Calling On A Stranger: Phone Banking 101

Calling On A Stranger: Phone Banking 101

Phone Banking
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Already voted? Looking for a way to help out this election season? In this post (written by Hayley Wood), you'll learn all about phone banking & discover some last minute phone banking volunteer opportunities.

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Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a list of phone banking opportunities that you can participate in during these final few days of the eleciton.

This personal essay was written by Hayley Wood, a local beekeeper & urban farmer, as well as a contributor for The Austin Common. You can poke around her Instagram @heyhayleywood; she’ll probably poke back.

How is your social media feed doing? Have things been, well, complicated? You can be honest. Since late May, nearly every time you open up Instagram, you get that…that tingly feeling. That unscratchable itch of overdue change–scrolling through the endless resources, the literature, the steps for action, and the fire under your butt is sweltering. I’m stuck here, too. 


I was steady to do my research, sign petitions, follow out-of-state elections, cling to my mask at all times–to do what I could from where I was. So why didn’t it feel like enough?  


After attending multiple protests in June, the lingering stress of near-encounters with COVID-19 left me scrambling for solutions that wouldn’t risk myself or others to exposure. Consequently, the choice to participate strictly in socially-distant activism still leaves me circling back to the question of how to engage my community beyond an Instagram story. 


Unsurprisingly, the answer was no further than my palm: digital canvassing through phone banking. And because of its remote procedure, I want to tell you why it is perhaps our greatest mobilizing tool to actively engage with politics in 2020. 


What is phone banking? (Stay inside to get out the vote)

In early March of 2020, or the before times, I completed my first door-to-door canvas (walking door to door, clipboard in hand, encouraging voters) in a group of 180+ DSA members and passionate Austinites ready to spread the word on the 25th Congressional District. Greeting strangers at their door stirred feelings of fluctuating anxiety, utter confidence, and sometimes paralyzing nervousness. Discomfort aside, each doorway conversation is a course of action designed to establish a personal connection.  


During that month, I joined my first group phone bank for a presidential candidate, and boy, did I hate it! 


Phone banking is essentially a form of remote digital canvassing designed to reach registered voters and give them information for an upcoming election. Instead of knocking on a door, you have a dial-up system. Instead of a clipboard and canvas partner, you have a digital script to help you manage conversations. 


One evening, I begrudgingly joined my group of friends to phone bank for the Texas general primary back in March. Bursting at the seams with nerves, I could tell my friends were alarmingly experienced, each speaking with a tone of confidence and vigor that felt uniquely foreign to me. I carefully eavesdropped into each conversation, took mental notes of their formal phone voices and used it to set forth my own persuasion strategies. 


And if you recall your first phone banking session, like me, you probably have wartime-like flashbacks to your first dialer screen or sitting for 2-3 hours wondering if any of your efforts were making a difference to the people willing to answer. In a word: the first time can suck! There may never come an opportunity for you to bust into your campaign spiel; your job is to be a chameleon of information and to shift your appeal to each caller.


When I took the step to try a new way of mobilizing, I knew it would place me out of my comfort zone. Sometimes you need to be nudged out of the nest of familiarity, but it doesn’t hurt to have friends around to catch you. Ultimately, this experience was the primary reason I continue to do phone banking and try to influence others to try their hand at it. 


How do you find phone banking opportunities? 

Since 2020 started, I’ve engaged in several phone banking sessions for both local and out-of-state elections. It takes just a few Google searches to scope out potential phone banking opportunities. Start with the issues you care about most, whether that be the environment, public housing, health care, or any relevant political issue. Grassroots movements are adamant about sharing opportunities through Facebook Events or other platforms. Make the search bar your new best friend.


After the climate strikes in 2019, I began following the youth-led Sunrise Movement, a political action organization advocating for a Green New Deal and climate change policy. Sunrise has been a consistent feature of my daily media intake, a familiar friend to my inbox, and the driving force that encourages me to tune in, read on, and get out. 


Each week they greet my inbox with ample opportunities to support sustainability-championing candidates around the U.S. and the Green New Deal. By dedicating the time it takes to watch a movie or a few episodes of a show, I can reach dozens of voters across the country. 


Okay, so how do you actually do it?

The thing about phone banking is that it sounds easy on paper when in reality, you’re pitching a sale for party politics. Messing up is bound to happen. You have to work against yourself to sound natural on a script while juggling the unknown, which could be any number of questions coming from either angry or well-intentioned voters. As a reminder to myself, I prioritize three standards: 


1. Don’t take it personally:  A lot of phone banking is waiting for someone to pick up. Sometimes minutes will go by with unanswered calls or picking short conversations with registered voters who have already voted and who are uninterested in your candidate and who will ask you, “can you please leave me alone,” or “yes, I’ve already voted.” 


2. Offer resources and information: Under any circumstance, your primary goal is to offer information such as their nearest polling location, who is running, and why particular platforms matter. If you work through an organization as I did with the Sunrise Movement, they will provide you campaign tools and scripts to help with calls. 


3. Record Data: After each call, record data about your caller. The dialer system will ask you if they answered, if they considered voting, or if they need to be removed from the call list. This  task is just as important as introducing your candidate and will help support campaign data. 


Tales from a phone-banker 

During my last phone bank session, despite my best efforts to prepare, the first few calls were rusty after months of inactivity. What you get on the other end of the line is unpredictable. And I do mean what. During a banking session last month, I had the thrilling experience of talking to a bot for nearly three minutes. Of course, this coincided with getting accused of communism, facing questions I didn’t have the answer to, and a rare occasion of bonding with a stranger.


As I eased into numerous conversations, I found my script started to naturally shift and form into something that felt natural and genuine. There became a point where I stopped letting rejection fuel my fear of engaging, and my three standards finally took priority. 


One of my most memorable calls came toward the end of my shift. A woman hesitantly answered the phone with a terse tone and mentioned she was putting her child to rest. I approached her gently and provided her enough space to engage in the conversation at her discretion. 


To my surprise, she was extraordinarily curious and open to discussion about her desires for the upcoming election. As I discussed my candidate’s platform points and the urgency of climate policy, she said “well, my husband actually works in oil…”  (*GULP*)


Surprisingly, this aspect of her life became an anchor point in our conversation instead of a source of friction. In her perspective, oil was both the means to her stable income and the demise of her community; in fact, she was tired of her state’s lack of political support around climate change. As an undecided voter, our eight-minute conversation swayed through compromise, difference, fears, and the efficacy of environmental policy in the reality of the climate crisis. From a pair of strangers who stood on uneven ground through a telephone line, the dichotomy between her support for environmental change and her occupational dependence on the fossil fuel industry was the connective tissue that made our interaction intimately personal. 


Although we remain deep in the belly of the pandemic, strangerhood still plays an integral role in reminding us of our longing for interconnection. Despite the usual hang-ups, the bots, and the trolls, I observed that more voters were willing to talk, share their grievances, or inquire about their local election. There was a willingness to listen, which I didn’t encounter in online spaces. Compared to door-to-door and face-to-face strategies, phone banking is not your usual get-out-the-vote strategy. However, for 2020 it’s the most accessible option for political action without compromising your health.


When you find yourself questioning your ability to make a difference, remember: don’t agonize, organize. 


Summary: Key components for your first bank

  • Get access to a phone and computer.

  • Find an issue or candidate to support

    • Search for Facebook events that include local phone banking 

    • Try a simple search of “phone banking” + an issue you care about 

    • Seek phone banking opportunities directly with a candidate

    • Search the elections in your county, state, or neighboring states for opportunities

  • Get to know your candidate.

    • If you’re working through an organization, locate platform “cheat sheets” to get condensed information on your candidate.

    • Visit your candidate’s website for crucial platform points. Check out pieces of legislation they support.

  • Don’t do it alone! Phone bank with your neighbors, roommates, or friends (at a safe distance) 

  • Make an event with your friends over Zoom to phone bank (this is great for first-time callers) or

  • Make calls from the comfort of your bed

  • Don’t take it personally

    • Each call will be completely different each time you dial up, each conversation will be a learning lesson for the next. 

    • You never know who will be on the receiving end, use the script to inform your voter and help them 


Last minute phone-banking opportunities:

Currently, there are remote opportunities to phone bank for out-of-state elections, the general election, and local elections, in Austin. Find a candidate or topic you’re passionate about and engage with local city election guides that align with your values.

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