Amplifying Voices

‘A labor of love’: Postcard campaign writers seek to increase voter turnout in midterm elections

By October 30, 2018 No Comments

On a second-floor loft above a raucous bar full of enthusiastic NFL fans in San Francisco’s Richmond District, several dozen people sit quietly on barstools around high top tables.

Every one of them is hunched over small squares of paper, scribbling furiously, never once glancing at the four screens above them blaring the matchup between the Eagles and the Giants.

The 40 or so men and women ages 20- to 70-something, are crafting personal messages on postcards to persuade registered Democrats in an Arizona state legislative district to get to the polls. It’s Oct. 11, just weeks before a midterm election that some in the room feel could be the most important of their lives so far.

“I know as a woman we live in a shit storm,” said postcard writer Jill Alvarez, a 44-year-old professional recruiter living in San Francisco. “I feel gaslit, I feel lied to. I feel like no one’s going to save the day, it’s all going to go to hell.”

Spread out in front of her is a sheet of paper provided by the organizer, Sister District Project, listing the do’s and don’ts of postcarding etiquette, talking points — that voters can cast ballots for both Bobby Tyler and Felicia French for two seats in the Arizona State House of Representatives — and a sample script that writers can choose to use.

“This is as important an election as we have ever had!” reads a portion of the script.

Alvarez said she was compelled to double down on her unsuccessful campaign attempts from the last general election. But this time, she chose to write postcards hoping to avoid the slightly horrifying experience she had in 2016 while phone banking.

“It was supposed to be Democrats,” Alvarez said. “I called and said, ‘Are you going to be getting out? Do we have your support for Hillary?’ And the first guy I talked to said he wouldn’t piss on her guts if she was on fire. So I just said, ‘No.’”

Sitting alone in the Richmond Republic Draught House pub, Alvarez said postcard writing is a better fit for her.

“It’s something to do with idle hands, to make you feel less powerless,” she said.

Writing postcards is a growing trend in electioneering this year. It’s attracting the attention of an electorate made weary by door knocking, phone banking, mass leafleting and even relatively modern techniques like mass texting, according to the event organizer, Natalie Burdick, co-chair of Sister District San Francisco.

Sister District SF drew more than 80 participants who wrote more than 1,000 postcards collectively during that Oct. 11 event alone, Burdick said.

With multicolored pens strewn about her workspace, 48-year-old software technician Inger Hogstrom said writing postcards provides a catharsis from the daily barrage of infuriating political news.

“I’m getting tired of being angry all the time and it’s nice to have an outlet and to actually channel that into action,” she said.

As someone who never answers her phone and detests texts, she said, this means of reaching out suits her introverted nature.

“This feels a lot less intrusive,” she said.

The former art student enjoys what she calls “craft hour” so much that she also does it at her kitchen table every night after dinner for a get-out-the-vote campaign called Postcards To Voters.

That campaign began in March 2017. As of Oct. 13, it included more than 20,000 writers sending out 3 million postcards so far, according to the Postcards To Voters website.

It remains to be seen whether postcard writing works a way to increase voter turnout. But there is some evidence that it helps boost registration, according to a joint study involving the Sister District Action Network and the Voter Participation Center.

The study was conducted after more than 57,000 postcards were sent to Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona in March 2018. It found that people were 20 percent more likely to complete a voter registration form if it was sent to them after they received a handwritten postcard.

But that’s just voter registration — the impact of postcards on voter turnout has yet to be studied.

Rose Hendricks, a postcard campaign devotee and a researcher at the Washington, D.C., communications think tank FrameWorks Institute said that in order to truly study the effectiveness of such a campaign, you’d have to standardize the messages and the embellishments on the cards. And for many, that would defeat the purpose.

“Personally, I’m willing to forgo the hard proof on this one in exchange for maximizing inclusivity and participation in the democratic process,” Hendricks wrote in a recent blog post.

“Whether it’s effective for the recipient, I know that creating the postcards is a positive outlet for my political angst. I don’t need research to show me that.”

Alameda resident Anna Martin, 54, said that for her, the activity is extremely personal.

As a volunteer for Flip the 14, a campaign aimed at defeating California’s 14 Republicans in Congress, Martin always ponders the name, the address and just who it is she’s writing to before crafting a message. Her postcards even bear her daughter’s graffiti-style artwork of hearts in spray-painted layers of various colors.

“It’s something that I can do every single night with my anxiety,” Martin said, “because I think they want us scared and depressed and home thinking there’s nothing we can do, so it’s important to keep working, and keep trying and keep doing something every day.”

She doesn’t know how effective it is, but having faith that her efforts will not go to waste is enough, she said.

“It’s an attempt. I have no proof that it works, but I do think it’s worth a try,” she said.

Martin’s friend, 63-year-old Alameda resident Joni Mahler, said despite the unknown, the amount of time, thought, effort and money she has put into postcard campaigns feels worthwhile.

“It’s a fight worth fighting,” she said. “It’s really a labor of love.”

Top photo: San Francisco residents write postcards urging Democrats to vote in a Arizona state legislative district race during a postcard writing event organized by Sister District San Francisco at the Republic Draught House pub. (Photo by Sylvie Strum)