When Scott Forman started a software-assisted letter-writing campaign to get out the vote in 2017, he had no idea it would become the perfect strategy for 2020’s global pandemic election. Today, his nonprofit, Vote Forward, has recruited volunteers to pen over 11.5 million letters and counting that will be sent later this month to unlikely voters across the nation.
“It’s one of the biggest tactics in our unusual year where it’s no longer possible to knock on people’s doors,” Forman told The Daily Beast. Older volunteers at higher risk of severe COVID-19 complications are looking for a grassroots organizing method they can do safely from home, he said.
The tactic is grounded in political science data that letter-writing works to get people to the ballot box. However, it speeds up that process through software that matches volunteers with potential voters using public voting histories. Using a mix of “carefully calibrated, politically neutral“ language and personal stories, volunteers are paired with five or more unlikely voters via Vote Forward software, which uses public voter registries to target underrepresented voting groups, particularly people of color.
“What the website does is basically match volunteers with voters who we believe are relatively unlikely to vote,” Forman said, adding that it takes into account selected registrants’ voting histories or lack thereof. In 15 minutes, people can print and fill out auto-generated PDFs with a section left blank to handwrite their reasons for voting this year.
Forman explicitly notes Vote Forward’s nonpartisan aim of increasing voter turnout regardless of political affiliation. However, political research has long shown that higher turnout favors Democratic candidates in the South, although how turnout might affect Trump’s ability to 2020 has been called into question.
In April, Vote Forward partnered with the progressive group Swing Left and 30 other organizations to launch The Big Send, hoping to have 10 million letters written and mailed on Oct. 17 in one fell swoop.
“We did 1,000 in 2017. A million in 2018. And two million in 2019,” Forman says.
By late September, it had already reached that goal and revised its aim to 15 million. Helped by grassroots Zoom letter-writing parties and a few celebrities like Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Keiko Agena of Gilmore Girls fame, Vote Forward has the potential to turn out longtime nonvoters in an election where 860,000 people had voted by late September, compared to just 10,000 in 2019, potentially moving the dial on whether Trump stays in the White House. Corporate America has even gotten into the mix, with PayPal and Patagonia using the platform to encourage employees to vote.
“We see this as a complementary approach to targeting voters,“ says Luke Goetting, an organizer for Swing Left Austin. “So much political outreach is very partisan and in your face. We love this as a personalized, non partisan and intimate way to connect with people.” Texas ranked 41st in voter turnout in 2019. Swing Left Austin obviously has its horse in the race, Gotteing says, but also believes that if Texans of any political affiliation were involved, politicians at the local and state level would be held more accountable.
“Voter turnout is so low in Texas and voter suppression is so high,” added fellow organizer Meghan Ross. “Texas voter to Texas voter, telling them why we vote.”
On Oct. 1, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would limit ballot drop-off boxes to a single location per county, a move Texas Democrats expect to challenge in federal court.
Letter writing may not be the flashiest form of organizing, Goetting admits, particularly as a millennial. “I’m not sure that I’ve written a letter formally in years,” he confessed. But during this pandemic-stricken election cycle, grassroots organizers will take what they can get—to the tune of 11.5 million letters and counting before send out day on Oct. 17.