to say they wouldn’t participate). Here’s a link to a 3rd nudge to those who never answered at all. And here’s the link to the 3rd reminder we sent out to those who said they would answer but never did.
H. Decide on a format for how you will present the information you gather. While NORML cannot endorse candidates, we can draw objective opinions based on the data gathered. We formatted our report into things we found promising about the candidate, and things that gave us pause. In addition to the candidates actual answers to our questions (or note of a lack thereof for those did not answer) we also included a summary of their experience and qualifications, major endorsements and whether or not the candidate was an incumbent.
Part II Compile
Once you are organized, it’s time to start putting it all together. Many people can help gather the necessary information. For consistency’s sake it’s probably a good idea to have one person write up the actual report on each candidate, that way the entire project will have a consistent tone or voice when someone reads it.
A. Send out questionnaires, When answers come in, add them into a report on that particular candidate.
B. While you are waiting for answers to come in, gather important data from candidate’s websites such as experience (or lack thereof), important endorsements, stated views on our issues, etc.
C. Write a succinct, easy to read and understand report on each candidate. Keep in mind that internet readers have notoriously short attention spans. It is helpful to format the overall project with jump links so readers can quickly navigate to the information they need rather than having to sift through large blocks of information. Keep in mind that while NORML cannot endorse candidates, we can draw certain conclusions from the candidates’ statements about what we do or do not like in relation to our issue. For examples of what we did, see our Judicial Voter Guide.
Part III Disseminate
Completing a project such as this doesn’t do much good if nobody reads it. You need to share the information you gathered as much as possible in order for it to have an impact.
A. Coordinate with Sabrina Fendrick (Sabrina@norml.org) to get your report posted on the NORML.org site.
B. Once you have a Norml.org URL for your study, send it out to your members so they all have the information.
C. Post, repost, and share the URL on social media sites as much as possible to help get the word out. Encourage all your members to do the same. The study should make the rounds of Facebook and twitter many times in the course of the election.
D. Send out a press release about your report to local media – print, online, radio, and television. You can find contact names, addresses, phone numbers, and emails on the internet for media in your local area. There’s help on how to write a press release on the NORML.org site (they have very specific formats). For a press release that actually did get picked up by several media outlets, take a look at ours.
E. There’s an old saying in the advertising industry” Irritate, irritate, irritate! In other words, the more your message in seen, the greater chance it will have of being read. Keep sharing the social media links. Make comments on relevant internet stories and reference it. Keep sending out press releases. In other words, don’t let your effort go to waste, make sure people see it. We were pleasantly surprised at the number of people who actually did check out our Judicial Education project and who said they voted accordingly. Even though none of our referred candidates actually won, it’s a start!
TASKS TO DIVIDE AND DELEGATE
While you don’t need a lot of people to do this project (we did it with 2), the more volunteers you have, the quicker the work will go.
Candidate Research – Divide the candidates between the volunteers, each person compiles the important information on the candidate such as education, experience, endorsements, etc. This is delivered in an easy to read format to the person who will be writing the actual text that goes into the final report.
Write Summaries – This person or persons (who have some writing skill) takes the information the researchers give them and puts it into a succinct summary report on each candidate.
Write Pros and Cons – This person or persons write the report about things you like and dislike about the given candidates.
Contact Person for Candidates – There needs to be one person in charge who interacts, via email and sometimes via phone, with the candidates and/or their representatives.
Contact Person for the Press – There needs to be one person in charge who interacts with the press, via email and sometimes via phone. There should also be someone in your organization who is comfortable giving interviews about the project – why you did, what you learned, etc. More often this will be for print, but it could also be for radio or television if you get lucky.
Create an html page – If someone in your group has basic html skills you can make Sabrina Fendrick’s job far easier. When we sent out file to added to the NORML.org site it was formatted so all Sabrina has to do was cut and paste code. If nobody in your group has these skills, check with Sabrina on the best way to proceed. (Sabrina@norml.org)
Write Press Release(s) – Again, someone in your group with writing and/or public relations experience will need to create a press release (or you can modify ours to suit your needs).
Follow up on press releases – If you have someone who can follow up on press releases by phone, do so. Al they need to do is call, make sure the release was received, and ask if there is additional information they can provide or questions they can answer. If you can’t get to this step it’s not the end of the world, but you are likely to get more press if you do.
Spearhead Social Media Efforts – This person just keeps the story alive via social media – Facebook, and Twitter, and to a lesser degree Linked In, Pinterest, Stumble Upon, Digg, etc.