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Every weekday just before 6 p.m. in Iowa, 20-year-old Democratic party organizer Pilar McDonald logs onto a Zoom call and awaits the arrival of her phone-banking volunteers. For the next three hours, she helps anywhere from seven to 15 callers — many of them grandparents — troubleshoot their microphones and calling software. She answers questions in the chat, leads technical trainings and keeps a watchful eye as each little block on her screen gets to work.
When it's time to make calls, McDonald's volunteers mute themselves, turn down their computer mics and dial their phones while sitting in front of their screens, often for hours at a time. McDonald stays on as moral and technical support; the volunteers use the Zoom chat or breakout rooms to ask for help and catch up between calls. "It always poses a bit of difficulty, because sometimes I need to tell someone something and their volume is down," McDonald said, laughing. She also uses the time to make her own calls, when she can, because her bosses expect their organizers to make around 200 recruiting calls a day.
In previous years, canvassing was more of a physical activity. Someone like McDonald would lead groups of volunteers across the town of Davenport, knocking on doors until their voices gave out. Get out the vote campaigns didn't usually depend on phone banking the way they do this year, and, when they did, the calls would often be made at a staging area with crowds of people and snacks — both more energizing than sitting at home, alone, on Zoom.
Now, McDonald is one of thousands of 20-somethings wrangling hourslong Zoom calls every night across the country, helping tens of thousands of volunteers get out the vote. The stakes are high, McDonald said — for the first time in decades, Iowa is home to the most closely contested Senate race in the country, as Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield attempts to oust incumbent Republican Joni Ernst in a race that could flip the Senate.
The DNC and Democratic organizers have long been lambasted for their comparatively poor tech capabilities, and 2020 has been more of the same. Many Republicans continue to door-knock despite the pandemic, and while some Republicans are phone-banking as well, coronavirus has motivated an important technological development that's been missing for Democrats: a Zoom-based network that organizers told me will last well beyond 2020.
This weekend, just nine days before the general election, thousands of Zoom phone-banking sessions will take place across the country as the get-out-the-vote push ramps up. Nearly 200 of those will be hosted by organizers from SwingLeft, the group that helped Democratic volunteers knock on more than 5 million doors in 2018. SwingLeft made a major pivot this year from in-person canvassing to Zoom parties, and Matt Caffrey, an organizing director there, said many of its organizers now work with the Biden campaign and other Democratic groups to train volunteers in sessions like "Phone-banking for newbies" and "Phone-banking for introverts."
Letter-writing and phone-banking all happen over Zoom now.Photo: SwingLeft
It's exhausting work, and not in the wear-out-the-soles-of-your-shoes kind of way. For the first time, pounding the pavement couldn't be less important. Now a different kind of mental and emotional strength is required: a screen time endurance mentality. "Nationally, globally, we're all feeling the being worn down aspect. I definitely am exhausted by the end of the day and just want to close my eyes," McDonald said. And it's not just the screen time that makes it so much more tiring. Because there's no physical canvassing to be done, the total number of calls has grown exponentially.
"Even if staring at Zoom for yet another hour doesn't feel good, it's worth it," Caffrey said. He spent 90 minutes answering nonstop questions on a Zoom chat this week, which he called "obviously wearisome," but he appeared upbeat on our Zoom call, despite the mental strain.
His team of organizers have found ways to cope, buying blue-light-blocking glasses and taking whatever time they need to recharge. "If you can kind of allow the technology to be abstracted away and just focus on the conversations you're having, it can be rewarding," Caffrey explained.
McDonald agreed. Hosting more than 20 hours of Zoom sessions a week wears her out, but she still loves her work. And Susan Bryant, a 68-year-old volunteer who has worked with a group called the Eastside Dems in Iowa City for the last eight years, feels the same.
Susan Bryant's Facebook group found another way to entice virtual phone-bankers: cookies.Image: Susan Bryant and Facebook
Learning the technology has been an adjustment for someone her age, she said, and it's been equally tough on almost all of their older volunteers. Bryant also misses the energy she found from meeting in person; it's much more difficult to fight the screen-time malaise without human contact. "And after two pretty much solid days of being on Zoom and doing politics, it's tiring. But it's tiring anyway, and it's something that is so important that we need to do it," she explained.
Despite the draining effect, Zoom phone-banking has some major upsides that organizers said will last far past 2020. Because no one expects in-person meetings, letter writing and phone banking are suddenly much easier for a broad range of interested voters. People who have trouble walking or driving don't have to leave their homes. Zoom sessions can be designed for the deaf or hard of hearing. New parents — like Caffrey and his wife — can take turns making calls, rather than having to stay home with the baby.
It's also dramatically changed the way campaigns think about themselves and their volunteers. Though some of the more enthusiastic organizers would fly across the country to canvas in previous elections, this time volunteers can join a phone-banking session in New York City and call voters in Iowa. SwingLeft's sessions have been especially focused on major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where enthused volunteers can call voters in all of the major battleground states.
And while the Eastside Dems would normally have canvassed in a couple of Iowa precincts, now they can easily make calls across multiple counties. This work might have been possible before, but it took the switch to Zoom for organizers to make it happen, which Caffrey called "building organizing muscle."
Phone-banking over Zoom is also much more efficient than an in-person party, where trainings and chatter can take up most of the time. With breakout rooms and a mute button, Bryant explained, making a bunch of phone calls and sorting out technical issues is actually easier — though definitely less fun — than an in-person session would be.
McDonald, who took this year off from college, recently moved to Maine with two of her friends and now hosts phone-banks late into the night because of the time difference. "I was supposed to be in school right now. I'm tired, but I think it's been a super cool opportunity," she said.
Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.