Po­lit­i­cal par­ties test­ing new strate­gies to get out vote in Tues­day’s pri­maries


HARRISBURG, Pa. — Tues­day’s pri­maries in eight states are the big­gest test to date of cam­paign­ing dur­ing the coron­avirus era, a way for par­ties to test-drive new ways of get­ting out the vote dur­ing a time when it can be dan­ger­ous to leave your home.

Vot­ers from Penn­syl­va­nia to Iowa to New Mex­ico will cast bal­lots in both the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial con­test, where for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den is the only contender with an ac­tive cam­paign, and a host of down-bal­lot pri­maries for ev­ery­thing from gov­er­nors to state rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Many states post­poned elec­tions sched­uled be­tween mid­March and May to the date be­cause of the coron­avirus out­break.

The other states vo­ing are Mon­tana, Wis­con­sin, Mary­lahnd, Rh­ods Is­land and South Dakota.

Un­able to send can­di­dates out to barn­storm the states or vol­un­teers to knock on vot­ers’ doors, cam­paigns have had to

im­pro­vise. One Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­can con­gres­sional cam­paign re­cruited 100 peo­ple, in­clud­ing its can­di­date’s large ex­tended fam­ily, to hand-write thou­sands of let­ters to vot­ers urg­ing sup­port. An­other or­ga­nized “pop-up food banks” for the needy. Oth­ers moved up tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on a cap­tive au­di­ence locked down at home. Democrats have cre­ated a phone bank­ing model al­most along the lines of a tech­nol­ogy sup­port hub, where knowl­edge­able vol­un­teers and staffers can guide con­fused vot­ers, step by step, through the process of vot­ing by mail.

Some vot­ing ex­perts pre­dict half or more of all bal­lots cast in the Novem­ber elec­tion will be sent through the mail, as the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion rec­om­mends as a way to lessen risk of ex­po­sure to the virus at polling sta­tions. States have scram­bled to ad­just to the new re­al­ity with some send­ing ev­ery voter an ab­sen­tee bal­lot re­quest.

In Iowa, the tra­di­tional frenzy of pre-pri­mary bar­be­cues and ral­lies has shifted to twice-a-week Zoom train­ing of vol­un­teers for Demo­cratic Se­nate can­di­date Theresa Green­field, who then start di­al­ing vot­ers to en­sure they’ve re­quested and re­turned their mail bal­lots.

“Just be­cause we’re stay­ing home doesn’t mean we’re stand­ing still,” said Sam New­ton, com­mu­ni­ca­tion di­rec­tor for Green­field.

The great­est at­ten­tion is on Penn­syl­va­nia. It’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously the big­gest state vot­ing on Tues­day, the only one that is likely to be a pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­ground in Novem­ber and the state that’s seen the big­gest shift in vot­ing in the COVID-19 era.

That’s be­cause this is the first statewide elec­tion un­der a new, more per­mis­sive mail vot­ing law passed last year. In 2016, only 4.6% of the state’s vot­ers cast a bal­lot by mail. Now 21% of all the state’s 8.5 mil­lion vot­ers have al­ready re­quested ab­sen­tee bal­lots.

Democrats are over­whelm­ingly the ones ask­ing to vote by mail — 1.3 mil­lion have filed re­quests, com­pared with 525,000 Repub­li­cans, state records show. That’s partly a re­flec­tion of GOP distrust of mail vot­ing that’s been stoked by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who’s claimed with­out ev­i­dence it will lead to wide­spread fraud. Even the Trump cam­paign, rec­og­niz­ing that get­ting sup­port­ers to mail bal­lots in is key to win­ning elec­tions, has been push­ing Repub­li­cans to use the tech­nique.

Some Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­cans have wor­ried Trump is hob­bling the party by mak­ing its vot­ers distrust the eas­i­est method of vot­ing dur­ing the pan­demic.

Democrats are elated with their mail bal­lot lead, say­ing it re­flects their vot­ers’ ex­cite­ment. “They’re will­ing to crawl through bro­ken glass to make sure they par­tic­i­pate,” said Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee spokesman David Berg­stein.

The Demo­cratic Party has also shifted its cam­paign tac­tics, build­ing upon its suc­cess in Wis­con­sin, where the state party pushed mail vot­ing heav­ily and Democrats won a con­tested state supreme court elec­tion in April. The party has dis­trib­uted new call scripts to vol­un­teers with de­tailed in­struc­tions on mail vot­ing and en­sured there are ex­perts who can walk con­fused vot­ers through re­quest­ing bal­lots.

Penn­syl­va­nia has re­vealed one po­ten­tial weak spot for Democrats in the mail vot­ing era — African Amer­i­cans vot­ers, who op­er­a­tives say have been re­quest­ing bal­lots at lower rates. Claudette Wil­liams, a black Demo­crat run­ning for a state leg­isla­tive seat in eastern Penn­syl­va­nia, has had to re­place her reg­u­lar cir­cuit of black churches with reg­u­lar Zoom calls with black min­is­ters and their parish­ioners. Her cam­paign has also or­ga­nized “pop-up food banks” to dis­trib­ute food to the needy, at a dis­tance, dur­ing the out­break.

Repub­li­cans have also been test­ing new ways of reach­ing vot­ers. Once the lock­downs be­gan, it switched its or­ga­niz­ing push to on­line meet­ings, says it re­cruited 300,000 new mem­bers.

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