Local activists are getting out the vote
MIDDLEBURY— It’s less than four months until the general election, and most door-to-door campaign canvassing is still on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But one Addison County voter engagement group is getting creative about getting citizens to the polls and pioneering a new kind of so-called “take-out activism” that they hope will empower potentially disenfranchised voters in key swing states.
“3 Flipping Things” is an ad-hoc grassroots organization run by Middlebury residents Mike Roy, Gaen Murphree and Lorraine Tobias that aims to secure a Democratic victory in the presidential election by energizing voters in Arizona, Texas, North Carolina and a few other key states.
The centerpiece of the group’s efforts is a postcard campaign focused on getting deregistered voters back on the voting rolls. The advent of social distancing in March halted the monthly meetings at which 3 Flipping Things participants met and wrote out individual postcards to potential voters, but the organizers have figured out a way to keep the card writing going — and even picking up in some cases.
The inspiration for the group came from an email newsletter Roy started putting together leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. At the time, he wanted to get involved in the national movement to flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democratic Party but knew that doing so meant focusing his efforts beyond the Green Mountain State, which has had a Democratic or progressive U.S. Representative since 1991.
“If you live in Vermont, your vote doesn’t count all that much in national elections, because we typically vote Democratic,” Roy said. “So one of the things I was struggling with was, what can we do in Vermont?”
After researching different voter engagement organizations and the most statistically effective strategies, Roy decided to pull together information and resources for people and compile them into simple, “bite-sized” actions. He began sending monthly emails to his friends with three of these actions, which he called the “three flipping things.”
“People only have so much time and money, and you have to figure out how to spend it,” Roy explained. “I realized that we could basically curate the most impactful, high-value steps to encourage people to do, so that instead of having to jump through all the hoops to find that information, we would make it easy for them.”
After the midterms, in which the Democratic Party made a net gain of 41 seats in the U.S. House to clinch the majority, Roy and his friends Murphree and Tobias decided to reconvene in November 2019, a year before the presidential election, to form 3 Flipping Things, which would continue the monthly newsletter and directly organize one of the three actions via an in-person gathering.
This began with monthly gatherings at the Marquis Theater in Middlebury to engage in letter-writing for Swing Left, a national political action committee with various local divisions that seeks Democratic presidential, congressional and statehouse victories. 3 Flipping Things tapped into the Swing Left 2020 “Super State” strategy. That strategy identifies presidential swing states and states with Republican Senate seats most likely to be flipped in the 2020 elections. So-called Super States are also those with Republican gerrymandering — where district borders are manipulated to give a disproportionate advantage to a certain party — that could be changed when districts are redrawn after the 2020 census. From November to February, 3 Flipping Things participants gathered monthly at the Marquis and wrote 1,100 personalized voter registration packets consisting of handwritten letters and voter registration forms, which were sent to unregistered, eligible voters in three super states.
“The whole thing was founded on this idea of community gathering,” said Tobias, who works on digital strategy and product management for 3 Flipping Things. “You sit together, you have a drink. We put people together at tables who didn’t know each other, and you’d meet people.”
When the pandemic hit, the group had to cancel its gatherings and worried it would lose its participation without the community aspect.
Instead, organizers shifted gears. The group linked up with the nonpartisan Reclaim our Vote (ROV) campaign, which partners with the NAACP to combat voter suppression such as purging of voter roles. Purging occurs when voters are deregistered, and it disproportionately affects voters of color. Using ROV’s guidelines, 3 Flipping Things participants send handwritten postcards to deregistered voters informing them that they’ve been deregistered and provide them information on how to get re-registered.
3 Flipping Things’ key innovation: postcard “take-out orders.” Participants can go to the 3 Flipping Things website and ask for a certain number of postcards. Roy, Murphree and Tobias then distribute the postcards, custom labels that include the voter registration instructions tailored for each specific state and a script to the participants directly, who then hand write the script, as well as hand-address and decorate the postcards. Participants usually come to a central distribution point to “take out” their packet of voter lists, scripts and postcards. Participants provide the stamps.
“It’s sort of a retro strategy,” Tobias said. “We’re all so inundated as voters with emails and texts and phone calls, so to then get a handwritten postcard in the mail, that is addressed to you, with colors and drawings ... it sort of cuts through the noise.”
She also found that the process of writing and decorating the postcards really resonated with participants, even during the pandemic.
“In a way, it’s been more effective, because so many people are doing this on their own time, and especially with their family,” Tobias said. “People have really enjoyed sitting down and getting their kids involved.”
HAVING AN IMPACT
In fact, since March, 3 Flipping Things has been doubling its output of postcards almost every month, with 650 postcards in March, 1,500 combined in April and May, and over 3,000 in June, for a combined total 7,000 letters and postcards sent by approximately 150 active participants in the Addison County community.
The impact is already starting to show. On a national scale, research done by political scientists and groups such as the Sister District Action Network points to the success of handwritten letters and postcards in increasing voter turnout. Additionally, 3 Flipping Things saw its their postcard campaign in Dallas, Texas, wasn’t in vain.
“We called the registrar in Dallas to see if there had been any results,” Roy said. “They said something along the lines of, ‘We were wondering what was going on!’ Apparently, they usually have under 100 voter registrations, but within weeks of when we sent our cards, it had jumped to over 1,000.”
Roy said the ultimate measure of success, however, is in the election results themselves.
Now, as the election nears, 3 Flipping Things is looking to gear up further. The group plans to continue its letter writing and postcard campaigns but expand its efforts, perhaps by allowing its participants to get “take-out orders” delivered to friends and family members out of state. They are figuring out what next steps are most resonant and feasible for participants via a survey that recently went live on their website, 3flippingthings.org.
Murphree said these expansions retain the goal of bite-sized, accessible advocacy.
“It’s really heartening at this particular moment in our nation’s history when you decide, ‘I can’t do everything, but I’m going to do this one small thing I think is important,’” she said. “The sense of coming together and doing your part that, especially during the separation of COVID, is so affirming.”