Political canvassers operate at the grassroots of participatory democracy. They are coming in droves this election cycle, flocking to homes in swing districts. Their door-knocking will initiate a carefully crafted spiel on behalf of specific campaigns or nonpartisan get-out-the-vote-drives, perhaps handing the homeowner a clipboard in the process so it’s harder to slam the door in their face. Their energy will be enthusiastically visible in almost every neighborhood in Pennsylvania, and more than a few in upstate New York and various Rust Belt exurbs.
But inside apartment buildings, it will be quiet. Apartment buildings are a legal grey area when it comes to political campaigning. In the suburbs, you can’t miss the signs of an election; by contrast, in towering complexes of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, you can’t find any. Due to rules that prevent political campaigning in apartment buildings, including public housing owned by the state, urban voters fall prey to voter discouragement and political neglect.
Canvassing, or the process of going door-to-door to talk to voters about a candidate’s platform, remind them of an upcoming election, and even register them to vote, is among the most important components of getting out the vote.
It’s important because it works. That’s even when many people might not choose to open their doors. Turnout is between 1.7 and 9.8 percentage points higher among canvassed voters, depending on the year, while phone banking and sending campaign mail shows little to no effect on turnout – which means that every 14 people a campaign contacts through canvassing results in a new voter. This result is even more pronounced in lower-turnout communities: in majority-Black neighborhoods, canvassing increases turnout by 7 to 14 percentage points, and young voters were 1.4 times more likely to vote in 2012 when contacted by a campaign.
While the estimates of canvassing’s effect vary across elections, the conclusion holds that hitting the streets is more effective than any other means of reaching voters, even including the most sophisticated auto-dialing systems that can call hundreds of voters a minute.
Canvassing is also a critical right of expression, allowing engaged citizens who are going door to door to explain why they support a candidate or policy. The U.S. Supreme Court has established extensive protections for canvassing in recognition of its importance as a First Amendment right of expression. Protection for canvassers first emerged in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the Court held that unsolicited leafletting was an “essential” freedom, and ruled that municipal ordinances prohibiting door-knocking were unconstitutional. Over the course of the 20th century, the Court gradually strengthened protections for canvassing, differentiating door-to-door political fundraising from other forms of commercial speech with less protection and striking down regulations requiring canvassers to obtain a permit before going door-to-door.
Most recently, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. Town of Gilbert that regulations on canvassing are subject to the most stringent form of government review — strict scrutiny — meaning that essentially any regulation which would curtail someone’s ability to canvass would be struck down.
But there’s a catch: all of that jurisprudence has been focused on single-family homes, and there is no clear law for the approximately 44 million Americans living in apartment buildings. The sidewalk leading up to someone’s home is clearly protected. But when a front door is in a private hallway behind a building’s locked door, there is no precedent. Only Minnesota offers any affirmative protection for canvassing apartment buildings. In the other 49 states, such activity is a constitutional no man’s land.
Among the lower federal courts, three conservative jurisdictions have ruled in different directions creating a “circuit split” that likely won’t be rectified until the Supreme Court takes up this issue, if it ever does. In much of the Bible Belt and in Ohio, cities’ Housing Authorities can criminalize canvassing by non-residents as trespassing. But in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a law forbidding nonresident canvassers in public housing was struck down, with a panel of judges reasoning that canvassing was an important democratic good.
The Fifth Circuit was right. Public housing residents “deserve access to political information in the same manner as other citizens.” The lowest-turnout voting populations – Black and Hispanic voters, young people, and the poor – are also those who campaigns may not otherwise reach. Over half of Black and Hispanic Americans are renters, and three-quarters of them live in large apartment buildings. Nearly two-thirds of renters are low-income, and they are also younger than single-family homeowners. Renters are also less likely to have current voter registrations, because they move more frequently. Canvassers can remind these citizens to update their voter registrations and inform them of upcoming elections.
Canvassers themselves also deserve the protections that come from a clearer law. In the status quo, the criminalization of canvassing apartment buildings means that urban canvassers – who are often Black and Hispanic – risk hostile interactions with the police in ways their suburban counterparts do not.
Canvassing in apartment buildings is also considerably more effective than more spread-out single family neighborhoods, because the density allows each door-knocker to visit more voters and lowers the cost-per-vote of hiring professionals. Underfunded challengers will be on a more equal footing, allowing voters’ preferences to be more closely reflected.
Most importantly, in the absence of laws protecting apartment canvassing, politicians have less incentive to cater to what may be their most numerous constituencies. With no guarantee that a canvasser will be able to espouse any of a candidate’s policies in an apartment building, but a legal guarantee that single-family homes have to receive their ideas, candidates may have every reason to prioritize the key issues of their more suburban constituents in mixed districts. A candidate who never has to visit the projects has less incentive to devote attention to better public housing policy – but when those buildings are full of free, easily accessible votes, they will have a strong reason to engage. The Court famously invalidated districting plans that gave unequal weight to rural voters, but the disparate access to voter engagement and information in urban areas today can be understood as an extension of that injustice.
The widest-reaching solution would be for Congress to pass a canvassers’ bill of rights, clarifying the extent of acts clearly protected under the First Amendment – a nationwide version of Minnesota’s law, which requires building superintendents to grant access to volunteers and candidates. While this may seem like a progressive pipe dream in a heavily gridlocked political environment, there is a strong case for conservatives to endorse this measure: it also protects religious liberties. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision in Reed, which was litigated by the ultraconservative Alliance Defending Freedom, and conservatives have historically sided with canvassers because canvassing is also undertaken by proselytizers.
If Congress can’t manage such a feat, however, cities can protect their voters by passing their own affirmative ordinances on canvassers’ rights. In large, single-party cities like New York, this will increase political participation and community engagement, especially in competitive primaries. In smaller cities and large towns that share a congressional district with suburban and rural areas, such as Syracuse and Utica in the newly-drawn swing district NY-22, this will increase candidates’ focus on some of their most-overlooked constituents and help level the playing field.
Opponents of canvassing typically field two criticisms: it’s annoying, and people may feel unsafe answering their door to strangers. But the benefits of ensuring a more participatory democracy far outweigh these costs, as the courts found for suburbs years ago. Canvassing interactions generally last under a minute, and if someone cringes especially harshly at the thought of an unwanted interaction, most campaigns train volunteers to wait for 30 seconds at a door after knocking, then leave.
Americans will fiercely defend their right not to be bothered – but democracy is bothersome. It requires that we show up to hours-long caucuses or polling stations with long lines, uncomfortably live with the preferences of our differently minded peers, have hard conversations and even harder reflections on our own biases. And it requires that we open our door and listen, so that everyone gets a fair say.