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Is Utah a lost cause for reproductive freedom?

It should be.

After all, the Utah Legislature is dominated by a Republican super-majority holding 78% of the House seats and 79% of the Senate seats, with men representing three-quarters of all lawmakers. Utah is ranked as one of the worst states for women and includes a long history of abortion restrictions—from a 1991 law that inadvertently allowed prosecutors to bring first-degree murder charges against women who have abortions, to a 72-hour waiting period that includes mandatory videos filled with unscientific information about pregnancy.

Those examples, however, reflect the actions of Utah lawmakers. Residents of Utah, it turns out, are not as anti-choice as their elected representatives. Recent polling commissioned by the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah shows that 55% of Utahns support the right to an abortion in all or most cases. The same poll showed 76% of Utahns oppose stricter abortion restrictions in the state.

While the state is viewed as an anti-choice stronghold, these recent polls, along with the public backlash to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, show signs that this façade is beginning to crack. Challenging that assumption is a major reason PPAU why launched an ambitious, multi-county canvassing effort during the summer of 2022. This campaign had three goals: to practice community care, to offer reliable information, and to increase grassroots involvement. Note as of October 2022, abortion is legal in Utah up to 18 weeks of pregnancy while a lawsuit against the state’s total ban is pending in court.

Door-to-door canvassing is one of the most effective ways to reach community members. Unlike digital marketing or advertising, canvassing allows for a two-way conversation, with both sides walking away with new information. A primary goal of this campaign is to reach supporters of abortion with up-to-date information on changes in abortion access and encourage them to join Planned Parenthood’s ambassador program.

However, it’s one thing to prioritize canvassing, and another thing to implement it successfully in the field. Not only is it difficult to identify supporters on a wedge issue such as abortion, but it is inefficient to canvass every house in a neighborhood, especially when some residents could be hostile to our message.

Fortunately, data from our voter file provided workable solutions. Through coordination with the PPFA data team, we used the 2020 Blue Labs Exclusion Index on VoteBuilder to eliminate many hostile voters from our canvass lists. In progressive areas like Salt Lake City, this index excluded any voter with a score over 50. Voters within the 0 to 50 range included supporters of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights, while those ranked over 50 were generally opposed. While this ranking system wasn’t perfect, it proved efficient at targeting our intended audience.

However, in areas outside of Salt Lake, where abortion supporters represent a minority, we recalibrated the index to exclude voters with scores over 40 after canvassers in these regions reported that the 50+ exclusion included a significant portion of hostile voters. Adjusting the scoring ceiling to 40 resulted in superior contact lists where abortion supporters were in the minority. Excluding additional voters from our canvass efforts made sense when a short conversation on someone’s front porch wasn’t likely to shift the perspective of a committed anti-choice voter. In addition, the 0 to 40 index included many undecided voters outside of PPAU’s traditional support base.

After fine-tuning the target and list development procedures in Utah, our next step was to recruit volunteers. For a canvassing campaign to be truly successful, the people going door-to-door should know the community. Familiarity and shared experience, even at a surface level, can create meaningful connections during these short encounters. Volunteer recruitment and retainment ultimately proved critical to the campaign’s success. We used several methods to recruit volunteer canvassers, including email blasts, phone banking, and peer-to-peer texting. Phone banking proved most effective in establishing primary relationships with canvassers, while email and text messaging proved effective in communicating logistical information for the time and location of the meet-up. We also encouraged Canvass Leads to announce the availability of free food and free swag for each event. Once canvassers arrived on-site, the leads led a short training covering the basics of canvassing, including role plays, safety guidance, and an overview of the mobile phone canvassing app. When possible, we deployed canvass teams in pairs for safety and compliance. Over time, the most dedicated canvassers built personal relationships with each other and with the canvass leads, creating a strong sense of community.

Canvassing for a candidate is not easy. Going door-to-door for two hours knowing that the next encounter might result in a hostile response is a stressful task. However, if even one person on each list received vital information, or appreciated that their story was heard, our canvassers knew they made a difference. Overall, our campaign reached 3,411 individuals and made face-to-face contact with 633 people. From these encounters, 520 people told us they supported abortion access. In addition, 280 people joined the PPAC email list and 270 requested a PPAC yard sign. In total, our canvassers made 4,375 outreach attempts, with some individuals contacted more than once. Only six of those attempts resulted in hostile encounters.

In the end, this campaign turned out to be the largest and most successful canvass effort in the history of Utah’s abortion rights movement. On the first day our team of 80 canvassers reached over 1,000 people. By the conclusion of the campaign, thousands of Utahns received critical information about changes in abortion access, ways to get involved, and on resources like abortionfinder.org. We believe this framework of precise list-building and volunteer recruitment can help future canvassing campaigns achieve similar levels of success.