How COVID-19 has changed voting, from drive-in rallies to mail-in ballot tracking

Black Lives Matter activists, gun safety advocates, and candidates are engaging voters in inventive new ways this election.

How COVID-19 has changed voting, from drive-in rallies to mail-in ballot tracking
[Source Photos: ad/iStock, NSNPhoto/iStock]

For our Shape of Tomorrow series, Fast Company is asking business and nonprofit leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their work. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.


Patrisse Cullors is an artist and activist, and one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter, a global organization dedicated to ending white supremacy and state and vigilante violence against Black people. The group recently launched its first get-out-the-vote campaign.

This is the first time that the Black Lives Matter organization is using our resources to focus on direct voter engagement. We did not do that in 2016. We did a lot of disruption, which I thought was incredible and necessary. We were challenging the Democratic candidates, in particular, to show up for Black lives. We, historically, disrupted speeches. We weren’t interested in sitting down and meeting with candidates. We wanted them to do better by us.

But I do think [those early efforts] created a different kind of conversation around racial justice and gender justice in the elections. This time around, we are focusing directly on Black voters. We are taking the time to remind Black voters why our vote is so important, and to remind Black voters how necessary it is to get to the polls, and to remind Black voters our vote is being consistently suppressed and depressed, and there’s a reason for that.


I think many of us, especially inside of our movement, didn’t realize how to use digital tools for direct voter engagement until Russian bots did it. We didn’t realize that we were being used as a pawn.

Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matter

Unfortunately, I think many of us, especially inside of our movement, didn’t realize how to use digital tools for direct voter engagement until Russian bots did it. And they did it really well in 2016. We didn’t realize that we were being used as a pawn. So we are now using those same tools, but for good: to really engage voters in a way that doesn’t confuse them, but gives them more clarity about what’s happening.

We are also working on getting out the vote through the drive-in [events]. We did our first drive-in in L.A., at the Shrine, and we will do three more across the country before November 3. We’re going to Atlanta, Michigan, and doing another in L.A.

It’s a really beautiful experience . . . a really fun, celebratory experience. Voting can feel like, that’s what older people do. So we try to make the get-out-the-vote experience youthful. There’s a set of short films that play: a Malcolm X short film and the BREATHE Act commercial [supporting police reform]. I did a very specific call to action for California voters, teaching them about the mail-in process. It’s not an intuitive process, so we walk people through it and also remind them to check for the people who are older or disabled, who may need your support when it comes to dropping off their mail-in ballot. We encourage people to stay in their cars [at the event]. But going out somewhere with a group of people, even if it’s in your cars, still feels like a community experience. 


Right after the 2020 elections, we have to start working toward the midterm elections. But I listen to Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Fauci says it doesn’t look like we will be out of the woods [for COVID-19] anytime soon. It looks like we will be quarantining, sheltering in place, no big crowds until the end of 2021. So, I believe that the drive-in experience is going to be something that we really home in on as a way to reach voters—and we’ll have more time to go across the entire country, state by state, especially the states that are most vulnerable.

Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement with chapters in every state that fights for public safety measures to combat gun violence. Now part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun safety group in the country, the organization is working on get-out-the-vote campaigns and ensuring the integrity of the election through a new initiative, Democracy Demands Action.

I started Moms Demand Action as a Facebook page in 2012. And it was like lightning in a bottle. We started by creating a Facebook page for every state chapter. The other thing we did was invest heavily in state-of-the-art technology that most companies and organizations give only to their leadership, but that we gave to every single volunteer. As a result, we are just as tech-savvy as many for-profit companies, even though we’re a nonprofit. And we train our volunteers on every tech tool they need. So when [COVID-19 hit], we were able to meet the moment . . . [and] thrive in a virtual environment.


We realized very quickly that we can do what we’ve been doing, which is to be grassroots activists, online. And in fact, this technology will enable us to be even more inclusive and equitable. There is no going back to the way we were doing things before. This online virtual work will be a component of what we’re doing, no matter what.

Most of [our volunteers] already had Zoom accounts through our organization. We use a text program called Hustle, which enables people to reach out to their peer groups, and then get the word out about actions that can be taken from home. Our volunteers are even on Slack. They each have a channel for their state and for their chapter role. We’re organized as you would assume a group of mothers would be—very type A and efficient. 

This online virtual [activism] work will be a component of what we’re doing, no matter what.

Shannon Watts, Moms Demand Action

We have stories of how we’ve won, even during a pandemic. In Virginia, our volunteers have been advocating for local ordinances that would prohibit open carry into city-owned or -operated parks or buildings. They’re showing up either in person, wearing masks, or online, to testify in favor of these ordinances, and they’re also driving calls and emails to local officials. The Fairfax [County, Virginia] hearing was 10 hours; our volunteers were online and offline, testifying—and we won that. We also won a two-year campaign to defeat permitless carry in Tennessee. We had a virtual town hall to discuss the legislation, engaged business leaders and faith leaders online, and, ultimately, they voted against it.


Andy Bernstein is the executive director of HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization that, in normal years, holds voter registration drives at live music concerts.

We’re best-known for being at concerts: the Ariana Grande tour, the Billie Eilish tour, Dead & Company. We were going to be out with Green Day this summer. So when the pandemic hit, there were people who thought we would just close up shop. It was quite the opposite: We’ve had our best year ever. We’ve passed 400,000 voters registered. The most we had ever done in a cycle before was 164,000. We’re now closing in on a million voter registrations [altogether].

There was one thing we did that changed the game. We had an idea: What if people could [win a chance to] Zoom with an artist? But the way you enter [the sweepstakes] is to check your registration status. That idea started in late March. Six months later, we’ve done over 100 of these contests, and they have driven the lion’s share of growth. And then we did some with physical prizes. The biggest was [YouTuber] David Dobrik [giving away] five Teslas. We registered 120,000 people through it, and we had another 320,000 people check their status. It all started with a technology hack: We took existing software from a company called Phone2Action, and we worked with them and our developers to turn it into a contest platform.


Gen Z is finding its own leaders and influencers, and it’s our job to help those leaders get their followers out to vote.

Andy Bernstein, HeadCount

The David Dobrik one just knocked it out of the park. He’s wildly popular with young voters and people who’ve never registered to vote before. The Dobrik contest is part of a campaign called #GoodToVote. The other ones were celebrities saying they would do something funny if enough people registered to vote. [We] had Mean Girls do a reunion, and had Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern act out a Jurassic Park scene where they changed roles.

Seeing the success of Dobrik and other YouTube personalities reinforced something we knew: that for young people today, there’s probably no one more influential than YouTube content creators. We’re still going to lean into our relationships with Ariana Grande, Dead & Company, and artists like that. That’s always going to be our first choice. But we also recognize that young people aren’t just taking their cues from musicians. It’s very clear to us that David Dobrik has more pull with young people in America than anyone else alive. Period. To people who may be reading this and saying, who is David Dobrik?—ask your kids! They know. Gen Z has their own set of leaders that were not delivered to them by mass media, who were not delivered to them by record companies. Gen Z is finding its own leaders and influencers, and it’s our job to help those leaders get their followers out to vote.

Seth Flaxman is the CEO of Democracy Works, a software-based company that builds tech solutions to help people vote more easily. Its tools include TurboVote, which simplifies complex election processes for voters, and Ballot Scout, a tracking service for mail-in ballots.


I started Democracy Works 10 years ago because I knew that our democracy needed this new type of institution to reach voters online with trusted information. But this year, everything is accelerating. Every trend that is pushing voters to find information online grew real fast. And at the same time, we then had to adapt all of our tools to the rapidly changing information that was being thrown at them. 

The first thing that has changed is just the scale [of the operation]. The second thing that’s changed is TurboVote as a service: We’re [sending voters] more one-off notifications about rule changes. So in Wisconsin during the primary, we had different notifications ready to go, depending on where the court ended up on the deadline for mail-in ballots. This whole cycle, we’ve just been sending millions of text messages to voters about new ways that they can vote because of the pandemic or about rule changes. 

The story of this year is helping people through the mail voting process as seamlessly and reliably as possible. The story of the next five years is going to be ballot tracking.

Seth Flaxman, Democracy Works

We scaled to 85 employees this year (close to doubling in size) because we’re putting resources into quadruple QA—checking everything, and making sure we’re building out really robust systems so that we can be the reliable source of information that people are really hungry for right now. 


In the past, when we built this information, we thought: How do we deliver it to voters in a way that’s at scale? And now it’s really a question of How do we deliver that information to voters when it changes? I think the Voting Information Project is a really good example of this. It’s not just about [collecting] all the polling place and ballot drop box data by calling every county in the country. It’s about [building] a process where the state can feed that official information to us through a secure site, and if it changes they can just give us new information. 

When we started Ballot Scout, I don’t think people realized quite how important and mainstream mail voting was already—and was about to become. The story of this year is helping people through the mail voting process as seamlessly and reliably as possible. The story of the next five years is going to be ballot tracking. [Getting] information about where your ballot is [as it goes] through the mail is becoming the status quo experience of all voters. Ballot Scout won’t be an extra: It’s just gonna be the standard way that people vote. They won’t be able to imagine a world where their ballot wasn’t tracked and they weren’t getting text messages about that tracking. That’s going to seem like ancient history.

Jamaal Bowman is the progressive Democratic nominee for New York’s 16th Congressional District after beating longtime incumbent Eliot Engel in the primary. The former educator and principal, who founded his own school in the Bronx, is now preparing for the general election.


When the pandemic first hit, we were able to pivot pretty efficiently to Zoom, to social media, and to phone banking to remain engaged with voters. We had this thing called Homeschool with Jamaal Bowman, playing on the fact that I’m a former middle-school principal, a public educator for 20 years. It was like a weekly conversation around the issues that mattered most to people across the district and the country. And we were bringing guests to speak about the challenges of remote learning; the social, emotional, and psychological challenges of kids not being in school; and issues of racial and economic justice. And then we had weekly meet-and-greets via Zoom in different corners of the district. We would also do IG Lives and Facebook Lives with the Justice Democrats, Working Families Party, members of the Squad. So we were ever-present.

There’s no substitute for having a conversation with real people, in person.

Jamaal Bowman, congressional candidate

The thing about Zoom is you can get a lot of people into a meeting or onto a call at one time, in a way that you might not be able to do in person. There’s something called a “tele town hall,” where you can have a telephone call with hundreds of people throughout the district—even thousands. You could do the same thing with a Zoom call throughout the district. What’s exciting is that you’re engaging people who represent different demographics within the district. [They’re] all coming into the same space and having the same conversation from the comfort of their own homes, as opposed to someone from Yonkers going to Scarsdale for a meeting, which is less likely to happen. 

There’s no substitute for having a conversation with real people, in person. That’s why, as much as I can, I like to just get out into the street and talk to folks. It’s a lot better than it was back in March, April, May, and June, when the [COVID-19] numbers were really, really high. Right now, I’m out and about: I’m wearing a mask, I’m socially distanced, and I’m able to connect with voters in a more authentic way than you can do via Zoom or the remote pathway.


People really care about our country, man; they really, really care about our democracy. And it’s really moving when I get to talk to someone who just lost their job but they still want to contribute five bucks. That’s been very humbling and very powerful. Our campaign was centered on racial and economic justice, and care and compassion, from the very beginning. So when the pandemic hit, it gave us an opportunity to center those issues even more, in a way that really connects with people. So our conversations have been all about: “How are you doing? How are you holding up? How are you coping? And, how can I be helpful?” And they’ve been really fruitful, as a result.

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