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Campaigns Shift To More Pandemic-Friendly Voter Outreach Efforts For Election

Sarah Kellogg - KUAR News

It’s a fall Saturday afternoon at War Memorial Stadium, and there’s a crowd of over 100 cars assembled at its parking lot. However, this isn’t a football game, this is a drive-in political rally for Joyce Elliott, who’s running for Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District seat.

Volunteers are checking in attendees and directing cars, which are spaced out with one parking spot in between. Others are passing out signs and buttons while the stage is being assembled in the front. Everyone volunteering, and almost all attendees in their cars, are wearing masks.

Grace Williams is a volunteer for the Elliott campaign. She’d officially been on the volunteer team for a week and signed up to work at the rally.

"I feel like there’s a certain energy that you capture in person and I’m glad that they found a way to do that without risking anybody’s life. So it’s like, virtual is good to a certain point, but after your like thousandth Zoom meeting, you’re kind of over it. So I do like the in-person but not in-person feel of the drive-in," Williams said

Donna Rayford is one of the attendees of the rally, who says she would not have gone had this been an in-person event as opposed to a drive in. Rayford says she does see some benefits to having campaigns shifting to more digital outreach.

"There are some folks in certain communities and even you think about people who may have any type of a…anything that may keep them from getting out as much. This provided them an opportunity. I know a couple of people who were able to be on Zoom calls that had never had the opportunity to be a part of a campaign," Rayford said.  

This is the fourth and final drive-in rally Elliott’s campaign held over the course of just over a month, with the others happening in Conway, Searcy and Benton.

Ethan Williams is the field director for the Elliott campaign, where the voter outreach, save for the drive-in rallies has been virtual. He says phone banking has become a crucial method of contacting voters, but even how that is handled has changed.

"Past phone banks we would be in the room and make phone calls together. Eat some pizza and just have a good time and make phone calls together, but now it’s completely changed where it’s all virtual, we’re doing it over Zoom," Williams said.

As far as canvassing, going door-to-door for a candidate, Williams says that just isn’t a safe option right now, which makes the ability to connect with voters a little tougher.

"It’s a lot harder to be rude to someone...It’s easier if you’re on social media or even on a phone call or a text, but if you’re in person, you have a lot better exchanges because your tone comes off better and you also just, you realize how genuine people are and they realize how genuine you are," Williams said.

Changes have also occurred at French Hill’s campaign, who is the incumbent candidate. The number of events has been reduced and, according to the campaign, the ones happening are adhering to CDC guidelines. Trent Minner, campaign manager for the Hill campaign, says canvassing is still happening. Just in a modified way.

"Knocking on people’s doors is a time-honored tradition in American politics and we still go out and we still leave literature on people’s doors. The congressman and the team have been out leaving information on people’s doors, just without knocking on the doors and talking with voters so we’re adhering to guidelines," Minner said.

As far as the pandemic changing some aspects of campaigning permanently, Minner says it's too soon to know for sure, but that it is a possibility, and cited precedence from the 1918 flu pandemic, which he says Hill is currently reading about.

"Candidates back then over 100 years ago had their supporters write postcards to voters so that they could ask their friends to support their candidates and so sending direct mail actually emerged out of a really similar time in American history. And it’s definitely stuck around, if anybody’s opened their mailbox recently," Minner said.  

Back at the rally, which the campaign says around 150 cars, or around 450 people  attended, candidates’ speeches are being broadcasted over the radio waves and through car stereos. While attendees cannot applaud or cheer to emphasize a point, they can honk. And they do.

The latest polling shows Elliott and Hill within a point of each other, making it the closest congressional race in Arkansas. Election Day is Nov. 3. 

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