All Hands on Pens

Ink on paper is now a major progressive campaign tool

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On an August Saturday afternoon, 14 people are using tech to do something very not-tech: handwriting postcards. They’re attending a Zoom event, sponsored by Indivisible East Bay (IEB), that will send handwritten postcards to Iowa voters, alerting them about requesting absentee bal-lots, and urging votes for Democratic Senate challenger Theresa Greenfield.

The pandemic has upset many traditional forms of political campaigning, at least for those who believe Covid-19 isn’t a hoax. No fundraising house parties, no door-knocking, no big campaign rallies. And while technical advances—phone banking with cell phones, text banking—have emerged as major substitutes, the power of the pen has made a surprising return. National progres-sive groups and their local affiliates have been writing both letters and postcards since before the 2018 elections. The need to stay home has substantially accelerated the use of actual ink.

National organization Vote Forward coordinates sending letters to likely voters in swing states. Without promoting individual candidates, the letters encourage recipients to vote, and to check whether they are still registered to vote. Volunteers sign up online to send designated numbers of letters, and are sent a form letter that they personalize with voters’ names and with their own first names as a signature.

Scott Forman, Vote Forward executive director, described assembling “a broad coalition of both non-partisan and partisan groups” helping promote the effort, including Indivisible, People for the American Way, Daily Kos, Democracy in Color and Swing Left. “Many of them reached out to us, looking for ways to engage their audiences in effective and safe action to increase voter turnout in this unusual election year,” he said.

According to Forman, independently validated, randomized control trials have shown the let-ters are effective in turning voters out, including a 3.4 percent increase in Alabama in 2017, and a 2 percent increase in Pennsylvania in 2019. “These are very large effect sizes, so we believe letter writing is one of the most effective actions for volunteers to take this year, especially from afar,” he said.

El Cerrito resident Ted Lam, a member of IEB’s governance committee, met with Forman in early 2018, and recommended adopting Vote Forward letter writing. He estimates he’s sent 500 letters so far, with hundreds more stacked for October sending.

Another Vote Forward volunteer, Pleasanton resident Ward Karnowsky, belongs to both IEB and Swing Left. He’s been writing letters for more than a year, and mentioned a major 2020 goal: Mailing 10 million letters nationwide in “The Big Send.”

Feedback from volunteers is very positive, he said. “This is an activity that can be done quick-ly and easily — 20 letters can be completed in an hour by one person. Also, folks that may be in-timidated by something like phone banking find letter writing more in their comfort zone.”

Debbie Raucher, Oakland resident and volunteer Swing Left East Bay steering committee member, said her group began to coordinate with Vote Forward in 2019. She estimates Swing Left letter writing parties have sent 53,000 letters. That is likely an undercount, as the group is not track-ing letters people write on their own outside of organized events. Letters being written currently focus on getting people to the polls, and are being banked for October mailing. They’ll go to swing states Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Georgia, Colorado and Arizona.

Raucher noted, “We have about the same number of organized parties now as we did prior to the pandemic, but my sense is that a lot more people are writing letters on their own now.”

Unlike Vote Forward letters, some postcards being sent urge support for Democratic and pro-gressive candidates. IEB began postcarding before the 2018 election, and has a “solid core” of 40 volunteers who write weekly, besides the Zoom events, held one or two times per week. Since the pandemic started, output has increased from 200 postcards every other week to an estimated 1,500 per week. Addresses and scripts are coming from partners nonpartisan Reclaim Our Vote and pro-gressive Flip the West, and the group is getting about 10 contacts a week from new volunteers.

El Cerrito residents Alice Towey and Matt Blackwell hosted the IEB virtual postcarding party mentioned above. The couple started hosting in 2018, writing cards supporting TJ Cox, running for Congress in CA-21. Cox won an upset victory by 862 votes. “That really highlighted for us how even the smallest political actions can have an impact,” said Towey.

They continue to write postcards for Cox, facing a rematch against the Republican he ousted, as well as Flip the West and Reclaim Our Vote. “ROV is a great organization fighting voter sup-pression, working in partnership with organizations like the NAACP and Mi Familia Vota,” said Towey. “Through ROV, we've written to voters in Georgia and Mississippi who may have been taken off the voter rolls, letting them know how to check their voter registration status.”

Towey described postcarding as “an easy, low-pressure way to introduce political activism to people who haven't been involved before.”

All those interviewed agreed that the networking groups are now doing to coordinate letter writing and postcarding has increased the efforts’ effectiveness. “In 2016, Trump won Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada by margins of less than 1.5 per-cent,” said Raucher.

But she also sounded a note of caution, stating, “One obstacle has been USPO delays.”

The current administration’s war on the post office is unlikely to change that.

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