Wesley Watson could not have predicted just how well his previous job as an HIV and substance abuse counselor in Michigan would prepare him for his current one as a political organizer during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
As a regional field director in a crucial battleground state for NextGen America, a progressive group aimed at turning out the youth vote, Watson encourages young people at juvenile detention centers in West Michigan to participate in the political process after their release. Kent County Juvenile Detention Center youths, for example, are the kind of potential first-time voters that might otherwise be overlooked in this swing territory, where Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump by 10,704 votes in 2016.
The pandemic, however, has indefinitely shelved one-on-one voter contact at places like detention centers where visitation is limited or residents have been temporarily sent home. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures have derailed most of the group's meticulously planned voter registration events.
So Watson is overseeing NextGen's state transition from traditional field organizing to pure digital outreach, including a significant messaging shift from politics to health care in a state where covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, has already killed 5,000 people.
"It's about trying to connect with these recently released students with food banks, the local NAACP, financial assistance or family," said Watson. "I'm trying to make sure that youth who are released from the detention center are coming home to some good resources and safe materials to make sure they are not at high risk when it comes to covid-19."
Watson and his NextGen team say they have managed to stay on track during the pandemic, registering nearly 6,000 voters statewide out of a goal of 22,752 for 2020.
But whether outside groups can enroll the thousands of new voters they intended before the pandemic struck is a very open question, crucial to determining the outcome of November's presidential contest and control of the U.S. Congress, along with state races.
New voter registration efforts have received a dramatic makeover over the past few months as stay-at-home orders and virtual campaigning have shut down the typically highly personal art of voter contact and persuasion. Instead of door-to-door canvassing, in-person rallies and other traditional efforts, groups are ramping up phone, online and direct mail outreach, with a new emphasis on aiding potential voters endure the pandemic.
Rather than talking up political issues, organizers are providing potential voters with tips about unemployment insurance, access to food, health care and covid-19 testing. They hope providing helpful information about the coronavirus and its aftershocks will lead to registration later on - after they establish trust with potential voters and glean their information.
"Having a relationship is the coin of the realm," said Matt Morrison, the executive director of Working America, the political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO.
Morrison said his group, which had a goal of conducting three million face-to-face conversations pre-pandemic, has shifted to messaging around the health crisis rather than voting.
"Building more relationships through meeting the interests and needs of voters rather than the interests of campaigners will be distinguishing," Morrison said. "You don't start the conversation with who do you vote for. Let's help each other understand that you should not go to the family barbecue or have Easter dinner at grandmas."
The strategy change is underway as lawmakers and state officials worry about the safety of voters during the primaries and general election. Officials and health policymakers warn of the dangers of in-person voting in November, and some state and national officials are urging a massive conversion to a vote-by-mail system.
The issue is particularly crucial for Democrats and their allies, who are counting on high turnout and a surge of new voters to eject President Trump from the White House. Any threat to their efforts is likely to more deeply damage Democrats, who are already fighting some laws and requirements that could disproportionately impact young, low-income and minority communities that tend to support them in higher numbers.
Meanwhile, Trump has argued without evidence that vote by mail systems are vulnerable to greater fraud, even while the GOP is encouraging it in some states.
"I thought we were going to have record high turnout, but I'm worried about record low turnout now," said Jeremy Smith, the co-founder of CampaignOS, a campaign management platform that helps progressive candidates and nonprofits register and turnout voters.
"Knowing how to vote now will be an important mechanism that you will have to communicate to voters and is changing in real time. Practically, politically, and legally, we need to be preparing, convincing, and supporting people," Smith added.
Signing up new voters is just one part of a larger effort being pushed by activists worried the pandemic will dampen participation in November.
Activists and organizers are gearing up for a bigger push for absentee ballots as part of a move to mail-in elections in some states. Trump and other Republicans are discouraging an expanded absentee voting program, and several Republican-leaning groups to which The Washington Post reached out were not interested in talking about their registration efforts during the pandemic.
Marc Elias, a Democratic election attorney, has filed several lawsuits in Texas, which currently bars absentee voting unless a voter is over 65 or has a disability. Elias filed the most recent lawsuit to expand absentee voting on behalf of Voto Latino, the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and five individual Texans.
"Our lawsuit asks Texas to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots, accept all ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, prohibit enforcement of signature matching, allow voters the opportunity to correct a signature mismatch, and allow voters to designate any third party to collect their voted and sealed absentee ballot," Elias said in a statement.
Elias added: "I would encourage every group not just to look at how many doors are knocked on and [voter registration] forms submitted but how many are being counted and how many people are actually able to vote."
Some states are already ramping up absentee voting because of concerns over physical participation in the elections. In two congressional races last week, Nebraska and California voters cast mail-in ballots in record numbers. Nebraska Republican Secretary of State Robert Evnen sent every registered voter an absentee ballot application and California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring officials to distribute absentee ballots to all residents even if they had not requested them. California became the first state to adopt a universal vote-by-mail election in November.
There are 16 states, however, that require an excuse in order to vote absentee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That includes Texas, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and West Virginia.
Texas Republican Party Chair James Dickey oversees the state party's "Volunteer Engagement Project" to register and turn out new voters. Dickey, who says he is working closely with the Trump campaign, argues the push to vote entirely by mail is "irresponsible and the latest in a very long trend of voter disenfranchisement" by Democrats.
"Given that we have a full-two week period of early voting, I am quite confident that Texans who have already figured out how to deal with grocery shopping and other stuff, over the next five months they will more than figure out how to safely cast a vote in person," said Dickey, who predicts his staff and volunteers will be out knocking on doors and connecting with voters in person "long before the fall."
With the help of volunteers, the state GOP has registered over 85,000 new people, according to Dickey. The outreach is now exclusively online and via phone but the conversations with prospective voters have not changed because of the virus - that is, they're "really positive and really short."
It's a dramatically different strategy than the one being employed by progressive groups now focused on making connections over health care instead of politics.
Jocelyn Medearis-Viera, a 28-year-old senior field director for Working America in Modesto, Calif., described her conversations with voters - many of whom work in the food and health sector - as exclusively focused on issues related to the pandemic. That means helping laid-off workers find access to food, tracking down their stimulus checks, assisting them in getting unemployment benefit and just listening to the frustrations of essential workers seeking increased protections like hazard pay and personal protective equipment.
"Workers are really fearful," said Medearis-Viera, describing a conversation she recently had with a grocery store worker in Arizona who asked why employees manning supermarkets weren't receiving PPE.
"We are hearing a mixed [response] about how Trump and other politicians are addressing the crisis and we are seeing how more people, even though they've been affected by this, don't feel like it's time to start opening things back up and putting people in jeopardy."
Organizers and campaigns conducting what Smith calls "community wellness checks" have been the most successful in connecting with voters right now, say these groups.
Success in converting nonvoters into voters is still highest, however, when done via direct mail. In states like Texas, New Hampshire and others that do not offer online voter registration, direct mail is not only a costly tool but a necessary one amid a pandemic keeping people at home.
The lack of online voter registration in some states, along with voter ID laws preventing people from registering online, may hit young people especially hard as college campuses, which provide basic administrative tools, have been shut down. Printing and submitting a registration form is a hurdle some young people might not clear.
Smith and his team have devised one potential workaround. They've been assisting nonprofits and campaigns in creating crowdfunding maps providing donors with the opportunity to underwrite registration efforts in certain precincts or neighborhoods. Donors, who foot the costs of postage and return envelopes, receive reports on how many people they have successfully helped to register through their donations.
"We offer a Kickstarter-style map - any donor can select their neighborhood and precinct and they can donate $20 to guarantee sending out forms," Smith said. "It helps broaden the aperture for how many people can be involved in voter registration."
VotoLatino's President and CEO, María Teresa Kumar, dismissed concerns over the difficulties posed by the pandemic in contacting and registering young voters.
She argued the lockdown has created a captive audience online and through cellphones. VotoLatino surpassed 100,000 voter registrations earlier in May, according to Kumar, and the group believes they'll be able to increase their overall footprint from half a million to 750,000 new voters by November, if they are able to raise the money to support doing so.
"Even during the pandemic, we are 20% towards our original goal without having skipped a beat," said Kumar.
"Those who say voter registration can't be done? They're wrong. They just have to modernize and meet where people are. Young people have been online for a very long time."