There are many important issues at stake this election, including interpretation and enforcement of HIV criminalization laws, Medicaid expansion, minimum wage increases, reproductive rights and women’s health, and anti-LGBTQ legislation on ballots across the country. The election cycle is an invaluable opportunity to learn what candidates think about the issues that matter to you, as well as to educate the candidates and the public about the issues and priorities for your community. Below, learn more about strategies for engaging with candidates and elevating the issues that matter to you, including candidate invitations, meeting with candidates, utilizing questionnaires, candidate forums, and bird-dogging. #PWNVotes!
1. Candidate Invitations
Invite candidates to come tour your local HIV clinic or community-based organization. Plan a time when they can meet with clients or patients to hear about their concerns directly. Ensure you are well-prepared for this meeting with a list of priority issues relevant to what they can do in their elected capacity.
2. Meetings with Candidates
Set up meetings with candidates running for office – an incumbent may be more likely to meet with you if you let her know you are also reaching out to her challenger. Again, preparation is key!
3. Utilizing Questionnaires
With your local PWN-USA chapter, other HIV community members, and/or other allies, develop a list of questions you want all candidates running for a particular office to answer. Refer to the PWN-USA policy agenda to help formulate questions relevant to the candidate. E.g., for judge candidates, you might include questions on HIV criminalization. For a state legislator race, you might include questions on funding for HIV-related services and questions on HIV criminalization, if your state has laws that criminalize people living with HIV. You must send the same questionnaire to all candidates running for a position, and give them the same amount of time to respond. Once they have responded, or missed your deadline, share the results! You can publicly post candidate responses to your questions on a website, on social media, or print them out to share at meetings. You can also reach out to media outlets to discuss the candidate’s responses. Whenever you are sharing the results (verbally or in print), be sure to mention that your group invited all the candidates to respond to the questionnaire.
For examples and inspiration, check out Forward Together’s tool for using candidate questionnaires to elevate economic policy issues, which includes data and questions related to Equal Opportunity, Economic Security, and Work-Family Flexibility.
4. Candidate Forums
Many organizations and coalitions put together forums – in person events – inviting candidates to discuss their platforms and answer questions that are of priority to their constituencies. For non-profit organizations, to avoid the appearance of endorsing any candidates or political parties, it is important that all candidates for a race are invited to the forum. They may or may not all show up, but they all need to be invited to attend and given equal opportunity to speak.
Find out when upcoming candidate forums might be and who’s organizing or sponsoring them. Mobilize your constituency to attend. Before the event, reach out to the organizers to let them know that your constituency will be attending and what some of your priority concerns and questions are, as they may be able to incorporate them into the event framing. Prepare folks attending to have a visible presence – T-shirts representing your group show that you roll deep. Also, work with your group beforehand to agree on questions that will be asked and points that will be raised by your members.
Remember that candidate forums aren’t just one-way – although you want to know what candidates think about an issue, these events are also an opportunity to educate candidates about your issues, how many people are impacted, that you are able to mobilize a constituency, and what kind of action you expect them to take if elected.
If you don’t see any upcoming forums related to health or another issue that could be easily connected to your group’s priorities, consider reaching out to some health-related organizations and allies to see if they want to sponsor one with your group. Again, remember that all candidates for the office must be invited.
Bird-dogging basically means following a candidate around. This is an especially great tactic to apply pressure for candidates you aren’t able to reach, or who haven’t responded to your requests for a meeting, questionnaire, or information.
Go to events where the candidate will be, sit towards the front, wear a T-shirt that represents your group, ask questions and raise your issues in an organized way. Introduce yourself, shake their hands at the beginning or the end of the event, let them know what you want, and always leave them with informational materials and your business card. Ask for the candidate’s card or a business card of their staff person so that you can follow up. You want them to start recognizing you and your group, to begin taking your group’s issues seriously, and to know that you will become a problem if they don’t respond to your request for a meeting, a statement, an issue being incorporated into their platform, etc. There is always strength in numbers, so show up at more than one event if possible and try to have a good presence (i.e. don’t be the only person showing up representing an issue every single time).
Check out the recorded #PWNVotes Election 2016 webinar for an in-depth discussion of bird-dogging by the SERO Project’s Tami Haught!
6. Additional resources
For worksheets, checklists, and other tools for planning your electoral engagement strategy, review the “Getting Started with Voter Engagement” Checklist and the Building an effective Nonpartisan Electoral Strategy guide.