By Marianne Novoy
As November approaches, with a national election posing a crucial choice, many different groups are attempting to get out and influence the vote.
One of the groups, national in scope but with its largest membership in Southwestern PA, is the Order of the Phoenix, which already has some successes to its credit. Its Facebook page says,” We are a grassroots organizing network focused on getting progressive candidates elected and holding our representatives accountable. The Order burst forth from the ashes of the 2016 Presidential Election.” Marie Norman, who coordinates the group and administers the Facebook page, writes, “Members decide individually where they want to focus. Together, we have worked on campaigns for US House, state House, state Senate, county council, district attorney, and judgeships.” Local members contributed to the recent wins of Emily Kinkead, Jessica Benham, and Summer Lee, whose opponents in the June Democratic primary were endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. They canvas (easier before the pandemic), raise money, make phone calls, send texts, and write postcards to voters.
The Order of the Phoenix is part of a national trend. Lara Putnam, Pitt historian who both studies and participates in grassroots organizing, wrote in Vox in March 2019, “Last year, the number of Democratic volunteers was higher than for any midterm cycle for which we have nationwide data.” In 2018, “volunteers and paid canvassers working with progressive groups and Democratic campaigns” knocked on 155 million doors, even more than the 111 million in 2016. The volunteers (many from Order of the Phoenix) who knocked on 15,700 doors trying to replace homophobe Daryl Metcalfe with Daniel Smith, Jr., improved on the previous challenger’s margin by 19 points, and Smith is trying again this November, with their help. Putnam writes, “The people doing the work on the ground are disproportionately middle-aged or older, female, and unlikely to tweet.”
Another group getting out the vote in Pittsburgh is Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network Southwest, known as PIIN. Recently Rev. Cynthia Jarrold, policy director for Gamaliel, a national umbrella for community organizations, spoke at an online meeting organized by PIIN about the Integrated Voter Engagement Program, which PIIN is implementing here. Integrated Voter Education is ambitious in a different way—it focuses on people statistically unlikely to vote (because they are younger, or of color, or female, especially if they are single) and then attempts to develop them not just as voters but also as leaders. The idea is, when contacting people, to focus on quality rather than quantity—to ask about deep concerns coming from life experiences.
The North Bay Organizing Project in Sonoma County, California, for example, discovered that many people felt they needed protection from their landlords raising their rent and/or evicting them. This led to a campaign for the “Right to a Roof,” including caps on rent, and eventually to significant transformation of city ordinances. Because Integrated Voter Engagement had created a community of people who could work together, when the wildfires came to Sonoma this community could raise money for undocumented immigrants, who were uninsured and particularly vulnerable to having their homes destroyed. In Wisconsin, WISDOM, a state umbrella like PIIN, involved formerly incarcerated people in successfully advocating for legislation that sent more people to alternative treatment programs, cut the use of solitary confinement, increased the number of people released on parole, and expanded the transitional jobs program.
PIIN will hold further online trainings for Integrative Voter Engagement. Ronnie Cook Zuhlke, ronniecooks@ gmail.com, will have more information. As a nonprofit organization, PIIN cannot advocate for or against specific political candidates, but it can sponsor educational activities which reveal various candidates’ stands on their issues, and the activists they have developed become more likely to vote.
The League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh is a non-partisan organization whose primary purpose is to encourage voting. According to Judy Clack (voterservice@lwvpgh. org), COVID-19 has forced a huge change in their formerly in-person efforts. Candidate forums (debates) before every election will be done remotely and uploaded in full on their Facebook page. Voter information will be distributed as cards at food banks, senior housing units, and agencies. High school students will be reached by electronic lessons. Vote411.org, the LWV online voters’ guide, continues to provide candidate information before every election.
And, of course, the Democratic Party is also engaging in telephone attempts to turn out voters. According to first-time volunteer Anita Mallinger, “You ask people how they are doing, how their health is, and who they like for Vice President.” She says that most voters she called were really disappointed with the way Trump handled the virus and the protests.
With the corona virus probably still threatening crowded rooms, the no-excuse mail-in vote will be very popular in Pennsylvania this November 3. The people counting the votes, probably at the Elections Office (604 County Office Building, 542 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh 15219), may take several days to finish. Whatever happens on Election Day will not be the end of the story.
Marianne Novy is a long-time member of the Thomas Merton Center and the chair of the Social Justice and Outreach Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 5. July/August, 2020. All rights reserved.