But do postcards motivate voters? And how do ‘postcarders’ stay on the right side of FEC rules? DWP writer Marcy Miroff Rothenberg explores…
It began modestly in early 2017, when Americans who were opposed to the nominations of Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education answered a plea from the Women’s March and deluged Senate mailboxes with postcards asking their legislators to vote “no.”
In late February, when House Speaker Paul Ryan shut off his office phones and fax machines because so many Americans were messaging opposition to GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood, and disembowel Medicare, resisters shared Ryan’s home address in Janesville, Wisc., and encouraged folks to send him postcards instead.
Momentum grew as postcard-writers gathered in early March 2017 to pen “Ides of March” messages to Donald Trump, expressing opposition to his presidency and his emerging right-wing policy agenda.
Postcards – you know, the old-fangled way folks shared vacation news before Facebook and Instagram came along – are now the new-fangled tool for political activists to use in speaking up about government policies and urging their fellow citizens to head to the polls and vote.
It seems to be helping.
After activists sent postcards to voters in Annette Taddeo’s Florida State Senate district, she flipped the seat from red to blue.
Ditto for Kari Lerner’s state House campaign in New Hampshire. Doug Jones’ U.S. Senate race in Alabama. Conor Lamb’s U.S. House campaign in Pennsylvania.
And a slew of races in Virginia – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as 15 House of Delegate seats that flipped to the Democrats. There, more than 2,000 volunteers wrote 137,000 postcards to help flip the House seats and sweep the state’s three top-ticket races.
For those races, and many more, postcard writers gathered in homes, coffee houses and community rooms across America, sipping coffee or wine, munching homemade goodies, and chatting about politics as they wrote personalized messages to “neighbors” across the country, urging them to get out and vote for their local Democrat.
Are postcards effective? New evidence says yes
While a decade’s worth of research argues that well-messaged face-to-face conversations with voters are “the most effective way to turn out voters,” and that “voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing,” research into the impact of Trump-era postcarding suggests a shift is taking place.
Research conducted by the Analyst Institute in early 2018 for Postcards4VA and the Women Effect Action Fund measured the electoral impact of handwritten mail. According to a June 22 post in Blue Virginia, that research found “an increase in voter turnout among those infrequent voters receiving a handwritten note…similar to the bump in turnout generated by a typical Get-Out-The-Vote door to door canvass.”
Postcards, Analyst Institute found, increased turnout by 0.4 percent, compared to the typical GOTV canvass’ 0.3 percent positive impact on turnout. Postcarding, the study concluded, “has an as good or better effect on voter turnout than the tactic most commonly used by political campaigns.”
Another research study published in the journal Behavioral Scientist found that postcard events also positively impact volunteers doing the writing, by boosting their civic engagement, improving their emotional outlook, and giving them a sense of ownership about their postcard work.
As Jen Runkle, who with Marcy Butler organized a group of postcard volunteers in Alexandria, Va., explained to Blue Virginia, “Postcard writing stops us from complaining about what we can’t control, and focuses on something positive – impacting voters in key districts and creating community in our own.”
Anecdotal evidence also bears out the value of postcard contact.
Angela Lynn, who ran for delegate in Virginia’s 25th District, told Blue Virginia that “when she canvassed, voters showed her the postcards they received. People were reading the postcards, saving them and sharing them with others.”
Pennsylvania’s new U.S. House member Conor Lamb told Californian Noreen Bagley the same thing in a post-election thank-you call for her donation. When Bagley told him that her San Fernando Valley Indivisible organization was “among the groups writing postcards for him, he told me that he thought the postcards really made a difference. People were coming to their polling places with their handwritten postcards.”
The mother of one voter even posted on the Postcards to Voters website after Lamb’s victory, saying, “Thank you for sending my son…the handwritten postcard to vote for Conor Lamb! My son is autistic…he…tends to believe the commercials or news. When I went to pick him up to vote…I asked him who he was voting for and he pulled out your postcard. It was your postcard that made up his mind!”
And a not-quite-scientific study run by two San Fernando Valley Indivisible volunteers suggests that postcards the group sent to 2018 primary voters in the Simi Valley portion of California’s 25th Congressional district did have an impact.
The pair monitored Election Day turnout at three test precincts in Simi Valley where a subset of Democratic voters had received postcards urging them to vote for any of the four Democratic candidates on the ballot. (SFVI had chosen not to endorse, but just to encourage primary turnout; the group is now volunteering for top Democratic vote-getter Katie Hill in her race against GOP incumbent House member Steve Knight in the November general election.)
They found that 57 percent of Democrats who voted in those precincts lived in households that received postcards – far higher than the overall average 25.1 percent turnout in the same precincts. While the analysis didn’t control for such variables as whether the households were also canvassed or called, the significant difference in their voting percentage suggests that receiving a postcard likely helped drive their decision to vote.
The GOP Reacts
As word spread of the effectiveness of this “new” campaign tool, the GOP took notice. When volunteer postcarders took up the cause for Dr. Hiral Tipernini, running in a special election to fill an open U.S. House seat from Arizona in April 2018, Republicans pounced.
Working through Arizona’s right-wing Public Integrity Alliance, they filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that the volunteer-run Postcards to Voters and Tipernini’s campaign had violated campaign finance laws governing in-kind contributions and coordination between a “political committee” and the campaign.
They argued that because Postcards to Voters had collected more than $1,000 in donations and spent more than $1,000 to support Democratic campaigns, it should be considered a “political committee” subject to FEC contribution reporting rules. Even if its volunteers paid for the postage, postcards and other supplies they used, the complaint argued, those expenses should still be considered in-kind campaign contributions because volunteers had received talking points and voter lists from P2V that were provided by the campaign.
When Tipernini lost the special election, the Alliance ended its pursuit of an FEC ruling. But the questions raised still linger.
Obeying FEC rules
So how can volunteers – whether acting individually or through a local organization – ensure that they aren’t violating FEC rules about contributions to or coordination with a political campaign?
Here are the rules:
- “Political committees” (groups that collect donations exceeding $1,000 and disburse $1,000 or more to political campaigns during a calendar year; and that are structured as 501 (c)(3) or (4) organizations) may not make in-kind contributions or coordinate activities with a campaign.
- An individual may volunteer his or her personal services to a campaign without making a contribution as long as the individual is not compensated by anyone else…If the individual is compensated for his or her services, the activity is no longer considered volunteer activity, and the payments, if made by someone other than the campaign itself, result in an in-kind contribution from that person, which must be reported by the campaign.
- An in-kind contribution is a non-monetary contribution. Goods or services offered free or at less than the usual charge result in an in-kind contribution. Similarly, when a person or entity pays for services on the [political] committee’s behalf, the payment is an in-kind contribution. An expenditure made by any person or entity in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate’s campaign is also considered an in-kind contribution to the candidate.
- In-kind contributions from individuals must be itemized by the campaign if contributions from the source [the individual] aggregate over $200 during the election cycle.
Here’s how to apply those rules:
If your organization is not a “political committee” – if it does not collect donations exceeding $1,000 and disburse $1,000 or more in political campaign donations during a calendar year; and it is not registered as a 501 (c)(3) or (4) organization – its members can volunteer to help a campaign with postcard outreach efforts and can use the campaign’s voter lists.
If individual volunteers pay for the cost of postcards, supplies and postage for the postcards they write on behalf of the campaign, they’ll likely remain below the $200 threshold for individual contribution reporting requirements. (If they’re also making cash donations directly to the campaign themselves and the combined cash and postcarding donations exceed $200, they should notify the campaign so it can report those individual donations.)
And there’s one obvious caveat to all of the above:
Whether you’re leading a group of volunteers who want to “postcard” for a local candidate, or you’re a staffer on a political campaign who’s overseeing postcard efforts, consult with an election law expert to ensure that your activities honor both the letter and the spirit of campaign finance law.
Because, if folks in Virginia offer any indication, the postcarders are going to keep on volunteering.
A Richmond-based group of volunteers, who sent thousands of postcards to their fellow Virginians earlier this year, is now using up its leftover Virginia postcards to encourage voters in Ohio’s 12th Congressional district to support Democrat Danny O’Connor in his August 7 special election. Twelve Richmond postcarders, including one politically active 7th grader, aptly named Emma Goldman, gathered on July 1 to write 75 cards, telling the recipients, “We used these cards to get out the vote here in Virginia and we hope you’ll vote in Ohio too!”