The COVID-19 pandemic has made traditional methods of voter education and engagement a challenge. Local and state organizations that typically do their work in person have adapted by using digital platforms or utilizing social distance.

So far, digital forums, drive-through petition signing events and other new methods are producing results.

Drive-thru petitions

Local advocacy group alliance4action hosted a new drive-through method Friday morning to gather petition signatures for four initiatives they hope to get on the ballot in November.

More than 20 volunteers lined the parking lot at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in masks, sanitizing clipboards and delivering petitions to residents in their vehicles.

Ann Striker, co-founder and coordinator of alliance4action, was impressed with the turnout. She estimated there were about 160 vehicles from 8 to 11 a.m. and they gathered 640 signatures. 

"This was a spectacular turnout and we did not have one person not wearing a mask," she said. "No one felt unsafe."

Events pre-coronavirus normally had about 100 to 160 participants and their largest event brought in about 800 people. she said. 

Striker said many participants wanted to see more drive-through signature events and alliance4action will consider them in the future.  

Volunteer Polly Daly said she was proud of the turnout and said Green Valley residents clearly care about the issues presented concerning criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, funding in education and healthcare.

“So many people in Green Valley got in their cars, signed petitions and got to feel like they're doing something,” she said. “This world is so turned upside-down right now some days you look and say ‘I can't do anything'; well, this is something everybody can do.”

She said the event allowed them to gather signatures faster than previous efforts.

Volunteer notary Omar Valencia was on site to notarize signatures simultaneously as they flowed in.

While most residents at the event said COVID-19 has not stopped their independent education on the issues affecting the state, signing petitions from their car made them feel comfortable.

Eric Noyes was among the attendees and felt the process was a great way to get his voice heard safely.

“I think it's great to do this and they’re keeping everybody safer and making this a lot more available to the public,” he said. “I'm interested in supporting these causes and they’re all very good initiatives for helping to improve our community overall and the state.”

Sherry Moreau said lately her hope has been “up and down,” and she’s been staying in tune with the issues through the news.

“I’m here out of patriotism and at this point in time, all these issues are really important,” she said. “Seeing what these organizations have done makes me hopeful.”

The event came together through a channel of group members, people in the community and even organizations in Tucson.

“All our members started reaching out and asking how can we get together, what can we do,” Striker said. “There are petitions out there in the state we can't get signed because normally we’re on a corner or at big gatherings and meetings.”

Striker said finding ways to keep the issues on the minds of citizens when the focus has been COVID-19 for the past few months has been frustrating.

Prior to COVID-19, the group had monthly meetings and opportunities to hear guest speakers on a variety of topics.

“All that stopped in the peak season, right in the middle of the time when winter visitors are here,” she said. “In an election year that’s very disappointing and people’s attention went elsewhere.”

Sara Mora is a teacher and a member of the Sahuarita Education Association. She said their organization has struggled to get the message out during COVID-19.

“It has been challenging and was already challenging because we’re a small organization,” she said. “Recently, we started a Facebook page and I’m even using my personal page to spread the word because it's really important to keep trying even with the challenges. “

She helped to hand out petitions at the event. One volunteer said almost 100 percent of the participants signed the education initiatives.

Save Our Schools

Save Our Schools Arizona is a nonprofit that advocates for public schools. They participated in the drive-through event and have been hosting similar events  throughout the state.

Cofounder and Communications Director Dawn Penich-Thacker said the organization is volunteer-run and physical meet-ups are the main way they operate.

“We’re a grassroots organization of real people getting together doing events together and that’s how we connect and spread our message,” she said. “For groups like us when school is not in session and people need and want to stay home it makes it hard to do that.”

In March, the group began to explore new ways to digitally provide some of their offerings. They began by transforming town halls and presentations into webinars.

“We didn’t want blanket webinars because things are super different in different communities,” she said. “We developed a speaker series to connect national experts who tackle the same issues in other places to continue to learn from each other.”

Engagement has ranged from five people to 100, based on the size of the focus area and the topics covered, but Penich-Thacker said it's been popular and effective.

“They have been really well-received, really popular, and we’ll probably keep doing this long after we’re able to go out again in groups,” she said.

The deadline to submit signatures to the state is July 2.

“Signing now puts these on the November ballot and people don't have to make their choice right now; we just want the opportunity to make the choice,” she said.

Digital debates

The Clean Elections Commission, a nonpartisan group that administers the Citizens Clean Election Act, regularly offers in-person candidate debates and meet and greets in an election year.

Voter Education Director Gina Roberts said they began preparing new methods to connect candidates and voters across the state in February in anticipation of what the COVID-19 pandemic would bring.

“We had to think of ways to continue to make debates worthwhile for candidates and voters,” she said. “How can we help candidates communicate their issues, what’s important to them, and how can voters communicate with them and ask questions and learn?”

They’ve achieved this by creating virtual debates. Candidates participate via Zoom and voters tune in via a Youtube stream. Clean Elections set up multiple ways for voters to submit questions both before the stream and during.

“The questions we ask come from voters both on the ground and in virtual debates,” she said. “So far, we haven’t heard a single concern or issue from candidates or citizens.”

Roberts said they are experiencing greater engagement and views on their Youtube channel than they have ever seen before, and they may continue to use virtual formats in conjunction with in-person events after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the end of the day, it takes time to be an informed voter,” she said. “This offers a lot of flexibility and we’re always looking for more tactics to reach across the state.”

Here to stay

Though COVID-19 has changed the method organizations use, it has not changed the issues they focus on.

Roberts said voters have options to make their voice count this year despite the challenges of COVID-19 and spotlighted mail-in voting options

“Voters should think about a plan that works best for them and voters have a lot of options,” she said. “If it’s not an option to go out they can do it safely and in the comfort of their home. We’ve been doing mail-in voting for years and about 80 percent do that so it’s well in place and secure.”

Penich-Thacker said their focus initiatives were developed before COVID-19 hit, and the pandemic only heightens their importance.

For her, COVID-19 doesn’t change the need to vote.

“All of us had to make sacrifices through COVID-19 with our social circles to work, family time, vacations, but we shouldn't have to give up our votes, our say in how our state is run,” she said. “We felt it was really important to find a way to let voters have their say.”

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9732