Getting the vote out: Valley Democrats work to move voters in Maine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania

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  • Elaine Fronhofer of Amherst, who has been helping coordinate the work of local Democratic volunteers in get-out-the-vote campaigns, says the energy level has been good — but that a lot of Democrats are also “feeling pretty anxious” about the election.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elaine Fronhofer of Amherst, who has been helping coordinate the work of local Democratic vounteers in get-out-the-vote campaigns, says the energy level has been good — but that a lot of Democrats are also “feeling pretty anxious” about the election. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Christina Maxwell of Northampton has overseen local volunteers making calls to Maine voters, where Democrats are trying to flip the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Susan Collins. She says volunteers can make over 2,500 calls in a night (though they don’t reach that many voters). STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Christina Maxwell of Northampton has overseen local volunteers making calls to Maine voters, where Democrats are trying to flip the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Susan Collins. She says volunteers can make over 2,500 calls in a night (though they don’t reach that many voters). STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sally Linowski and Gloria DiFulvio, on their back porch at their home in Hadley, fill out postcards for Tara Zrinski, a Democrat running for a state representative seat in Pennsylvania. DiFluvio says she works with Democratic officials in Pennsylvania to help with their get-out-the-vote efforts.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The pandemic has cut down dramatically on door-to-door election campaigning this year, so Sally Linowski and Gloria DiFulvio of Hadley are among volunteers who have sent postcards to voters in other states urging them to support Democratic candidates. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The pandemic has cut down dramatically on door-to-door election campaigning this year, so Valley volunteers have sent postcards to voters in other states urging support for Democratic candidates such as Tara Zrinski, who’s running for a state representative seat in Pennsylvania. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The pandemic has cut down dramatically on door-to-door election campaigning this year, so Valley volunteers have sent postcards to voters in other states urging support for Democratic candidates such as Tara Zrinski, who’s running for a state representative seat in Pennsylvania. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/4/2020 12:44:52 PM

The volatile 2020 election campaign took yet another wild turn when President Donald Trump announced Oct. 2 that he and First Lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 — and the news came just days after a bitter debate between Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, that many saw as a new low for American politics.

Despite all the uncertainty, volunteers are trying to stay focused, from Republicans working to keep the president in office to Democrats hoping to flip the Senate. Massachusetts may be a lock for Biden and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, among other Democratic candidates, but voting in many other states is tightly contested.​​​​​​

In the heavily Democratic Valley, volunteers have been busy for months: phoning out-of-state voters and writing them postcards, urging them to get to the polls or mail in their ballots.

A coalition of over two dozen groups, including the Democratic committees of Northampton and several other area towns, has been reaching out to voters in Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Under the umbrella names of 413 Staying Connected and Take Back Our Democracy Coalition, volunteers have been using the pandemic’s go-to tool, Zoom, to meet up and then work on their own from their homes.

Connecting online “is a way for us to feel less isolated when we do this work,” said Christina Maxwell of Northampton, who oversees a phone bank to Maine, where volunteers are hoping to flip the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Susan Collins to her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon. “This is not an easy thing to do, so it’s important we’re able to talk before we get started and then get back together afterwards to assess how the night went.”

“The election is so important this year, and we all feel we have to be doing something,” added Maxwell, who’s the director of programs for The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. “We can’t be on the sidelines.”

Elizabeth Silver, chair of the Northampton Democratic City Committee (NDCC), says many of the same organizations currently involved in election work first coalesced in 2018, as volunteers worked to flip the U.S. House to Democratic control. Phone-banking efforts to Maine for the U.S. Senate race began last fall, Silver said, and in May the groups held a virtual summit with Democratic leaders such as U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, to discuss strategy for the 2020 elections.

Silver says the outreach to other states, done in cooperation with Democratic Party officials there who supply voter lists, is focused on ensuring people vote and alerting voters about their options (or potential roadblocks to casting a ballot). Volunteers call and write (and text) to past Democratic voters, both consistent and occasional ones, as well as independent voters and undecided ones.

For instance, Silver says her coalition is working closely with Democratic officials in Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania, a fairly strong Democratic area but part of a state that Trump narrowly won in 2016 (polls show Biden leading in Pennsylvania this year).

“That’s a must-win state for Democrats,” said Silver, who estimates that collectively “hundreds of [Valley] phone bankers have logged tens of thousands of calls into these states.”

North Carolina is also a key state for outreach efforts, she noted, pointing to close races for the presidency and U.S. Senate (Democrat Cal Cunningham is challenging Republican incumbent Thom Tillis). “We’ve also seen efforts to suppress the vote … this is a state where you really need to have every vote counted.”

Debby Pastrich-Klemer, who helps oversee the North Carolina phone bank, says about 35 to 40 volunteers have been calling weekly to the state; Silver estimates 30,000 phone calls were made to voters there in September.

Though most callers are from this area, Pastrich-Klemer noted, the fact that the activity is virtual this year means “you can can take part in it from wherever you are. We’ve had people joining us from Maryland, New York state, eastern Mass … I guess it’s one silver lining of the pandemic.”

Pastrich-Klemer, a co-founder of the activist group Indivisible Northampton, said she has been encouraged by the reaction her group has gotten from speaking with North Carolina voters. “It can be a little scary calling strangers, especially when things are so polarized,” she said, “but the voters our callers talk to are very polite. There have been some good conversations. A lot of people still seem undecided.”

Elaine Fronhofer of Amherst, a co-founder of another local activist group, Valley Action, says the phone-banking sessions, in which the numbers are generated by software programs, are mostly held on weekday evenings. They begin with a half-hour, Zoom-based training session for newcomers, followed by a meeting with all hands to go over the details before the calls begin.

It can make for a busy evening. Maxwell says the Maine phone bank typically draws 25 to 30 people, each of whom will make about 100 calls during the evening — between 2,500 and 3,000 in total. Though obviously not every call results in a conversation, she added, “There’s still the potential to talk to many people.”

Postcard writing during the pandemic 

For volunteers not comfortable making phone calls, postcard writing has also been an option, said Silver, though that campaign is beginning to wind down with the election just over four weeks away.

Gloria DiFulvio of Hadley has done door-to-door campaigning in past elections, but this year she has been active writing postcards, in part because it fits better with her schedule. Recently, she sat on her back porch, filling out postcards supporting Tara Zrinski, a Democrat running for state representative in Pennsylvania (in Northampton County, of all places).

“We work with the [Democratic] people in the state, who tell us what the needs are,” DiFluvio said. “I like doing this — it’s a reminder for people who maybe haven’t voted consistently in the past that this year it’s really important.”

Fronhofer, who has done volunteer work in previous election years, including knocking on doors, says the energy level among local Democratic volunteers has been good in 2020. But she also notes that “a lot of people are feeling pretty anxious. Everyone feels there’s so much at stake this time.”

She and the other volunteers are reluctant to offer predictions for the upcoming election, although Maxwell says she has been encouraged that polls in the U.S. Senate race in Maine, a contest she and others considered “a real long shot” when they began phone banking last fall, show Gideon with a modest but persistent lead over Collins. “I’m not feeling pessimistic, at least,” she said.

But the volunteers remain deeply concerned by what they see as Trump’s increasingly authoritarian impulses, such as his recent statements that he won’t accept the results if he loses the election, and the deep divisions he has sparked across the country — a country still awash in the pandemic, with no end in sight.

Voter suppression efforts aimed at Democrats also remain an issue, volunteers say. Silver says volunteers will have the opportunity to staff voter hotlines and help monitor polling places for the election.

And it’s not too late to join the effort, says Maxwell. “The stakes are really high this year. We can use all the help we can get.”

For more information, visit 413StayingConnected.org. Elizabeth Silver can also be reached at eliz.silver999@gmail.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@ gazettenet.com.


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