A Throwback Way to Win a Pandemic Election

COVID-19 may have forced the 2020 campaign online, but progressives are trying out an old-fashioned turnout tactic for the fall: letter-writing.

Hulton Archive / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

To win a pandemic election, progressives are going quaint.

The coronavirus outbreak has seemingly turned the 2020 election into a battle for digital supremacy, forcing campaigns to reach voters without rallies, door-knocks, or much of any in-person politicking. Former Vice President Joe Biden is running for president from his basement, and Zoom is the new town square (as well as the new office, schoolhouse, and hangout). Pleas for support via text and email, already a staple of modern campaigns, figure to clog inboxes even more from now until November.

But a coalition of organizations on the left believes that the most effective way to boost turnout this fall is a distinctly old-fashioned form of communication: letter-writing. The group, which includes Swing Left, Indivisible, Daily Kos, and the Women’s March, among others, is this morning launching an effort to write and stockpile 10 million letters—actual handwritten, postage-stamped, snail-mail notes—to send to voters from historically underrepresented demographics in battleground states in October. The personalized messages, written by volunteers who might have otherwise been out in the field registering voters now if not for the near-nationwide lockdown, simply encourage recipients to cast a ballot.

There’s a certain retro logic to the idea. Targeted voters are now so inundated with texts, calls, and emails with desperately worded subject lines that grabbing their attention has become harder and harder. And for many people, what does come through the mail is usually bills, form letters, or slickly produced ads—rarely anything personal.

“What would you do if you got a handwritten letter in the mail? You’d open it!” replied Ethan Todras-Whitehill, Swing Left’s executive director, when I asked him to explain the rationale. “You’d get world-class open rates.”

“It sort of forces you to engage,” he continued. “There’s a visceral thing about it.”

The letter-writing gambit is the brainchild of Scott Forman, a Democrat who had worked for a software company that tested the efficacy of mailed letters in getting people to reduce their energy consumption. After Donald Trump’s election, Forman wanted to see if the same principle could be applied to politics. So in 2017, he ran his own randomized trial during the Alabama special election that sent Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate. Using public voting records and working from his kitchen table, Forman wrote and sent letters to 1,000 Alabama voters, and then compared their turnout rate with that of a control group of 6,000 others who did not receive letters. The rate for those who had received Forman’s letters was more than three points higher.

“I have a bit of a 19th-century personality, so I like to actually send things in the mail,” Forman told me, “and it was fun to be able to show that it actually had an impact.” He created a nonpartisan organization called Vote Forward, which has run letter-writing campaigns over the past two years and is partnering with the progressive groups in 2020. Trials in two subsequent special elections also found that the turnout boost from letter-writing was higher than that from other get-out-the-vote methods (such as emailing, texting, and even door-knocking) in separate studies.

Still, the tactic hasn’t been tried on the scale of anything remotely resembling a presidential election, and national campaigns are a magnet for much-hyped innovations in voter outreach that have a mixed record of success. The mail that voters receive won’t exactly look like a letter from a penpal: While the envelopes are hand-addressed and senders write a personalized message on each one, there’s also a typewritten template that’s similar to other campaign literature. Vote Forward vets senders to help ensure that voters don’t receive inappropriate messages, but it doesn’t check the letters on the way out. (The group helps with the content, but volunteers have to provide their own materials, including stamps.)

At the very least, the progressive activists hope that the campaign—dubbed the Big Send—will help channel the energy of restive, homebound Democrats who are worried that the pandemic will cost them crucial organizing time this spring and summer, and who are itching for something productive to do. Forman said that Vote Forward is already seeing hundreds of sign-ups, translating to thousands of letters, a day. And having the stockpile of letters could help compensate for the lack of a traditional ground game if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall. “Every letter that you write right now is almost like banking door-knocks,” Todras-Whitehill said.

The letter-writing revival may have predated the coronavirus—Vote Forward was already planning a smaller 2020 push before the pandemic hit, Forman said. But the timing of the crisis, and the uncertainty surrounding the fall campaign, prompted it to think bigger. “It definitely feels like it meets the moment,” Forman said.