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A cutting-edge 2020 tactic to get out the vote: Handwritten letters


By Shay Castle

The hand-addressed envelope stood out to Bria East, next to the sleek flyers featuring smiling politicians promising criminal justice reform or tax cuts. It had been a while since anyone had written to East, 26; the letter, signed only “Maria,” evoked her childhood pen pals.

Maria didn’t provide personal details — no last name, no political affiliation. Instead, she wrote about children and the importance of policies that protect them. It made East wonder if Maria was, like her, an educator.

East, who lives just outside of Philadelphia, connected with one other part of the letter: A plea to vote in the upcoming election. So she did, casting a ballot in a presidential race for only the second time in her life, and the first since 2012. Having just graduated and in the midst of a move, East did not vote in 2016.

“That was something that constantly bothered me,” she said, adding that receiving the letter spurred her to fill out the ballot that was lying untouched in her home. “Voting right now is something I need to get out and do.”

That outcome was exactly the aim of Vote Forward, a campaign targeting historically underrepresented populations — young people, Asian Americans, Black people, Latinos and Native Americans — and likely Democratic voters who sat out the last presidential election.

The effort was twofold: a nonpartisan attempt to encourage voter engagement across the board and a parallel bid to increase Democratic turnout in battleground states.

For the latter, Vote Forward joined with Swing Left, whose goal is to elect Democrats to seats held by Republicans in local and national races. The organization focused on flipping Senate and statehouse seats in 12 states.

Many registered voters are more entrenched than ever this year; just 5% of those surveyed in August by the Pew Research Center said they were likely to change their minds about their preferred presidential candidate. That’s why voter-engagement groups have looked to mobilize new and inactive voters this election cycle.

Vote Forward said it corralled 182,509 volunteers and mailed 17.5 million messages to voters in 21 states. The letters were sent en masse last week in a coordinated endeavor nicknamed The Big Send.

The nonpartisan nature of Maria’s letter was part of its draw for East. “I don’t want to scream or yell or fight with anybody,” she said, adding, “this was a pleasant, calm way” to engage.

The personal touch is key, said Scott Forman, 37, who founded Vote Forward in 2017 when he sent 1,000 handwritten notes to Alabama voters before that year’s special Senate election, in which Doug Jones, the Democrat, defeated the Republican, Roy Moore.

Forman identified 2,000 registered but inconsistent voters that year, meaning they had voted in some elections but not others. Half were sent letters; turnout among recipients was 3.4 percentage points higher than in the control group.

Later races in Ohio and Virginia showed smaller returns, between 1 to 2 percentage points, Forman said. But it proved his theory that something “old-fashioned and authentic” could tip the scales.

“People’s handwriting is a real, concrete thing,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to imagine a personal letter from another human being ever being something you would totally ignore.”

The efficacy of personalized political messaging is well established, according to experts. A face-to-face conversation with a neighbor or friend is better than a phone call from a stranger; a phone call is better than a form letter.

“People are moved by genuine, heartfelt communications,” said Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. “Anything that cuts through the ads and glossy mailers and says, ‘Hey you don’t know me, but this election is so important and I really hope you’ll vote.’ It’s hard to manufacture that.”

That’s particularly true when it comes to voters who have been left out of traditional outreach efforts, said Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College in Atherton, California, and the co-author of “Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns.”

Members of marginalized communities have received less attention from canvassers for decades because they were considered more costly and time-consuming to reach, Michelson said, and the chance of increasing turnout was thought to be lower than among white suburban women or some other swing groups.

“If you’re a low-propensity voter, it doesn’t feel like you’re being invited to vote,” Michelson said. TV ads with inspiring messages about how every voice matters, she said, can be perceived as “noise going out into the void. In contrast, if you get a handwritten letter, I’m being invited in.”

While evidence has shown phone calls or in-person conversations are more persuasive than letters, Hersh said, it can also be harder to ensure contact through those tactics, as voters often choose not to pick up the phone or answer the door.

“It’s easier to get that letter into more people’s hands,” he said.

This year’s Big Send was the largest undertaking so far for Vote Forward, which engaged more than two dozen corporate, political and nonpartisan partners. Volunteers organized groups in dozens of cities, some churning out thousands of letters.

Vote Forward’s success at recruiting volunteers in 2020 may simply reflect Americans’ increasing political engagement, said Jan Leighley, a professor of government at American University. A global health crisis has served as a connecting event much like other national tragedies, and the handling of the pandemic has demonstrated to voters that it matters who sits in the White House.

“People see their lives being affected by politics,” said Leighley. “They see a connection to the consequences of who is elected.”

The pandemic may have helped the group’s efforts in another way. As the coronavirus slowed or scuttled in-person canvassing, letter writing enabled people to volunteer from the safety of home.

Maria Eckert, 68, wrote 159 letters for Vote Forward over the course of about two months, including the one that reached East. Eckert, a New Jersey resident and — as East intuited — former early childhood and special education teacher, said she got “goose bumps” upon learning about the fruits of her labor, her first foray into political volunteering.

“I hate to admit it, but I took democracy for granted for many years,” said Eckert. “I’m not as comfortable making phone calls or trying to persuade people for one side or the other. This was a great opportunity for me.”

“The one thing I was hoping,” she added, “was that one person out of all those letters would vote.”

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