THIS ELECTION IS FREAKING ME OUT, WHAT CAN I DO!? (An Introduction to Field Organizing)

Angelina Burnett
Aug 5, 2016 · 16 min read
HFA Volunteer Recruitment Phone Bank, July 2016

You’ve registered to vote. You’ve given money. You’ve read all the articles. You’ve written all the impassioned tweets and Faceposts, and still you’re left with this nagging feeling that it’s not enough.

You’re right. It’s not.

Those of us who know that Trump and everything he stands for must be RESOUNDINGLY REJECTED must do the hard work of advanced citizenship to help insure that he’s not elected.

It’s called organizing and absolutely every single one of us is capable of doing it. No matter your skill, experience, or background, no matter how little time you have to spare. Everyone can do something. If you’re a “Tell me when and where to show up and I’ll do whatever” type, go here. Plug in your zip code, and sign up for an event. Show up, they’ll tell you what to do. You can stop reading now, if you like. But if you’re someone who likes to know what they’re getting into, or maybe you’re a skeptical, or curious sort, then what follows is for you. There’s a lot, and it’ll only scratch the surface, but if you find yourself too deep in the weeds, feel free to skip to the next section.

Hi. I’m Angelina. When I’m not organizing, I write and produce television (which I view as different kind of organizing, but that’s another story for a different day). I was one of those folks who saw a future president when Obama spoke at the DNC in 04. I talked about him to anyone who’d listen, swore I’d quit my job and work for him if he ran. Then he did and I… Didn’t. I signed up to volunteer on his website, but ignored all the calls. Deleted the invitations to trainings and phone banks. The debates were insufferable and the news coverage numbing. The whole endeavor felt cynical. Then he won Iowa, lost New Hampshire and gave that speech… I watched live, jaw agape. Yes We Can. I want to believe, I thought. I want to believe he can do it. I turned to my laptop, pulled up his website and there I saw — “I’m not asking you to believe in my ability to change Washington, DC. I’m asking you to believe in yours.” The next morning I was sitting on the floor of a coffee shop, jam packed with fellow first time volunteers.

I worked 100+ hours a week through most of 08, some of it on staff, much of it volunteer. It was harrowing and satisfying, and by far the most worthwhile thing I’ve yet done with my life. If that statement is still true on my deathbed, I’ll be fine with it. I’ve organized every cycle since, both locally and nationally, plus some policy pushes in between. I’ve made calls, knocked doors, registered voters, cut turf, managed data, picked up pizza, made copies, and staffed merch tables at rallies. I’ve built teams. Designed structures and strategies. Hosted fundraisers and staged media events. I’ve fucked up plenty, done a bunch of things right, and have only just begun to learn how to do this work well. I am passionate about it, and will proselytize whenever I’m given the chance: the power of a well-organized group of committed citizens is some serious shit. Important to note: I have and will continue to volunteer for Secretary Clinton this cycle, but I speak only for myself, and from my past experience. So let’s talk about Field Organizing.


The Primary Goal of a field campaign is to get our voters to the polls. To do that we have to identify our supporters, register and persuade some new ones, and come election day, GET OUT THE VOTE (GOTV). That’s it. Really simple. In the case of our current election, there are more of us (the Obama coalition) than there are of them (fearful, angry white people). If we turn our voters out, we win. So how do we do that? By talking to them.

Dude, I get it. Me either. There’s plenty else for you to do, and I’ll get to that in a bit. Scroll if you must, but this stuff’s important too…

Hold up. If there’s one available in your area, sign up for an organizing meeting/training, the longer the better. The more training you have, the more comfortable and effective your conversations with voters will be, and the deeper your understanding of the campaign’s systems and strategy. If a training isn’t available, or if you can’t fit one into your schedule, don’t fret. There will always be a short training before a canvas, phone bank, or voter registration event. You won’t be sent out into the field unless you’re confident in the task at hand.

Maybe, sometimes. But it’s helpful if you don’t view that as your goal. Your goal is to learn something about them. That might be as straight-forward as, “She has my vote,” or “Never in a million years”. Or it might be that they’re undecided, and as you dig deeper to learn what they care about, you’ll find an opportunity to communicate why you care about electing your candidate. If that conversation convinces them to vote for her, that is a meaningful thing. But if we’re looking down the road at our Primary Goal of getting our voters to the polls (and I’m sure I have a friend in data who will correct my guessed-at-math on this) the fifteen minutes you spent on that conversation, persuading one voter, would have been time equally well spent identifying 15 voters committed to the other guy, who we now never have to waste time talking to again. With every contact, we are refining the universe of voters we need to get to the polls on election day. The “universe” is the entire list of eligible voters through which we’re working. Identifying supporters via calls and knocks whittles the universe down until it’s just supporters come GOTV. The more efficient the voter contact operation, the more times we can pass through the universe. The more passes through the universe, the more accurate it will be by GOTV. Every voter contact is valuable. No matter the outcome.

Effective persuasion always starts with connection. Some folks are naturals, able to listen to and learn from the stranger across the threshold, then share a story of themselves (more on this down below) that connects in a meaningful way. Others can learn to be great at it. These conversations are at the heart of all organizing work (field and movement) and I believe they’re best had in person. That means signing up to CANVASS — knocking on doors, talking to voters at their homes. (For a general election, if you don’t live in a swing state, there likely won’t be any canvasses.) While canvassing is the great way to persuade, it isn’t usually the most efficient way to identify voters. That’s where PHONE BANKS are most useful. If you’re less comfortable with persuasion, you may feel more valuable at a phone bank where you can ID a lot of voters in a short amount of time. IDing is just as important as persuasion. Again: every voter contact is valuable. No matter the outcome. So, go here. Put in your zip code. And sign up for an event.

Oh my friend, not even close. On a national campaign, you’re likely to be working through lists built by a highly sophisticated targeting operation. In a small state, you might be able to build enough volunteer capacity to contact every voter, but more likely, the campaign has to narrow its focus. So someone really smart writes algorithms that give each voter a “score”. The score denotes how likely they are to be a supporter and is used, (along with a few other factors) to “cut” the lists you’re calling through. How do the algorithms determine those scores?

In 08, I shared an office with someone from targeting. He slept two or three hours a night, usually behind my desk, and spent the rest of the time glued to three linked monitors displaying a giant excel spreadsheet. Despite his sleep deprivation, he was always kind enough to put up with my questions about his work, which I still find fascinating. Here’s what (I think) I learned: targeting involves massive amounts of data, from many different sources, reaching way beyond demographics — magazine subscriptions, purchases on your CVS card, “likes” and “shares” on social media. Any data that can be sucked up and linked to a voter gets processed through these algorithms, which themselves are constantly “learning” thanks to the feedback from voter contacts. There’s a bit of alchemy to this. It’s not math alone. Assumptions have to be made and tested. So maybe one day you find yourself calling through a list and near every single voter is a strong supporter for the other side. “What am I doing,” you wonder? “This is such a waste of time.” It’s not. Promise. Chances are, you’re testing an assumption about a block of voters. The data you collect will not only be fed back into the voter database, bumping non-supporters out of our GOTV universe, it will also feed back into the algorithm, ensuring the voter scores are more accurate. Once more with feeling: Every voter contact is valuable. No matter the outcome.

Nope. You’re registering anyone who can legally vote (and wants to be registered). Democracy! You’ll likely be wearing a shirt or pin to identify yourself as a volunteer for your candidate, so I wouldn’t worry too much about helping the opposing side. Sometimes voter reg happens at an event of its own: organizers set up a table at a post office, park, or shopping center-type spot, then check in with folks walking by about their registration. Other times it happens in conjunction with a canvass. But any organizer worth her salt will have a stack of voter reg forms at the ready. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.

Hi. I like you. And we’re gonna get into all sorts of shit in a sec, but first let me loop back in…

SERIOUSLY I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO STRANGERS. HOW CAN I HELP? Right. Now that we’re all here. There are all sorts of ways to contribute that don’t involve voter contact: entering or managing data, organizing walk and call packets, coordinating events, staffing phone banks, hosting grassroots fundraisers, providing food, helping set up and keep organized a field office or staging location, plus plenty more things specific to you and your community that I wouldn’t know about. But in order to do any of it, you’ll want to join a team.

Go here. Put in your zip code. Sign up for an event. If you’ve signed up for a training, you’ll be placed on a team by the end. If you go straight to a voter contact event, make sure to connect with the organizers, ask what their needs are, let them know how much time you have to give, and what skills you have to offer. They’ll find a role for you.

I’m really glad you asked this. Border State/OOS (out of state) was my department in 08 and 12 and I’m a big ol’ nerd about it. If you’ve got friends or family in a swing state (Battleground/Targeted State, in campaign parlance) by all means, go talk to voters in their community. But the campaign will determine where each “Non-Targeted” state’s volunteers should go, and it’s always best to stick with the campaign’s strategy. You won’t have to ask, once you’re hooked in with a team, you’ll be told which battleground state you’re targeting.


Canvassing and registering voters. Talking to people, in person. I say this with love, gratitude, and respect: if you prefer phone banking, please stay home and phone bank.

Every campaign handles travel differently. Sometimes it’s left up to local teams and democratic clubs to organize carpools and buses. Other times, the campaign takes on a more official role, renting vans and such. Your team will be able to connect you one way or another. If you need a place to stay, the campaign will facilitate “Supporter Housing”. This could be anything from a couch to a guest room in the home of a local volunteer.

I WANT TO DRIVE VOTERS TO THE POLLS. HOW DOES THAT WORK? That’s awesome and generous of you, and if that’s really all you want to do, Warren Buffett’s being a mensch and organizing it this year. You can go sign up over at his place. But I’m gonna be honest with you — it is not only the most volunteered for job (every GE cycle, we have more drivers than we need), it is also the least impactful, most inefficient use of your time. If you only have a few hours on election day to volunteer, please, MAKE CALLS.

Look, you can do whatever you like. It’s a free country, at least until January 20th, 2017. But think of field organizing like rowing. Your team only hits top speed if everyone’s sitting in their assigned spot, rowing in time. RESPECT THE STRUCTURE, TRUST THE PLAN. That’s not to say you shouldn’t work to make the structure stronger and the execution more efficient. You should, whenever possible. But when it comes to marching orders from above: RESPECT THE STRUCTURE, TRUST THE PLAN.

This work — voter contact — has been proven in study after study to be effective. One of the most recent suggests a robust GOTV operation can account for up to a 7 point improvement on polls. But it’s not always going to feel like that. The closer you get to election day, the more people will angrily tell you, “If I get one more call/knock, I’m not voting!” They’re lying. I promise. Still skeptical? I’ll offer this: In Nevada 08, final polls had us anywhere from tied with McCain, to up by 3 pts. On election day, we passed through our GOTV universe four times. That means every supporter we identified in the entire state was “touched” by a campaign representative four times. We won by 12 points. A dear friend of mine was the organizer in Carson City, which hadn’t voted for a Democrat since 1964. Barack won Carson by 203 votes. THAT is the power of a well organized field campaign.


So if you haven’t already, go here, put in your zip, pick an event and sign up for it.

Oh my gosh, so much. Seriously, I could go on all day about this stuff. But here’re just a few tips and insights you might find useful and/or interesting: Stories are more powerful than stats. If you can make people feel, you can make them act. And one of the quickest ways to touch someone’s heart is through a good story, well told. This is where training comes in, and why you should seek out as much of it as possible. The Obama/Organizing for America (OFA) training program was developed by Marshall Ganz, who came up under Cesar Chavez, organizing the UFW. He’s now a professor at the Harvard School of Government and has all sorts of lectures and resources on line. If this stuff interests you, he’s well worth a deep dive. But to sum up (and oversimplify): Ganz’s model starts with a Story of Self (why am I here?), building to a Story of Us (here’s how we’re connected, and why we matter), concluding with a Story of Now (here’s what we can do together to make change). Go back and watch Obama’s 04 DNC speech, or his 08 NH concession speech, or his most recent speech in support of HRC at the DNC, and see if you can tease out this structure. Of course, you’ll be speaking to individuals, not an entire nation, but those speeches are worth studying as you develop your own stories to tell.

Respect. Empower. Include. This was the internal motto on the Obama campaign but deserves to be standard for all organizing efforts. It can be harder than it sounds, especially when you’re sleep deprived and malnourished. But it’s worth striving for, every day. And not just because it’s the right way to treat people, which it is, but because a team built on these principles is guaranteed to be a highly effective and efficient one.

Your impact is exponential. Organizing is a pyramid scheme where everyone wins. The more people you bring into the process, the more power you build for the entire team. This was first made clear to me right before the CA primary in 08. I’d built a team of 52 precinct captains, each responsible for getting voters in their neighborhoods to the polls. (For the record, that’s a stupid amount of turf for one organizer and was a function both of the size of our state, and the fact that our operation was entirely volunteer driven, with only one paid staffer in CA.) One day, when I was especially exhausted, my volunteer leader told me to do the math. My captains had, on average, 200 voters in each of their precincts. And there were 52 of them. This meant that my work was responsible for 10,000 voters, most of whom were strong Obama supporters. The realization stunned me silent. If you find yourself frustrated or overwhelmed by the work of organizing, take a quick moment to pause and do the math. Your impact is exponential.

Always finish your packet. This is less of a hard and fast rule on the phones. There’s always another phone banker you can hand your left over sheet to. Canvassing is a different story. Someone spent a lot of time cutting up turf into walkable, meaningful chunks, and when you return with only half of your packet completed, it screws up the process, making it less efficient. So finish your walk packet. Every time. To give you a sense of the sort of commitment that wins elections: In 2012, I had plans to spend GOTV in Akron, OH with some close friends from 08. Because of work, I had to arrive a day later than the rest of our crew. At the end of their first shift on the doors, I received a text: a photo of a pile of dark fabric in the middle of a hardwood floor. “What am I looking at?” I wrote back. “Jon’s pee soaked underwear in the middle of my living room,” came the reply. Back in NV, we called Jon “The Reign of Terror”. He was the organizer in Carson City, who flipped it blue for the first time since ’64, winning it by 203 votes. I didn’t need to hear the story to know what had happened. I knew why Jon’s pee soaked undies were in the middle of our friend’s floor. He had decided to finish his walk packet, rather than find a bathroom. For me and the crew, the 4 days leading up to the election will forever be known as GOTP.

Make sure your data is clean and clear. The conversations you have with voters will be recorded on walk and call sheets. Next to the voter’s information are lots of tiny boxes for multiple questions. You’ll receive a thorough explanation as part of your training, but remember, someone who is not you, and likely won’t know you, is going to have to get the data you’ve collected into the VAN (more on that in a sec). So if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. And if the data entry volunteers can’t tell which box you’ve marked, or if you’ve scrawled illegible notes, it’s going to slow them down and lead to errors. This means your work has less value. Data is precious, treat it that way.

Learn to love the VAN. The system that holds all the voter and volunteer information is known as VAN (Voter Activation Network). Inside it are two databases: Votebuilder (where your voters live) and MyCampaign (where your vols live). It is a confounding and powerful tool but once you learn it’s magical ways, you’ll feel like you can fly. Ok, I’m over stating it some. It’ll crash on you, boot you out, and make you come up with a new password at the worst possible moment. It’ll make you wanna smash your laptop. It’s a beast, but it’s our beast. And we’re lost without it. (I should note, I haven’t been in the VAN since ’12 so it very well may be a whole new world of bug-less sunshine. Here’s hoping.)

Say thank you. To everyone. Constantly. Have fun. As the great Molly Ivins once wrote, “The thing is this: You got to have fun while you’re fightin’ for freedom, ’cause you don’t always win.”

We can win this election, together. But winning is not enough this time. This moment is bigger than candidates or political parties. This is an opportunity for the nation to define and affirm who we are and what we stand for. The defeat of Donald Trump and his ideology must be resounding and undeniable. Hillary Clinton requires a mandate if she is to govern in the wake of all Trump has unleashed.

We can do that, together. We can stand up, arm in arm, and declare loudly and with love that our story is one of hope. We can make clear to the world that we are a nation constantly striving to be our best selves. And even when we fall short, we keep pushing forward. Together. Women and men. No matter the melanin. Not red America. Not blue America. The United States of America.

Together, we can become a better version of ourselves, and we do that through organizing. It will be fun. It will be rewarding. It will be joyful. It will change your life and the country for the better. And if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find the best of friends. I hope you’ll join us on the front lines.


Angelina Burnett

Written by

Writer (Halt and Catch Fire, Hannibal, Boss, The Americans). Organizer.