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Are You Concerned About Democracy?

Raise your hand if you worry about the survival of democracy in the United States. I see you.

Given the recent “Trump years” of fascistic bullying in the American government, the January 6th attack, and the rantings of your favorite hypocritical politician, it’s no wonder so many of us are on the verge of writing off our democracy as unfixable.

But please don’t.

Instead of caving into doom porn as we approach the Midterms, I invite you to join my friends and me in something we’ve done during recent election cycles:

Sending letters encouraging underrepresented citizens to vote

table filled with letters, stamps, and hands of people writing

Writing letters together

Knocking on doors and making phone calls can rally people to the polls, but writing letters to potential voters is an introvert’s dream. (And for the socially inclined, you can still do this with friends!)

VoteForward is a well-regarded nonprofit organization that makes the process easy. Volunteers focus on writing “get out the vote” letters directed toward voters who are “underrepresented in our electorate, including people of color and young people”, or to “voters with partisanship scores indicating their likelihood to vote for Democrats.” The messaging uses nonpartisan language, which has proven effective in turning out more voters — including those in districts that made a difference in the 2020 election.

How it works

With VoteForward, there’s a simple sign-up in order to be approved as a volunteer, after which you follow the basic steps:

  1. Choose a campaign and download letters with the addresses of registered voters for that district.

  2. Print the pre-formatted letters.

  3. Add a hand-written message about why you vote.

  4. Address letters using your own envelopes and stamps (some all-included letter-kits are even available).

  5. Mail the letters on a date predetermined by VoteForward, timed for maximum impact.

From personal experience I can tell you that it only takes about 15 minutes to write and address five letters. (You can explore the entire process here.)

completed letters and postcards to voters

L: Completed letters to voters; R: Postcards to voters

As an aside, another great organization is Postcards for Voters, which supports Democrats in small, local campaigns around the country. It’s an LLC (as opposed to a 501c4 nonprofit) which enables it to be more overtly partisan. The process is similar to VoteForward, except that volunteers are also tasked with hand-writing the entire message using a campaign’s talking points.

I personally found postcard writing to be more cumbersome and time-consuming, so I prefer volunteering with VoteForward — although many people like gathering colored pens and getting creative with their postcards.

Either organization is worth your effort!

But *does* it work?

A detailed analysis of the 17 million letters written for VoteForward in 2020 indicates that ~1% more voters turned out who otherwise would have not bothered. That may not sound like much, but even VoteForward’s conservative estimate of 126,000 net votes made a difference in 2020. Furthermore, the organization actively studies how it can do better, so I expect the positive impact of its letter-writing efforts will only improve over time.

If we look at the presidential election, we know Joe Biden won by over 7 million votes. But because of the archaic US Electoral College system (and its racist origins), the states that went “blue” by a razor-thin margin could have easily gone the other way.

For example, in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, Biden won by less than a 1% margin. And in several other states, he won by less than a 5% margin. Though we may not be able to parse out every factor involved in garnering pro-democracy votes (or quashing them because of anti-democracy efforts), there is no doubt that even a 1% gain in votes makes the VoteForward letter-writing campaign worthwhile.

Where this effort can lead us

Right now there is a decent chance the Senate will remain in the hands of those who respect democracy. But the House is another story. So my friends and I are focused on writing letters to voters in “toss-up” Congressional districts.

We know that election forecasts have questionable value, but focusing on “toss-up” districts (or even “Lean Democratic”) is a solid strategy. With news coming out daily about the Jan 6th attack and the illegally kept top-secret documents at Mar-a-Lago (to name just two issues) we have a greater chance of swaying voters toward pro-democracy candidates come November.

If collective efforts pan out, the US will have a House and Senate controlled by those who respect democracy and inclusivity. When that happens things will shift further and other potential fixes will come into view. We can make greater strides in protecting women’s rights, expanding health care, saving the environment, and creating pathways to truer equality. And tweaks in the democratic process, such as ranked voting, may have a better chance to become part of the national conversation.

None of this even begins to touch the great rebalancing that can occur regarding gerrymandering, Supreme Court expansion, or bringing justice to political criminals, to name a few examples.

Let’s be realistic *and* optimistic

There will always be people who oppose such fixes. And as a nation, we will always be navigating problems in one form or another. But instead of mourning the death of democracy in America, I can see a crystal clear morning where we live in a promising future.

If you don’t envision new dawn yet, no one can blame you. For the most part, the US has done a crappy job of instilling a sense of civic understanding or civic duty in its people. But if you’re reading this, a part of you knows it doesn’t have to be this way.

A recent interview with Eric Liu inspired me, and perhaps it will inspire you too. He’s a son of immigrants, a man with hope, and the visionary co-founder of Citizen University. His response to the cynics includes this:

I would say when you succumb to cynicism you give it power. What we [Americans] are doing is hard because it is unprecedented. We are trying to be planet Earth’s first multiracial, multicultural, and multifaith democratic republic at scale. That hasn’t existed before. To those who conclude it’s not possible[…]you’re dooming the project. The only way to determine whether this project is possible is to act as if it’s possible — that is, to commit over and over again to become that country we’d like to see.CNN interview with Eric Liu, 28 August 2022

Become part of the solution

It may seem like writing one letter at a time requires a disproportionate amount of energy for an uncertain return on investment. But let’s look at it another way:

  1. It’s coming together with others for a common goal.

  2. It’s participating in Democracy, which is the de facto definition of democracy.

  3. And above all else, remember that the data shows it works!

So if you’re a US citizen, I welcome your participation in writing letters to voters. My modest goal is to prepare 100 letters over the next six weeks and then mail them on VoteForward’s late October send date. And through this post and other efforts, I hope to prompt others to participate as well.

Please join me, as part of putting our energy toward something that has a direct pathway toward becoming a better US.

This piece was originally published as “Do You Think Democracy Is Doomed? Then Let’s Do Something About It” in Illumination on Medium.

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