The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated weaknesses present in democracies across the world. Freedom House reported that the condition of democracy and human rights has worsened in 80 countries, much of it tied to disinformation and a distrust in the national government. In America this can be best illustrated by polarization of the news cycles; a Pew Poll found that 47% of conservatives surveyed used Fox News as their main source of information and are more likely to hear political opinions similar to their own on Facebook. Beyond the data compiled by researchers, issues of ideological and polarizing bubbles can be seen on the ground in one MA State Senate race and ballot question respectively.
For my events in Democratic Participation, I attended a remote phonebanking session for a Democratic State Senator race followed by phonebanking for a state ballot question. Studies have shown that in-person canvassing increases voter turnout by about 7 percentage points because it allows for real, educational, and persuasive conversations. Particularly on more local races the role of a canvasser is often civic education of relevant local, state and national issues. Beyond town-halls held by the candidate themselves, in-person canvassing is the one consistent area for citizens to have a political dialogue; this is especially the case when a list includes unenrolled/independent voters, or concern less partisan matters such as political primaries or ballot questions (such as the one I was working on). Canvassers tend to have information of a potential voter’s age, size of the family, party registration, and even frequency of voting that allow canvassers in order to tailor effective dialogue to them. These in-person conversations allow canvassers to hear concerns from the voter themselves, and report back to the campaign who (scale of the race depending) have the ability to adjust policies to fit the need, just as a democracy should be!
Social distance has forced most campaigns to forgo in-person canvassing in lieu of phonebanking; the same study cited about phonecalls only increased voter-turnout by 2.6 percentage points. Already less personal and less effective, these particular phonebanks made use of a auto-dialer, a system that automatically connects you to answering numbers taken from information on a list to emphasize the speed-in-between calls. This focus on speed and numbers was emphasized in our encouragement speech by the organizers who told us to broadly discuss the values and try not to engage too much with naysayers. For the candidate phonebank, this meant conversations mostly with registered Democrats reminding them to vote and how to do so. The ballot question we were similarly told to explain briefly, and ultimately direct potential voters to the website for greater clarity if we could get them interested enough. An already selective campaign process was becoming less conversational, and more about getting lucky or finding people already engaged on party lines in particular for State Senator.
For the ballot question that is non-partisan, those who answered the phones still tended to do so on partisan lines with some conservatives I called refusing outright because it was endorsed by the Massachusetts Democrats (a case that happened a few times in our phonebanking chat). Even those who supported or were unsure were never on the phone for too long; the autodialer noted that the average length of my phonecalls were about 41.4 seconds in between the hangups, refusals, and those who simply didn’t want to call for long.
While many campaigns are wisely forgoing in-person canvassing in favor of contactless “lit drops” (“lit” standing for campaign literature; postcards, door hangers, etc.) and phone calls to minimize the risk of COVID-19, the decline in conversations and meaningful consumption of news is troubling. In Svolik’s Polarization Versus Democracy observes that “When faced with a choice that pits democratic principles against partisan interests, voters appear to be willing to trade off the former for the latter” in finding that voters were more lenient to candidates with anti-democratic values so as long as those views aligned with their own. Neuroscientists have confirmed that people are more likely to change their political opinions when viewing only conflicting reasons or both sides of an issue, while also finding those whose position on a particular stance did not change their opinion tended to become more confident in their previous assertions, polarization as we might call it. Without meaningful access to alternative information, the ability to converse and share ideas, and the ability to trust information different than your baseline opinion (which in this case is a particular issue with conservatives), the less people are to discuss and be properly informed to defend against democratic erosion. The less conversations the greater the divide occurs, with ultimately the growing majority people who can vote and choose not to. This divide can be seen within parties as well, particularly with Massachusetts which is known for long-term incumbents and stagnant primary elections and it’s still an issue even when a particular state is solidly Democratic or Republican.
There is some hope for our democracy and political canvassers, and that’s the revitalization of digital campaigning. Within the phonebanks I attended, the attitude was positive and communication amongst fellow supporters frequent. Many reporters in campaigns cite the historic victory by Senator Ed Markey in 2018 that relied heavily on relational digital campaigns (including its own Marvel-style political universe titled The MarkeyVerse) lead by youth and completely ditching in person-canvassing. The principles behind meeting voters where they are at with an emphasis on personal and conversational (rather than systematic and quick) methods will prove vital to the survival of candidates/ballot questions and democracy as we know it; a healthy democracy after all is an active citizenship that can both come together across ideological spectrums and be able to question those in power. The issues of distance and communication around COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated the current issues of partisanship within politics, with some creative methods it could be kick-starter towards the greater engagement of the voter-population and a new resistance against a growing, divisive hyper-partisanship.
Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried. “Political Polarization & Media Habits.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, 28 Aug. 2020,
Gerber, Alan S., and Donald P. Green. “The Effects of Canvassing, Telephone Calls, and Direct Mail on Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment.” American Political Science Review, vol. 94, no. 3, 2000, pp. 653–663., doi:10.2307/2585837.
“NEW REPORT: Democracy under Lockdown – The Impact of COVID-19 on Global Freedom.” Freedom House, 2 Oct. 2020, freedomhouse.org/article/new-report-democracy-under-lockdown-impact-covid-19-global-freedom.
Rodrigo, Chris Mills. “’Markeyverse’ of Online Fans Helps Take down a Kennedy.” TheHill, The Hill, 5 Sept. 2020, thehill.com/homenews/campaign/515229-markeyverse-of-online-fans-helps-take-down-a-kennedy.
Stanley, M.L., Henne, P., Yang, B.W. et al. Resistance to Position Change, Motivated Reasoning, and Polarization. Polit Behav 42, 891–913 (2020).
Svolik, Milan W. 2019. “Polarization Versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30(3): pp. 20-32.