Democratic Voter Turnout Effort Ramps Up in Sprint to Election Day

Mi Familia Vota canvasser Alex Robinson helps Phoenix resident Jose Salgado fill out out his ballot
Mi Familia Vota canvasser Alex Robinson helps Phoenix resident Jose Salgado fill out out his ballot Josh Kelety
There was a hint of urgency in the voice of Alex Robinson, an 18-year-old canvasser, as she politely asked Phoenix voters who they plan to vote for and what their voting plan is.

After all, the election is roughly two weeks away and the stakes couldn't be higher. In addition to the polarizing presidential race and the high-profile Arizona Senate race, the number of monumental races and initiatives on Phoenicians' ballots this November is mind-boggling. Come November, marijuana could be legalized in Arizona and a Democrat who says she wants to end the use of cash bail could be elected as Maricopa County Attorney.

"I see here that you have an 'I Voted' pin. Have you already voted?" she asked a man named Richard outside his home in east Phoenix. He was sporting a mask with the words "Vote Early" plastered across the front.

"Oh, yeah, dropped them off and everything," he responded, referring to his and his wife's ballot. "We were excited. We did a happy dance down there, went down to the Recorder’s office. Don't want to mess around."

Robinson asked Richard if he voted for Joe Biden and Mark Kelly, the Democrat challenging Republican Arizona Senator Martha McSally. To both questions, he said, "Absolutely," before thanking Robinson for her work and offering her water.

"An example of an enthusiastic Biden supporter," Robinson said as we walked away. "There have been a lot of very enthusiastic Biden supporters who are really excited to vote and really excited about the prospect of flipping Arizona."

Robinson is a paid canvasser working for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino voter mobilization organization that runs both voter registration and select get-out-the-vote operations for select Democratic candidates and causes. She flew into Phoenix roughly a month ago to pitch in during the run-up to the November election. Maryland is her home state, but it's "pretty blue" as she puts it, so she felt compelled to come to Arizona, a battleground state in this election cycle, during her gap year.

Mi Familia Vota, which means "My Family Votes" in Spanish, is currently in overdrive. After scrambling to get people registered to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, their operation is now sprinting to make sure liberal-leaning voters, and the people they know, actually vote.

"We’re doing this through Election Day," Robinson said, referring to get-out-the-vote efforts. "Every day until then."

Before the pandemic, Mi Familia Vota was registering around 1,400 people every week. As COVID-19 hit the United States in full force in March, the operation moved more into the digital realm after the pandemic, according to Omar Madero, the organization's Arizona field director. While the organization got creative and partnered with Univision to promote a hotline to answer voter registration questions, the estimated weekly number of new voter registrations dropped to around 250.

They came back to the office in September with new COVID-19 safety protocols: Staff were all wearing masks and tried to make up for lost time. The organization resorted to filing a lawsuit to try and get the state's original October 5 deadline for voter registration moved back, saying the pandemic impaired the ability to register new voters. One federal judge sided with them, pushing it back to October 23, only to have another reverse the ruling, setting the new deadline to October 15.

"It's been challenging registering people," Madero said. "But it's a priority registering our community and making their voices heard."

Now, like many political operations in Arizona and around the country, it's a game of maximizing voter turnout for Mi Familia Vota's preferred candidates. As Robinson, the canvasser, describes it, the organization's effort is now targeting previously identified potential Biden voters and undecideds. The organization is formally backing two candidates and one ballot initiative in Arizona: Joe Biden for president, Mark Kelly for Senate, and Proposition 208, the ballot measure that would tax wealthy Arizonans to pay for public education in the state.

Naturally, they're not wasting their time trying to win over Trump's base: "If they say they’re a Trump supporter, we end the script there," Robinson said.

Canvassers like Robinson run through a friendly, yet tactically aggressive list of questions from prewritten scripts to push people to vote for certain Democratic candidates and Proposition 208 as soon as possible — they provide information on the various mail-in and in-person voting options — and to encourage other eligible members of their household to do the same. The questions include, "We’re here encouraging people to support Biden. Do you have any specific concerns about him?"

Canvassers are told to hit around 70 homes per shift, though they might be lucky to catch around 15 people at home when they stop by, Robinson said.

They even go as far as asking voters if they want to fill out a ballot with them, right then and there, on their doorstep. But it's rare for people to agree to do that.

"Basically, if they have already been ID'd, as we say, as Biden supporters, we check that they’re still supporting Biden, can we fill out their ballot together, stuff like that," Robinson said. "Most people, when you ask them to get their ballot and do it with you, it’s usually a 'no'."

But at one house in east Phoenix, Jose Salgado, who was home when Robinson stopped by recently, agreed to come out and have her help in his ballot. He asked her questions about the litany of judges, state house seats, and initiatives on the ballot.

He voted for Democrats up and down the ballot, though he left Proposition 207, which would legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona, blank, stating that he was unsure about it.

"I just don’t want anything to do with Republicans," Salgado said. "Now I can help my wife, and we can just mail [the ballots] later."

"People actually might want help with their ballot," Robinson said. "Maybe it’s their first time doing it."

Another voter told Robinson he was a professor and noted that his students were fired up.

"Last week, I emailed all my students and said ‘deadline has changed’," he said, referring to the battle in the courts over Arizona's voter registration deadline. "But they’re all more psyched up about this election than any other time I’ve been a professor, so that’s a good sign."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety