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Getting out the vote — from out of town

Volunteering in far-flung elections has become widespread. But there’s value in keeping it local.

By Schuyler Velasco

Like many Americans, Carson Christiano found herself with a lot more time on her hands in 2020. She filled it with politics. This fall, as the election neared, the San Francisco resident worked with Postcards to Voters, an organization that uses an AI bot to match volunteers with the addresses of targeted voters. Christiano wrote hundreds of postcards, urging support for down-ballot candidates in distant battleground states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin.

“I used to commute an hour each way. So during COVID I’ve had two extra hours in my day,” says Christiano, 38, the director of a research lab focused on poverty and international development at the University of California at Berkeley. “I’m not socializing as much. I’ve just spent hours and hours watching Homeland and writing postcards.”

Getting involved in far-flung local elections isn’t new: Bostonians drive north to New Hampshire every four years to canvass during presidential primary season; super PACs carpet-bomb Florida and other swing states with TV ads every presidential race. But long-distance advocacy became more commonplace during the Trump era — fueled by technological advances, increased polarization, and a pandemic that left political junkies stuck at home, hungry to do something that matters, and with more detailed information than ever to focus their efforts.

In 2020, initiatives like Crooked Media’s Adopt A State program organized volunteers and raised millions for candidates and grassroots organizers in battleground states. Stephanie Ciancio, 39, another San Francisco resident, drove to Phoenix with a friend on the eve of the presidential election. When she signed in at a local organization sponsored by the Arizona Democratic Party, she noticed a slew of volunteer signups from out of town — Washington, California, Oregon. Her intended activity, monitoring the polls for irregularities, was already fully staffed, so she spent the day canvassing instead, then texted voters on the ride home until the polls closed.

Now, the national focus —and the activist energy — has shifted to Georgia, where two runoffs on Jan. 5 will decide control of the U.S. Senate. “It still feels like October here right now,” says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, near Atlanta. “I expect to see canvassers in my neighborhood soon. The text messages have certainly kept going. I suspect that I am getting phone bank calls on my landline, but I don’t pick them up,” she laughs.

But as more and more engaged voters get involved in faraway elections, some question whether their long-distance actions can match the effectiveness of local, in-person advocacy. Some ask if it’s fair that people who are motivated by national priorities, such as control of the U.S. Senate or the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, should step into races for congressional candidates who are elected to go to Washington to represent local interests. And some question whether these out-of-state efforts wind up hurting as much as they help.

In a New York Times op-ed about Maine’s reelection of Republican U.S. Senator Susan Collins, Robert Messenger wrote that flipping the Senate to Democratic control was a dominant subject in ads and canvassing on the left. Instead, argued Messenger, “the question had to be who was best for Maine; any concerns about [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell were the sole and exclusive property of the people of Kentucky.” Messenger added, “Voters here were able to distinguish local interests from national ones.” 

Christiano sees it differently.“In the past, I always thought that races in other states where none of my business, and vice versa,” she says. But she thinks the stakes are now too high on too many issues, including the threat of climate change and protecting democracy itself, not to act. “Voter suppression and having a Democratic Senate to get policies passed at the national level [are] absolutely my business,” she argues. 

“If you’re only talking to people from D.C., or you’re only giving prominent leadership positions to folks who come from the Beltway, then you’re missing something.”

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University

A few other factors are driving activists to step up their involvement in out-of-state races. Costas Panagopoulos, chair of the political science department at Northeastern University, cites the country’s deepening polarization: As regions grow more entrenched in favor of Democrats or Republicans, he says, very few statewide races are truly competitive — and those that are get outsized attention.

And technology has made it much easier for people to participate in politics from afar, says Gillespie. “You don’t have to convene everybody in the same space in order to make phone calls. You can email somebody a list, or give them a database of phone numbers.” Even cellphones’ nationwide calling plans have lowered the barrier to entry for political activism, she notes. “Not only can you do it from home, you can call anywhere in the continental U.S. for the same price that you can call next door. That’s another reason you couldn’t have done this 30 years ago.”  

What’s more, organizations have cropped up specifically to identify and impact the nation’s most pivotal contests. In addition to writing postcards, Christiano donated to groups including Forward Majority (where her husband volunteers) and Sister District Project, which use big data to funnel donations to state legislative races in the hopes of flipping the districts Democratic. “They have data scientists on their teams, and they’re good at aggregating polling data and kind of figuring out which races are the closest,” she says.

To Christiano, it made perfect sense to get involved in faraway races, even though she’s not politically active in her home city or state. In San Francisco, “the leaders that we have tend to make decisions that I’m comfortable with,” she says. “I’m directing [my time] to places where I feel I can have more of an impact.”

But this impulse to help is rife with potential pitfalls. A 2014 study of campaign volunteers during the 2012 election found that big data allowed campaigns to have a higher volume of conversations with swing voters — via in-person visits, phone calls, or text messages. Yet the study also found that voter outreach could be ineffectual, or even backfire, when the volunteers had little in common with the voters they were courting. “There is powerful evidence that mobilization works better when people are mobilizing their friends and neighbors,” Gillespie says.

When local elections are nationalized, Gillespie says, the messages targeting one state or another begin to run together, even though voters in Maine have different priorities than those in Florida. “The extent to which local issues are being engaged is very, very superficial from both sides of the aisle,” Gillespie says, describing Senate race ads running in Georgia. “The partisan stuff in this race is national, so you don’t really have to hone in.” She notes a spate of ads in Georgia released by the conservative super PAC American Crossroads, painting candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — who espouse fairly mainstream Democratic positions — as leftist radicals. “He’s backed by anti-police extremists because he’s one of them,” says one attack on Warnock. It’s a charge that was also levied at other Democrats in 2020, including President-elect Joe Biden.   

Campaign donations from out of state can also spark backlash that can help the opposite side. When Democrat Jaime Harrison raised $130 million in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina — the highest total ever for a Senate race — it compelled more Republicans to step up their support for Graham. “His opponent had secured an obscene amount of money,” says Maureen Onstott, a retired Florida kindergarten teacher who donated to Graham in response. “I like Lindsey for the way he defended [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh during the [Supreme Court confirmation] hearings.”

In 2020, the attention focused on battleground states became overwhelming. Some voters felt bombarded by political messages on TV, in the mail, and on phones that wouldn’t stop buzzing with form-letter texts from strangers for months on end. With the Georgia runoffs looming, it hasn’t let up. “I made one donation to the Georgia senate race like a month ago, and have been getting texts from random campaign people almost every day since,” complained one Twitter user in Maryland in early December. “I don’t even remember giving them my number, and I DEFINITELY don’t like being texted for donations.”

Ciancio says that while she was text-banking, some voters sent replies complaining about the number of messages campaigns were sending. “I started to think, ‘Oh no, is anybody paying attention to whether or not we’re sending too many texts?’” she says. In the end, she felt, “It’s better to do too much than not enough.”

But Gillespie says organizers can minimize backlash and diminishing returns by keeping their efforts locally grounded and taking time to build relationships with voters. She points to Stacey Abrams’ locally-grown New Georgia Project, which was founded in 2013 to register historically underrepresented voter groups and fight voter suppression in that state. Rather than zeroing in on the elections themselves, the New Georgia Project played the long game over half a decade, using volunteers embedded in communities to register hundreds of thousands of voters in a state that was growing younger and more diverse. “If you’re only talking to people from D.C., or you’re only giving prominent leadership positions to folks who come from the Beltway, then you’re missing something,” Gillespie says. “You can’t make up for the local knowledge.”

Some activists have already taken that to heart. When Michael Marcel, a 26-year-old project manager for a digital health care company, wanted to get involved in the presidential election, he didn’t phone it in from his home in San Francisco or show up solely on Election Day.

Instead, he took advantage of his permanent remote-worker status to move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a month leading up to the election and start the group Vote Ultraviolet with some friends. Using their backgrounds in tech and data science, they identified neighborhoods with low turnout and distributed information there on early voting, the mail-in ballot process, and polling locations. “We thought, we want to be nonpartisan in our approach,” Marcel says.

He estimates they reached about 13,000 of the area’s potential voters. He isn’t sure how that translated into actual votes. But since Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by only about 20,600 votes in Wisconsin, Vote Ultraviolet’s effort may have made a significant impact. By partnering with local organizations, it found a happy medium of sorts between big-data targeting and on-the-ground advocacy.

As the Georgia election approaches, out-of-state volunteers are still dead-set on influencing the race, even if they can’t physically be there. Ciancio, who canvassed in Arizona, is now volunteering for Georgia from her San Francisco home. This month, she signed up to make calls to register new voters in the state.

Ciancio’s experiences this election cycle have made her more mindful of the balance between local and national priorities — to a point. “I don’t want to just be some Californian demanding that Georgians give me a Senate majority,” she says. But “the national consequences affect everyone, and in really intense ways. We just have to be respectful that these people belong to a state and they have local concerns as well. It’s a perspective to be mindful of, but we can’t let ourselves be paralyzed by it.”

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience's Senior Editor.

Top photo: Volunteers write messages at a Postcards to Voters event before the 2018 midterm elections. Photo by Spencer Allen/Associated Press

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