Postcards become unlikely tool in effort to oust Trump
Each night, after a long day balancing her work researching pediatric blood disorders and supervising her two daughters’ distance learning, Vivian Chang puts her kids to bed and sits down to write dozens of postcards encouraging strangers in swing states to vote.
Chang, a 40-year-old Los Angeles resident, is one of thousands of Democratic activists who have taken to handwriting postcards in order to help defeat President Trump at the polls this November.
“As you can guess, I don’t have a lot of time, so postcard- and letter-writing were the easiest way to feel like I was getting involved in the process,” said Chang, who was inspired to become politically active after Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote in 2016.
In the Chang household, postcard-writing has become a way of life in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Chang’s 7-year-old daughter writes five postcards a day. Her 5-year-old affixes the stamps. On Sundays, Chang hosts postcard-writing Zoom parties with friends and family.
As of Wednesday, her family and close friends have written 6,698 postcards.
“I think getting a handwritten note in the mail is kind of novel at a time when we don’t really send letters to people, and most of what we get in the mail is junk mail or bills,” Chang said.
“So I hope when people see a handwritten message in bright-colored paper or ink, they’ll take a moment to read it and get the message.”
The postcards Chang and her friends have written are among 15.7 million organized through Postcards to Swing States, one of several new groups organizing get-out-the-vote efforts to boost Democratic turnout.
“It’s just a testament to so many people deciding to prioritize participating in democracy in their life,” said Ramsey Ellis, who co-founded the group along with Reid McCollum to oust their local Rep. Peter Roskam (R) in 2018. Since then, they have seen interest in the group explode.
“It just spread really, really, really quickly through word of mouth,” McCollum said.
One reason it was easy to get people on board was because McCollum and Ellis had evidence that the postcards were effective. They found that people who received their postcards were 1.2 percent more likely to vote.
For many, it was an easy entryway into activism for people who might be turned off by the idea of risking contentious exchanges in face-to-face conversations or awkward phone calls.
“We like to call it the gateway drug for activists,” McCollum said.
Ellis said her parents fill out 10 postcards every morning before breakfast.
“They call it their democracy vitamin,” she said.
But one reason postcard-writing may have found particular success this year is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has sworn off door-to-door canvassing, even as the Trump campaign boasts that it knocks on a million doors a week.
The Biden campaign says its top priority is keeping people safe.
“Joe Biden is offering the American people a sharp contrast to the recklessness that has defined Trump’s tenure and his campaign,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin.
“Biden’s campaign has built a holistic, sophisticated voter contact program to meet voters where they are, and his team is having thousands of meaningful conversations every single day with Americans across the country about his plans to finally tackle the virus and build back better after this crisis.”
McCollum says that particular outlet being closed off has led people to search for a different way to engage.
“If not for the pandemic, they would be doing door-to-door canvassing,” he said.
While a postcard may not be as effective as a face-to-face conversation, the simplicity of organizing postcard campaigns makes it a fairly effective use of time and money. Volunteers pay for the postage, by far the most expensive part of a campaign. For the Postcards to Swing States effort, postage totaled $5.5 million.
The Progressive Turnout Project, which gave half a million dollars to fund Postcards to Swing States’s operations, said the personal touch of a postcard stands out in an age of automated messaging and email overload.
“It’s unique and kind of fun to get a handwritten postcard in the mail. It’s not something you get much from campaigns, and certainly not something you get a lot of these days when so much is online,” said spokesman Will Mantell.
“It seems like it may be a bit of an anachronism, but for younger folks who aren’t used to it, it’s really cool.”
Another group, Postcards to Voters, is focused on turning out the vote for down-ballot races. It has already sent 2 million postcards in the 2020 cycle.
The Georgia-based group was founded in 2017 to drum up support for Democrat Jon Ossoff by an activist calling himself “Tony The Democrat,” who said sending postcards was less emotionally taxing and more efficient than making phone calls.
“Postcard-writing ended up being the ideal outlet for introverts,” he said. Recipients, he added, respond to handwritten notes more than glossy mailers.
“You know it’s not junk, you don’t have to open an envelope,” he said. “It’s a postcard, it’s like an open-faced sandwich.”
Postcards to Voters coordinates with Democratic campaigns on messaging, and is able to fire up a group of thousands of volunteers from across the country to send notes on local races or even ballot initiatives, such as the 2018 Florida referendum restoring voting rights to felons.
It is currently focusing on tight Senate races for Ossoff in Georgia, Amy McGrath in Kentucky, and Cal Cunningham in North Carolina. That effort, says Tony, should also help the top of the ticket.
“Even if we don’t mention Joe Biden by name, we know that those voters will vote for Joe Biden,” he said.
Vote Forward, a group seeking to raise turnout among historically underrepresented demographics, has enticed Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of his mega-hit Hamilton to promote their get-out-the-vote project, The Big Send.
The group, which uses personalized form letters instead of postcards, has seen interest explode in the run-up to the election.
“Although we’ve had a steady stream of people doing this over the course of the last few years, we’ve seen really exponential growth, even over the last month or so,” said Executive Director Scott Forman.
On Wednesday, it hit its original 10 million goal, and decided to raise the bar to 15 million.
Forman said letter-writing is a proven way to increase turnout, but is only one of a slew of tools in the toolbox. With evidence that such letters can increase turnout by several percentage points, the campaign could in theory increase turnout by several hundred thousand.
“It could certainly make the difference in close elections,” he said.
For Chang, who is also a Vote Forward volunteer, the knowledge that her efforts could help move the needle are central.
“It’s easy for me living out in California to think that my vote doesn’t matter that much, but in those swing states it’s so critical to get out the vote, and reach those people who stayed home and didn’t vote,” she said.
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