Each election season as campaigns ramp up get-out-the-vote efforts, socially awkward Americans face a dilemma: is it possible to help salvage democracy without having to cold-call anyone?
The letter-writing organization Vote Forward offers a solution. This year, the non-profit says, it inspired more than 182,000 people to send more than 17m personalized letters encouraging others to exercise their rights.
“We’re thrilled with how it went,” said Scott Forman, Vote Forward’s founder. “Early this year we set what felt at the time like an insanely ambitious goal of writing 10m letters, which is an order of magnitude more than we had done in previous years,” he said. “It was pretty wild to see how it got a little bit viral.”
Forman said avoiding tricky conversations was part of the reason he started the program: “I’m not really that enthusiastic in wanting to knock on doors or make phone calls.” During a global pandemic, face-to-face interactions become even less feasible, making the operation – launched in 2017 – feel somewhat prescient.
Now the organization, with just six staff members, has a new task: getting out the vote, especially among underrepresented groups, for Georgia’s crucial Senate runoff elections, which will determine the balance of power in the chamber – and thus shape Joe Biden’s presidency.
The strategy has three parts: boosting voter registration, encouraging people to request ballots, and nudging unlikely voters toward the polls.
Vote Forward’s letter-writing scheme asks volunteers to add a handwritten message beginning with the words “I vote because” on letters that are otherwise prewritten with voting information; volunteers then send the letters to potential voters identified by the organization. So what is the best way to convince Georgians to make their voices heard?
The temptation might be to write something like: “I vote because, though Democrats may not be perfect, many of them still appear to have remnants of a soul. Vote blue!”
But Forman urges a more restrained approach, noting that research has shown non-partisan messages are more effective at increasing turnout than partisan efforts. Though some of Vote Forward’s campaigns target Democratic-leaning voters, these letters are “not a political pitch. It’s about lowercase-D democratic values,” Forman said. “And I personally think that is something we need to try to unify around.”
Indeed, he points out, at a time when many Americans are stuck in political feedback loops and unwilling to listen to the other side, a “warm and neighborly” note can be just the thing to cut through. “I do feel like some of the conspiracy-minded and anti-factual beliefs that people have come from being in bubbles – information bubbles and social bubbles,” Forman said. “Getting this factual and personal piece of mail from a fellow citizen,” he added, might help “to puncture some of those bubbles”.
Forman’s own letters to Georgians, he said, would focus on exercising one’s voice. “I’ve gotten more and more attracted to the idea that voting is about agency,” he said. “So I would write something like: ‘I vote because it’s important to me that my voice be heard by our leaders, and they take my interests into account when they make decisions for all of us.’”
Bria East, a Philadelphia educator who received a Vote Forward letter, supports Forman’s argument: “It was such an unbiased and positive reminder,” East wrote in a letter the organization shared. “This year I am registered to vote but haven’t sent my ballot in. This letter was the motivation I needed to do so.”
Vote Forward also advises against referring specifically to the national stakes of Georgia’s Senate races. “Georgia voters are making a choice about who will represent Georgia, and our messages should respect that,” the group says. Letters should contain positive, inclusive messages and avoid getting into specifics about the issues.
Democrats have a difficult battle ahead as the Rev Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff seek to replace the Republican senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in a traditionally red state. But Joe Biden turned Georgia blue in the presidential race, and Forman has hope for the Senate: “Runoff elections are problematic in that they tend to depress turnout overall,” he noted. But with such high stakes and a new Democratic coalition having formed in the state behind Biden, “my hope is that a lot of people will vote. And if they do, I think that Rev Warnock and Mr Ossoff have a decent chance.”