Voter turnout in Philadelphia just barely exceeded 2016 levels in the 2020 general election, but a few wards saw noticeably higher turnout than some of their neighbors, and for that, some credit is due to the independent efforts of some individual Democratic ward organizations and committee people.
Based on informal surveys of committee people in different parts of the city, there’s not much evidence there was a strategy or voter contact program coming from the top of Democratic City Committee this year, despite the outsized importance of the Presidential race for the city. But some wards and individual committee people organizing independently stepped into the void to organize voter contact programs on their own that appear to have paid off.
One such effort was the subject of an op-ed by Rebecca Poyourow, a committee person in the 21st Ward covering Roxborough and Manayunk, where there was an eye-catching turnout increase in part due to effective organizing geared toward PA’s new vote-by-mail program. Poyourow's op-ed provides a helpful blueprint for what other wards or individuals can do in their communities in future elections.
Here’s how we did it: We knew that in a pandemic, we needed to educate people on how to use Pennsylvania’s new vote-by-mail option. We started with a bunch of committee people and our friends and relatives. A fellow committee person designed a great postcard about voting by mail, and we all chipped in to print copies. In late August/early September, we hand-wrote and hand-delivered or mailed 7,000 of them to our neighbors who were registered Democrats and had not voted in the primary. Our primary source of data was VoterWeb, a voter database system similar to VAN/VoteBuilder, but tailored for Pennsylvania and geared for local committee people.
As data became available identifying which voters had not yet requested mail-in ballots for the general election, we focused more closely on those people, especially younger and/or newly registered voters, including those who didn’t necessarily have records of voting frequently. Another 7,000 letters, individually signed and hand-delivered or mailed to neighbors, went out in late September/early October. Almost 50 people helped to write, label, and deliver those 14,000 mailings.
Finally, we followed up with the people we reached out to, texting, calling, and knocking on doors. Neighbors thanked us, and several asked if they could help us spread the word. By the end of September, 10,412 of the Democrats in the 21st Ward had requested mail-in ballots. The momentum kept growing, and by Election Day, 13,681 Democrats in the ward had requested ballots with 92% of those ballots returned.
This is important because the vote-by-mail program is here to stay and will continue to be an important source of votes in our lower-turnout cycles too, and this is something that traditional ward organizations haven’t yet mastered. In some wards, 50% or more of the votes were cast before Election Day, rendering the typical program of having committee people stand outside polling places with sample ballots much less effective of a persuasion tactic.
For those who are currently serving as committee people, or are thinking about running in the 2022 election cycle, this kind of campaigning is a key skill that the party is going to have to learn, so it’s great to see some of the more entrepreneurial wards devise programs like this, and experiment with different approaches to see what works.