A Young Activists Guide to Surviving Election Season

sharon smith young activists guide photo

Photo credit: Sharon Smith
This guest post was written by Sharon Smith, author of The Young Activist's Guide to Building a Green Movement.
Operating through political channels isn't a panacea for solving all of our environmental challenges, but it's certainly a critical part of the package. If you are frustrated with how your political system has failed to address the needs of the general public, you're not alone.

Many youth are tired of a system polluted by dirty money, election fraud, and corporate lobbyists. But keep your chin up! According to Rock the Vote, there are forty-four million potential young voters (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) in the United States—making up more than one-fifth of the electorate.Youth have enormous collective power to elect officials that represent our positions—and to hold officials accountable to advancing an environmental agenda that resonates with our demographic. Together we can become a dominant political force to reshape American politics and advance a strong environmental agenda.

Ariana Katovich offers a compelling example of this latent power. Katovich co-founded the Shoreline Preservation Fund, a program that uses a small portion of University of California, Santa Barbara student fees to fund dozens of community projects. The success of this and other projects eventually led her to the position of Director of Restoration Initiatives at Earth Island.

Ariana Katovich's Guide to Turning Out Voters and Getting Elected

Know the Issues! I talked to people on "my" side and the "other" side, read the board minutes of the Park and Recreation District, attended board meetings, went on site visits, and started taking notes on improvements I could make to our current system.

Build Coalitions
I built coalitions with the larger campaigns at that time, including campaigns for county supervisor, assembly members, and Congress, and walked door-to-door with them. We had a combined ticket, which helped increase my exposure. My volunteers walked for them and their volunteers walked for me. The larger campaigns have more resources, but local campaigns have a lot of grassroots energy. The large and local can work wonders together!

Seek Endorsements
I had local celebrities, newspapers, campus groups, and organizations endorse my candidacy.

I wrote letters to my family, friends, and organizations. Make sure you have enough money to host events, print your flyers, and buy your volunteers pizza. Lots of people also have talents they can share for free or at a very low cost if they believe in your work. Network and be open to using people's pro bono services!

Make Awesome Signs
My voting demographic was college students and Democratic voters. I had my signs silkscreened by a great artist; people loved them and put them up in their windows, on their refrigerators, and on their walls. In addition, students love "guerilla marketing"--marketing based on creativity and energy, rather than the big bucks. People just don't trust the slick glossy yard signs. My volunteers hand-painted signs and put them up everywhere. I also painted big wooden sandwich board-style signs and chained them wherever it was allowed.

Debate on the Issues
Prepare yourself for debate, and practice your talking points out loud, over and over again. Ask friends to quiz you. My strategy was to be better educated on the issues than my opponents. Any time you attend public events, dress nicely.

Treat Your Volunteers Like Gold
I called potential volunteers myself, asking them to volunteer and thanking them for their help. Aside from saying "thanks" (a lot), make sure they have food, drink, and music while they work. Your volunteers should be clear on who you are and what you stand for, so if they represent you, they know what to say and have an understanding of your good intentions. Then set up lot of phone banks in advance of Election Day and call every potential voter to remind them to get out to the polls. If your state relies heavily on voting by mail, make sure you are reaching out to potential voters far in advance of Election Day.

Register Those Voters While You Can!
We blasted music, set up tables all over campus, and even worked with the residence halls to do a nonpartisan GOTV drive. When the freshmen moved into the dorms, we worked with each residence hall to send volunteers to the orientation meeting each floor had with their residence assistant and passed out GOTV forms.

Class Talks
Although you can't go into each class and say "vote for me," with the blessings of the professors you can pass out voter registration cards. We made transparencies of a correctly filled-out form, passed out the forms to the big lecture halls, and walked people through the registration process.

Throw a Concert
How do you get your voters together? Show them a good time! I used my campaign funds to hire local bands and rent the amphitheater, and three thousand people attended. It was fun and great publicity for my campaign.

Letters to the Editor
Some say the letters to the editor section is one of the most-read sections of the paper. Aside from getting the papers to endorse you, ask your volunteers and supporters to write a short letter about why they are voting for you. We also had people submit cartoons to keep the message fresh, new, and interesting!

On Election Day, Be Prepared to Not Sleep
Gather your volunteers early. Show them the battle plan, give them a huge breakfast, and send them to walk (and rewalk) their section of the neighborhood, getting people out to vote. We had a "Go Vote" parade, drove around with megaphones in cars and on bikes, had a rally on campus, and even had our dogs wear our campaign T-shirts!

Give Away Prizes for Voting
We partnered with the local burrito shop to give a free burrito to anyone with a voting stub, regardless of political affiliation.

Election Party
Get ready to celebrate your hard work (and, you hope, victory) and make sure every volunteer who has ever worked on your campaign knows where it is happening!

"Build coalitions. Larger campaigns have more resources, but LOCAL CAMPAIGNS have a lot of GRASSROOTS ENERGY!"—Ariana Katovich

This guest post was written by Sharon Smith, author of The Young Activist's Guide to Building a Green Movement.
Read more about youth activism:
How One Kid is Combating Climate Change
US Capitol to Receive a Powerful Infusion of Young Energy
Thousands of College Students Converge on Washington, D.C. to Lobby Against Climate Change

A Young Activists Guide to Surviving Election Season
Photo credit: Sharon Smith This guest post was written by Sharon Smith, author of The Young Activist's Guide to Building a Green Movement. Operating through political channels isn't a panacea for solving all of our environmental challenges, but it's

Related Content on Treehugger.com