The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power Up: Democratic activists scramble to sign up new voters during coronavirus pandemic

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with Brent D. Griffiths

Good Monday morning. How's everyone doing? Quick personal note: HBD to my DAD 🎂, who is one of our most loyal readers!! Tips, comments, recipes? Reach out and sign up, please! Thanks for waking up with us. 

The Campaign

VOTING IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS: Wesley Watson could not have predicted just how well his previous job as an HIV and substance abuse counselor in Michigan would prepare him for his current one as a political organizer during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As a regional field director in a crucial battleground state for NextGen America, a progressive group aimed at turning out the youth vote, Watson encourages young people at juvenile detention centers in West Michigan to participate in the political process after their release. Kent County Juvenile Detention Center youths, for example, are the kind of potential first-time voters that might otherwise be overlooked in this swing territory, where Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump by 10,704 votes in 2016.

The pandemic, however, has indefinitely shelved one-on-one voter contact at detention centers where visitation is limited or residents have been temporarily sent home. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures have derailed most of the group’s meticulously planned voter registration events. So Watson is overseeing NextGen’s state transition from traditional field organizing to pure digital outreach, including a significant messaging shift from politics to health care in a state where covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, has already killed 5,000 people.

  • “It’s about trying to connect with these recently released students with food banks, the local NAACP, financial assistance or family,” said Watson. “I’m trying to make sure that youth who are released from the detention center are coming home to some good resources and safe materials to make sure they are not at high risk when it comes to covid-19.”
  • Watson and his NextGen team say they have managed to stay on track during the pandemic, registering nearly 6,000 voters statewide out of a goal of 22,752 for 2020.

But whether outside groups can enroll the thousands of new voters they intended before the pandemic struck is a very open question, crucial to determining the outcome of November’s presidential contest and control of the U.S. Congress, along with state races. 

  • New voter registration efforts have received a dramatic makeover over the past few months as stay-at-home orders and virtual campaigning have shut down the typically highly personal art of voter contact and persuasion. Instead of door-to-door canvassing, in-person rallies and other traditional efforts, groups are ramping up phone, online and direct mail outreach, with a new emphasis on aiding potential voters endure the pandemic.

And rather than talking up political issues, organizers are providing potential voters with tips about unemployment insurance, access to food, health care and covid-19 testing. They hope offering helpful information about the coronavirus and its aftershocks will lead to voter registration later on — after establishing trust with potential voters and gleaning their information.

  • “Having a relationship is the coin of the realm,” said Matt Morrison, the executive director of Working America, the political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO.
  • “Building more relationships through meeting the interests and needs of voters rather than the interests of campaigners will be distinguishing,” Morrison said. “You don’t start the conversation with who do you vote for. Let’s help each other understand that you should not go to the family barbecue or have Easter dinner at grandmas.”
  • Read our full story here. 

Ctrl + Alt + Shift: The strategy change is underway as lawmakers and state officials worry about the safety of voters during the primaries and general election. Officials and health policymakers warn of the dangers of in-person voting in November, and some state and national officials are urging a massive conversion to a vote-by-mail system.

The issue is particularly crucial for Democrats and their allies, who are counting on high turnout and a surge of new voters to eject President Trump from the White House. Any threat to their efforts are likely to more deeply damage Democrats, who are already fighting some laws and requirements that could disproportionately impact young, low-income and minority communities that support them in higher numbers. Meanwhile, Trump has argued without evidence that vote by mail systems are vulnerable to greater fraud, even while the GOP is encouraging it in some states.

  • “I thought we were going to have record high turnout, but I’m worried about record low turnout now,” said Jeremy Smith, the co-founder of CampaignOS, a campaign management platform that helps progressive candidates and nonprofits register and turnout voters.
  • “Knowing how to vote now will be an important mechanism that you will have to communicate to voters and is changing in real time. Practically, politically, and legally, we need to be preparing, convincing, and supporting people,” Smith added.

Concerns about the act of voting itself: Activists and organizers are worried about unsafe conditions at physical polling sites on Election Day and difficulties voters may face in obtaining absentee ballots. Trump and other Republicans are discouraging an expanded absentee voting program, and several Republican-leaning groups to which we reached out were not interested in talking about their registration efforts during the pandemic.

Marc Elias, a Democratic election attorney, has filed several lawsuits in Texas, which currently disallows absentee voting unless a voter is over 65 or has a disability. He most recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of Voto Latino, the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and five individual Texans to expand absentee voting in the state: 

  • “Our lawsuit asks Texas to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots, accept all ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, prohibit enforcement of signature matching, allow voters the opportunity to correct a signature mismatch, and allow voters to designate any third party to collect their voted and sealed absentee ballot,” Elias said in a statement.
  • Elias added: “I would encourage every group not just to look at how many doors are knocked on and [voter registration] forms submitted but how many are being counted and how many people are actually able to vote.”

Some states are already ramping up absentee voting because of concerns over physical participation in the elections. There are 16 states, however, that require an excuse for absentee voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That includes Texas, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and West Virginia.

  • Texas Republican Party Chair James Dickey oversees the state party’s “Volunteer Engagement Project” to register and turnout new voters. Dickey, who says he has been working closely with the Trump campaign, claims the push to vote entirely by mail is “irresponsible and the latest in a very long trend of voter disenfranchisement” from the Democratic Party.
  • “Given that we have a full-two week period of early voting, I am quite confident that Texans who have already figured out how to deal with grocery shopping and other stuff, over the next five months they will more than figure out how to safely cast a vote in person,” said Dickey, who predicts his staff and volunteers will be out knocking on doors and connecting with voters in person “long before the fall.”

“Community wellness checks”: Conversations, now exclusively online and via phone for the time being, have not changed, according to Dickey. It’s a dramatically different strategy than the one being employed by progressive groups, who have turned to outreach focused on health care — and not politics — while the pandemic continues. Organizers and campaigns conducting what Smith calls “community wellness checks” have been the most successful in connecting with voters right now.

Success in converting nonvoters into voters is still highest, however, when done via direct mail. In states like Texas, New Hampshire and others that do not offer online voter registration, it is not only a costly tool but a necessary one amid a pandemic keeping people at home.

  • The lack of online voter registration in some states, along with voter ID laws that might prevent people from registering online, may hit young people especially hard as campuses, which provide basic administrative tools, have been shut down. Printing and submitting a registration form is a hurdle that some young people might not clear.
  • Smith and his team have devised one potential workaround: They’ve been assisting nonprofits and campaigns in creating crowdfunding maps allowing donors to underwrite registration efforts in certain precincts or neighborhoods. Donors, who foot the costs of postage and return envelopes, then receive reports on how many people they have helped successfully register.
  • “We offer a Kickstarter-style map — any donor can select their neighborhood and precinct and they can donate $20 to guarantee sending out forms,” Smith said. “It helps broaden the aperture for how many people can be involved in voter registration. ”

In the Agencies

OUSTED IG WAS PROBING POMPEO'S USE OF STAFF: The State Department inspector general who was removed from his job Friday was looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a staffer walk his dog, pick up his dry cleaning and make dinner reservations for Pompeo and his wife, among other personal errands,” NBC News's Josh Lederman and Andrea Mitchell first reported.

It remains unclear why exactly Steve Linick was abruptly removed: “Linick, the quasi-independent watchdog whose job it was to expose waste and malfeasance within the agency, investigated a number of issues at the State Department that agitated senior Trump administration officials,” Mike DeBonis and John Hudson report.

  • The White House said Pompeo recommended Linick's ouster: “Trump replaced Linick with Stephen J. Akard, a trusted ally of Vice President Pence and the official in charge of the Office of Foreign Missions,” our colleagues write. “On Saturday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Robert Menendez (N.J.), launched a joint investigation into Linick’s firing.”

Out of s-IG-ht: In less than two months, Trump has removed four inspectors general — including three on Fridays. 

Those former officials include, per our colleague Aaron Blake

  • Intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson: He forwarded the Ukraine whistleblower complaint to Congress over the objections of the administration. That complaint spawned an investigation leading Trump to become just the third president in American history to be impeached. Atkinson began the string of ousters at around 10 p.m. on Friday, April 3.
  • Acting Health and Human Services inspector general Christi Grimm: Grimm issued a report featuring comments from medical professionals shredding the administration's coronavirus response by uncovering “severe shortages” in testing kits and a dearth in equipment like masks. Grimm was removed in favor of a permanent replacement.

Some Republicans are taking notice: Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Susan Collins (Maine) complained Trump did not adequately justify Linick's removal, as required by law. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the only Republican to vote to convict Trump on one article of impeachment, went even further:

Outside the Beltway

THERE'S A NEW PROBLEM WITH TESTING: “Four months into the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, tests for the virus finally are becoming widely available, a crucial step toward lifting stay-at-home orders and safely returning to normal life. But while many states no longer report crippling supply shortages, a new problem has emerged: too few people lining up to get tested,” Steve Thompson, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report.

The Post surveyed governors’ offices and state health departments: Our colleagues found “at least a dozen states where testing capacity outstrips the supply of patients. Many have scrambled to make testing more convenient, especially for vulnerable communities, by setting up pop-up sites and developing apps that help assess symptoms, find free test sites and deliver quick results.”

  • What's happening?: “Experts say several factors may be preventing more people from seeking tests, including a lingering sense of scarcity, a lack of access in rural and underserved communities, concerns about cost, and skepticism about testing operations.”

It may also be unclear who can get tested: “In the earliest days of the outbreak, Americans were told that only the sickest and most vulnerable should get tested while others should stay home,” our colleagues write. “Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its guidelines to offer tests to people without symptoms who are referred by local health departments or clinicians.” 

At The White House

TOP TRUMP ADVISER SLAMS CDC'S RESPONSE: “The comments by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro are the latest signal of how the Trump administration has sought to sideline the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” Felicia Sonmez and Darryl Fears report

  • Navarro criticized the CDC over its production of a flawed test that contributed to the nationwide testing delay: “Early on in this crisis, the CDC — which really had the most trusted brand around the world in this space — really let the country down with the testing,” Navarro told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd. “Because not only did they keep the testing within the bureaucracy, they had a bad test. And that did set us back.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar later defended the agency under his jurisdiction: “I don’t believe the CDC let this country down,” Azar said told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan, when pressed repeatedly on Navarro’s comments. “I believe the CDC serves an important public health role. And what was always critical was to get the private sector to the table [on testing].”

  • Testing isn't the only thing that's testing the White House's patience: “White House officials say they are also frustrated by what they consider the agency’s balky flow of data and information and the leak of an early version of its reopening recommendations,” our colleagues write.

In the Media


Fed chair predicts slow recovery: “The U.S. economy will claw its way back from the current downturn but may need a coronavirus vaccine before that is complete, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said,” CNBC's Jeff Cox reports.

“If this is risking my life, then I’ve been risking my life going to Costco: Stephanie McCrummen traveled to an Atlanta suburb to see the reopening of an upscale shopping center and what it says about how the rest of us might reemerge.

Trump doesn't appear to be leading the transition to greatness: “Amid a once-in-a-century deadly pandemic, Trump has inserted his ego squarely into the U.S. response while simultaneously minimizing his own role — deferring critical decisions to others, undermining his credibility with confusion and misinformation, and shirking responsibility in what some see as a shrinking of the American presidency,” Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report.