Mobilizing Public Support for Preserving Neighborhoods

CEDS Politically Oriented Advocacy has proven to be one of the most successful and least expensive approaches for protecting neighborhoods and the environment from a wide variety of potential threats ranging from proposed housing projects to landfill expansions.  Politically oriented advocacy consists of:

  1. First, search for an Equitable Solution that resolves the threat to you and your neighbors while allowing the project applicant to achieve most of their goals,
  2. Seek an agreement with the applicant or regulatory agencies to implement your Equitable Solution.
  3. If a project is so severely flawed that an Equitable Solution isn’t available or the applicant and agencies refuse to implement it, then identify elected officials who have the authority to either force implementation or to veto project approval, then
  4. Mobilize the voter support needed to prompt elected officials to act.
In this webpage we present the voter mobilization options we’ve found to be most effective.  We’ll also point out those that don’t work so well so you don’t waste valuable time and effort.  But first it’ll help to understand the goal of voter mobilization.

Goal: Provide Elected Officials With the Voter Support Needed to Do the Right Thing

With many zoning, land use and other issues, it is the local elected body which is the final decision-maker.  This body may be a City Council, a Town Board, a Board of County Commissioners, etc.  The decision may involve a rezoning, annexation, an appeal, or even a change to existing law.

Since the benefits of most development proposals outweigh the negatives, it is rare that decision-makers deny approval.   They are far more likely to add conditions that reduce impacts.  It is only in those instances where unresolvable project impacts are excessive and there’s widespread voter opposition that elected decision-makers will do the right thing, provided the “right thing” is based on facts, lies within the limits of their authority and does not come with an excessive political cost.

Defining the Right Thing

The right thing is usually:

  • An action that resolves your core concerns,
  • Is reasonable,
  • Lies within the legal authority of decision-makers, and
  • Does not force elected decision-makers to fall on a political sword.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’re concerned about a proposal to connect your dead-end street to a proposed development.  You rightly fear a large increase in traffic which could make your neighborhood street less safe.

While killing the project would certainly resolve this impact, it would be far more reasonable to call for an Equitable Solution such as speed humps, other calming measures, a gate that only allows emergency vehicles to travel from the new street to yours, or connecting the development to another, but higher volume existing street.

In most cases all of these Equitable Solutions are well within the authority of local decision-makers.  A decision-maker who votes to kill a project rather than support the Equitable Solution may find that come the next election the applicant has funded a candidate to unseat the incumbent.

Why the Focus on Voters?

Savvy elected decision-makers know that their political career depends upon being viewed in a positive way by voters.  Savvy decision-makers know that during their term in office, a few local issues will emerge  that capture widespread public  attention.  It is these issues that tend to establish how an elected official is viewed by voters.  Therefore, being on the side of the issue favored by most voters may determine success or failure come the next election.

Crafting An Effective Message

While there’s a bit of art to effective messaging, the following basics will increase the number of voters mobilized in support of your cause.  When designing a message always ask yourself if it would move you to sign a petition, email your elected representatives, or attend a hearing.  Now, think about how the message could be improved to prompt your neighbors to act.  After all, in most all campaigns the initial target audience will be your neighbors and others who live within the area potentially impacted by a proposed project.

The Three Key Elements To Winning Support

We’ve found there are three key elements essential to convincing folks to support an effort:

  1. Make it clear how the issue will directly harm affect your target audience,
  2. Describe your strategy to prevent the harm and why it has a good chance of success, and
  3. Explain that preventing the harm can only be achieved by executing your strategy and that can only happen if  your neighbor takes a specific action now, whether it be signing a petition, attending a hearing, or making a donation.

You’ll find these three key elements in each of the examples presented in the remainder of this webpage.

Positive Messages Work Best

Voter mobilization campaigns are usually built around a simple message.  The best message is positive and short.

By positive I mean the message should portray decision-makers in a light such as…

We know the City Council wants to do the right thing but they need our support to do so.

The key message could then be as simple and short – preferably ten words or less – as…

Give us the benefits of growth without jeopardizing neighborhood safety.

Never demonize decision-makers as being in the developer’s pocket.  We’ve found this is seldom the case.  However, most elected officials view the benefits of growth as greatly outweighing the negatives in most cases, which is why a condition is far more likely than a denial.

Also, resist the temptation to cast the applicant as a villain.  Acknowledging that the applicant has a right to develop property will increase the likelihood of winning decision-maker support.  Keeping things civil preserves the possibility of negotiating with the applicant.

If you conclude that the impact of developing a specific site with an unusually harmful land use will result in unresolvable impacts to area residents, then you should call for nixing the project.  It will be easier to convince decision-makers to do so if you can show you considered all reasonable options for resolving the impact, but none were satisfactory.  Keep in mind though that the impact of most projects can be resolved with conditions like enhanced buffers, traffic calming, etc.

Neighbor to Neighbor Contact Maximizes Support

When communicating with impact zone residents, begin by stating that you are also at risk of harm.  Folks are more likely to trust and respond to their neighbors when compared to those far removed.  It is this fact which gives most neighbor to neighbor campaigns credibility that applicants can seldom gain.  So begin your message with something like Hi, my name is… I’m a neighbor of yours.  I live over on…

First Ask For Contact Information

There’s a natural temptation to make lobbying a decision-maker the first action new supporters are asked to take.  The problem is that you won’t know if the supporter actually makes the contact.

It’s far better to ask new supporters to sign a petition where you can capture their mailing address, phone number and email address.  You can then call upon your supporters to lobby decision-makers at those times when it will have maximum impact.  In the meantime, you can inform decision-makers of the number of supporters and how rapidly your ranks are growing through an aerial and a compilation of petition signer comments like those posted at: http://www.ceds.org/hcarwm/#what.

Identifying Potential Supporters

With petitions like change.org you can get lots of signers quickly.  Trouble is that many of the signers will live far away.  Most savvy decision-makers know this.  They also know these signers will not be sufficiently invested in the issue to track the official’s position much less use it as a basis for whom they support come the next election.  This is why your message should initially target those most directly impacted by a project.  Once you’ve achieved widespread support in the initial impact zone then move outwards.

Impact Zone Residents Will Be Your Strongest Supporters

With most issues there is an easily defined impact zone.  Those living within the zone will be most directly affected by the issue.  Here’s a few examples:

  • A proposed gas station can affect the health of those living within 500- to 1,000-feet,
  • A proposed landfill can affect the health and welfare of those living within two miles, and
  • Connecting a large housing project to a neighborhood street can increase traffic volume and reduce the safety of those residing in existing homes along the street.

Focusing initial voter mobilization efforts on impact zone residents will garner you many more supporters, in a shorter period of time, and at a lower cost when compared to reaching out to those living farther away.

Start With Frequent Voters

Of U.S. citizens 18 or older, 73% are registered to vote.  A portion of these voters cast their ballot in every election – both primary and general.  It is these frequent voters who tend to determine who wins primary and general elections.  Frequent voters account for about 15% of the population.

Frequent voters (aka quality voters) also tend to be the most engaged community members.  They are more likely to contribute hours and dollars to causes they view as worthy.  Many serve in leadership positions.

It is for these reasons that you should consider focusing on frequent voters first.  Demonstrating widespread support among frequent voters may be sufficient to convince an elected decision-maker to support your position, provided your position truly does constitute the right thing to do.

Identifying Frequent Voters

It used to be that one had to go to a local or state Board of Elections to obtain registered voter lists.  In some localities this is easy and affordable, in others not so much.

Today there are a number of commercial outlets selling registered voter lists.  At a few cents per voter, the lists are affordable and can easily be downloaded.  You can then sort list spreadsheets to identify frequent voters, which is anyone who voted in all four of the most recent elections (primaries, general and even special elections).

While targeting frequent voters is always beneficial, it isn’t essential.  If you encounter difficulty obtaining a voter list, then reach out to people residing in the project impact zone.

In the absence of a voter list use property records to get the name and address of impact zone homeowners.  Most localities have online property record databases.

Methods to Mobilize Voter Support

Following are the methods commonly used to mobilize voter support.  These methods are listed in alphabetical order; not order of effectiveness.

Typically, CEDS urges our clients to begin with a website and petition.  We then snail-mail a letter to a sampling of voters.  The signers gathered through the letter are then urged to ask their neighbors to sign the petition.

Frequently, this approach can win a campaign by demonstrating to decision-makers that voters are aware of an issue and want their elected officials to protect their interests from adverse effects.  However, other approaches are equally effective at times.

Canvassing

Canvassing is usually done by going door-to-door in impact zone neighborhoods.  It is most effective when the conversation begins with…

Hi, I’m your neighbor.  I live over on…  Do you have a moment to talk about an issue that could affect you, me and our other neighbors.

After describing the issue and answering questions, ask the neighbor to take a single action.  Requesting multiple actions reduces the likelihood that any single action will be taken.  In most cases you should ask for a petition signature.  A flyer with issue details and instructions for signing the petition would then be handed to the neighbor.

If no one is at home then consider leaving a flyer in the door with a hand-written note such as…

Hi [neighbors name].  This is your neighbor [your name].  I’m sorry I missed you when I stopped by to discuss the issue described in this flyer.  I hope you’ll join with me and many of our other neighbors in signing our petition.

Do not put the flyer in a mail box which is illegal and turns off many people.

Canvassing can also be done anywhere else where you might find a large number of impact zone residents, such as:

  • Shopping centers and malls,
  • At signalized intersections during morning rush-hour, if allowed by local authorities,
  • At places of worship with permission, etc.

After introducing yourself, passersby are handed a palm card or flyer and urged to sign the online petition.

Facebook

A Facebook page is great for updating existing supporters and engaging new ones.  We don’t use Facebook pages very often since CEDS usually creates a webpage where both an issue summary and details are posted.  We also prominently post an online petition link on the webpage.

Fact Sheet

CEDS usually reserves fact sheets for community meetings.  The fact sheet is handed to attendees as they enter the meeting room.  Most attendees will read the one- or two-page fact sheet before the meeting begins.  In this way they get a heads-up on issue detail, the strategy and what they’ll be asked to do.  The meeting begins with speakers covering these three elements.  An example of a fact sheet is posted at: https://ceds.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Alliance-Factsheet.pdf.

Flyers

A flyer is usually letter-size, one page or if two printed back to back.  Following are a few examples:

Letters to the Editor

Many newspapers will run letters to the editor.  Visit the following sites for advice on how to craft a letter to the editor:

Media Coverage

Whenever you hold an event intended to attract a number of people notify local newspaper, TV and radio reporters as well as any widely read bloggers.  Consider drafting a press release.  There are a number of websites offering guidance and templates for crafting a press release.  You may also wish to consider staging an event designed to attract media attention.

Meetings

At the start of a campaign we will occasionally use a large meeting to demonstrate substantial support and for fund-raising.  A meeting of this type is most appropriate for issues posing a threat to hundreds or thousands of impact zone residents.  A package of meeting organizing materials is posted at: https://ceds.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/5000att.pdf

Newspaper Ads

If a newspaper, shopper, or other local media exists then running a large ad – quarter-page, half-page, or full-page – can be a good way to reach area residents.  The ad could summarize the issue, include an impact zone map, but should always call for a specific action, such as signing an online petition.  Another effective lists the organizations that support your position.

Palm Cards

Usually palm cards are 4 inches by 6, though we also used business card size printings.  They are inexpensive and not as cumbersome as letter-size flyers.  Following are a couple of palm card examples:

Petitions

Petitions are the first method employed by most of those concerned about an issue. While they can be a valuable tool, most newcomers rely petition services such as change.org or ipetitions.  While both are great for many issues, they don’t work well for land use issues.

You may think a petition must conform to a prescribed legal format.  This is not the case for petitions used to win land use battles.  Instead, they are designed to show elected decision-makers that a large number of local voters support your position.  To do this you need to demonstrate that your supported live within the official’s election district.  And to do this you need petition signers to provide their address.

With change.org, ipetitions, and similar platforms you cannot get the street addresses nor phone or email for petition signers.  Without this data you cannot show that your supporters live and vote in the districts represented by elected officials.  Email addresses and phone numbers are also essential for urging your supporters write or call decision-makers at key moments.

CEDS uses services such as Survey Monkey to create petitions that allow our clients to download the name, address, phone and email for each signer.  We also urge signers to explain why they are concerned about an issue.  These explanations demonstrate to decision-makers that signers take the issue seriously.  This makes it more likely that the signer will remember how an elected official acted on the issue the next time they enter a voting booth.

Phone Calls

If you need to get a large turn out for a hearing or some other event then consider making calls to petition signers.  The calls should be placed a couple of evenings prior to the event.

Divide your petition signers into lists of about 20 names each.  Each list would have the name, address and phone number of the 20 petition signers.  Avoid calling more than one signer per household.  Ask a volunteer call those on one list.

Consider getting volunteers together in a room where they can make calls via their cell phones.  The group dynamic of such a phone bank can make the experience more enjoyable and effective.

Also consider drafting a script for volunteers to use such as…

Hi, this is…

I’m a volunteer with the Miami-Dade Safe Streets Alliance.

I’m calling about a letter you should’ve just received concerning a canal-bridge that could possibly open your neighborhood streets to increased cut-thru traffic.

Do you recall receiving the letter?

If they say YES then…

Great.  Like you I also live near a possible canal-bridge.  In the letter we asked you to contact (official named in letter) and urge them to vote against the first canal-bridge at SW 87th Avenue in my community, Palmetto Bay.  If this first one is approved then yours and 57 others might then get approved.

May I ask if you’ve had a chance to contact (official) or if there’s anything I can do to help?

If they say NO they didn’t receive a letter, then…

Well, the mail can be slow these days.  In the letter we asked if you could contact (official named in letter) and urge them to vote against the first canal-bridge at SW 87th Avenue in my community, Palmetto Bay.  If this first one is approved then yours and 57 others might then get approved.

I can give you (official’s name) email and phone number now or I could email the letter to you.  I just need your email address.

Thank you for your time and support.

Postcards

We’ve tried mailing postcards to impact zone residents several times.  The postcard  summarized the issue, the impact, and the strategy then asked the voters to sign an online petition.  Unfortunately the response to these postcards has always been poor.

We’ve had greater success handing self-addressed, stamped petition postcards to those contacted through canvassing, tabling, and at meetings.  An example of such a postcard can be viewed at: https://ceds.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Postcard-Message-Address-Sides.pdf

Snail-Mail Letters

In the past, direct mail was considered a rather ineffective way of engaging voters.  In fact, a response rate of 1% or less was typical.

These days though, most of us get very few letters addressed to us, other than bills.  This change has resulted in a 5% to 20% response rate to letters sent first-class through the post office like the example at: https://ceds.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/February-Letter.pdf.

Usually we’ll send a letter to a 100 or 200 randomly selected impact zone residents.  We use either county online property records or registered voter lists to get names and mailing addresses for impact zone residents.

If we get a good response then we can inform elected decision-makers that our sample survey showed a large percentage of their constituents support our position on an issue.  We’ve helped our clients win several campaigns with this approach alone.  Otherwise it’s always a great way to kick off a campaign.

Tabling

As the name implies, you set up a table at a location frequented by impact zone residents.  Attach a large banner to attracts folks to the table where you can introduce the issue then hand out flyers, palm cards, etc.

Texts

We use text messaging very sparingly and reserve it for those times when we are making a big push for a showing of widespread public support before a critical hearing.  Of course texting is only possible if you have cell phone numbers, which is why we ask petition signers to provide a phone number, which is usually for a cell these days.  With a maximum length of 160 characters, your message must be concise.

There are a number of subscription-based texting services which usually charge about 4 cents per text sent to a recipient.  You can purchase cell phone number lists from some voter list vendors and other commercial outlets.

Webpage

For most of our campaigns, CEDS will create a webpage where potential supporters can find a summary of the three key elements followed by further detail.  Usually a request to sign a petition will appear on the left side of each webpage.  Following are several examples:

A key feature of our webpages is an aerial photo with a yellow dot showing where each petition signer lives along with a compilation of the reasons why each is concerned about the issue.  When the aerial is covered with yellow dots and the reasons are logical, then both help to sway decision-makers who might otherwise vote for a project.

Our webpages are usually designed to also provide impact zone residents, decision-makers and staff with the scientific basis for concerns and our proposed solution.  Because of this, our webpages tend to be wordy and somewhat dense.  Occasionally, our clients will create a companion webpage that is easier to digest like the following alternative to our Haralson site: https://www.haralsonalliance.org/

Yard Signs

Yard signs can be an effective tool for demonstrating widespread support throughout a community, but only if the signs appear in many yards.  Before distributing signs poll petition signers for their interest in posting a sign in their yard.  If  there’s lots of interest then consult one of the many online sources of advice for designing a yard sign.

Communicating Support to Decision-Makers

Frequently, hearings are won or lost before decision-makers convene.  Therefore it is critical that you begin aggressively mobilizing support well in advance of a hearing and periodically inform decision-makers of your expanding support before the hearing is called to order.

CEDS typically uses aerial photos that show the location of supporters (petition signers) within a city, town or county.  We’ll also provide decision-makers with a compilation of the reasons why each person signed the petition.  These explanations demonstrate to decision-makers that signers take the issue seriously.  It also signals that the signer cares enough about the issue that they’ll likely remember how an elected official acted on the issue the next time the signer enters a voting booth.

Following are links to examples of our webpage sections where the aerials and reasons were posted:

Yard signs are another great method for demonstrating widespread support provided they appear on many lawns throughout the town, city or county.  A few signs scattered thinly can hurt your cause by indicating minimal support.  Therefore, before you begin printing signs get a commitment from a large number of petition signers to post one in their yard.

While decision-makers may be inclined to vote for a project before a hearing begins, this is not always the case.  And sometimes their vote can change with a large showing of support for your position.  This is why it is critical that you turn out a large number of your supporters at a hearing. 

Your goal should be so many supporters in attendance that you fill all the seats, then all the standing areas, and even draw so many of your supporters that they overflow to areas outside the hearing room.  And this turn out should occur at every meeting or hearing open to the public regarding the project.

Many of the mobilization methods listed above can be used to demonstrate widespread support before the hearing date, such as: