Every weekend since Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania issued a statewide stay-at-home order, on April 1, millions of cellphones across the commonwealth have buzzed with text messages from the state Democrats, checking on the status of voters’ mail-in ballots.
During that period, state Republicans called two million phones around the state to try to mobilize support, and the Republican National Committee sent applications for mail-in ballots to thousands of targeted voters there.
With Pennsylvania holding an important primary election on Tuesday, both parties are also treating it as their biggest chance to stage a statewide “dry run” for organizing and voting before the November presidential vote in one of the nation’s more crucial battleground states.
The parties are in new territory this election season — not only because of Covid-19 and the protests over George Floyd’s death, including in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but also because of a new law mandating that anyone who votes by mail in the primary will be sent a ballot for the November election. Party officials and affiliate groups are racing to ramp up and test their voter mobilization efforts, given that the race between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. this fall is likely to involve obstacles wrought by the coronavirus.
“We do feel strongly that it is a dry run for us to figure out some of the pressure points and be able to address them going into November,” said Sinceré Harris, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “We are definitely dealing in anything but the norm right now, but at least, when it comes to Covid-19, we’re looking at a situation where similar challenges could come during November.”
One of the biggest problems for both sides is that the state election system is cracking under the stress of an enormous expansion of vote-by-mail in a very short amount of time. More than 1.8 million people have requested absentee ballots, compared with just over 100,000 from four years ago, and counties are struggling to keep up. Voters have been calling party hotlines and writing on social media that they haven’t received their ballots weeks after applying.
In Montgomery County, a populous suburban area outside Philadelphia, 2,000 incorrect ballots were sent to voters of the opposite party.
In Philadelphia, the election offices have been closed because of the virus. The phone line to the county elections office leads to a recording, with no general voice mail or ability to reach a human with an election problem.
Officials are also bracing for longer voting lines. Every municipality outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh has only one open polling location, and the locations in the two major cities have been condensed.
In Bucks County, a swing suburban county near Philadelphia that Hillary Clinton carried by less than 3,000 votes in 2016, the county Democrats transitioned their effort to knock on 300,000 doors into a blitz of phone calls and text messages. They now have a big absentee ballot advantage: As of Monday, 72,061 Democrats had applied for the mail-in ballots, compared with 29,475 Republicans, according to the secretary of state.
“I can only remember the last two cycles where the Democrats actually turned in more absentees than the Republicans, and it was not by much,” said John Cordisco, the Democratic Party chair in Bucks County. He added that virtual organizing had helped the county party conserve resources for November. “We’re literally saving $400,000 to $500,000 by not having to do the volunteers’ door knocking.”
A central part of the Democratic effort has been what’s known as a “ballot chase” program. Using the state party’s voter file, volunteers from around the country are able to login and call or text voters in Pennsylvania asking if they’ve requested a ballot. An app with a call script provides volunteers with responses based on how far along a voter is in the absentee process.
For the past week and a half, the state Democratic effort has focused on contacting voters who had already requested a mail-in ballot but had not yet returned it and letting them know their remaining options for returning the ballots.
The overall Democratic effort on vote-by-mail in Pennsylvania has led to a significant advantage for the party. Of the 1.8 million absentee ballots requested, 70 percent were from Democrats, according to the secretary of state’s office. While Pennsylvania turnout in the general election in 2016 topped six million, the huge ballot advantage is buoying the hopes of Democrats in a state that Mr. Trump won by less than 45,000 votes.
But despite that advantage for the primary, Democrats across the state are increasingly anxious about their ability to reach low-income and minority voters — key blocs of support that traditionally don’t vote by mail. According to Common Cause, a nonpartisan public interest group, during the initial surge in interest in mail-in ballots, 91 percent of requests were from white voters, and just under 6 percent were from black voters.
The closing and consolidation of polling locations are also more likely to affect voters in predominantly minority neighborhoods. For example, in Penn Hills, a community on the outskirts of Pittsburgh that has a large black population, more than 50 polling locations are being consolidated into one location.
The online ballot application form is also available only in English.
To try to expand vote-by-mail in lower-income communities, the state Democratic Party has tested a program in Philadelphia for the primary, training ward leaders on new texting and calling software and bringing them into the mail-in ballot organizing effort. Since the party began the program, participation among African-Americans has jumped to 11 percent in ballot requests, Ms. Harris said.
“They’re an integral part of the Democratic machines in the city,” she said.
Republicans, too, are facing their own problems of absentee ballot mistrust. With the president constantly railing against vote-by-mail, some local officials are wondering about the effect on absentee voting, though they remain confident it won’t affect overall turnout.
“A lot of Republicans just don’t like the idea of mail-in ballots because of the opportunity for voter fraud,” said Dave Majernik, the vice chairman of the Allegheny County Republicans. “So some of them are just deliberately not using them and are going to show up at the polls for that reason.”
The president’s opposition to vote-by-mail has also put the state party in an awkward position of advocating the process in Pennsylvania yet denouncing it nationwide. On Facebook, the party boasts of forcing the state to “adopt safeguards” after “more and more Democrats signed up,” and asking voters to oppose “Pelosi’s national mail-in ballot.”
The Facebook post then directs users to the state party’s website, which is dedicated to helping voters through the absentee ballot system. When the link is shared on social media, a graphic about the “all new 2020 mail-in ballot” also says “Trump Backed. PAGOP Backed.”
The same graphic appears on the website, but without the “Trump Backed. PAGOP Backed” language.
The Republican effort in Pennsylvania is also testing out some of the new members of the Trump Victory Leadership Initiative Fellowship program, a team of volunteers who are run through a training program before being placed into various field duties. The R.N.C. also has more than 60 staff members on the ground in the state.
Though the focus has been predominantly on absentee and vote-by-mail operations, some outside groups are transitioning to a scaled-down version of a more traditional get-out-the-vote operation.
“For the folks that don’t feel comfortable voting by mail, now we’re focused on how can we now educate them about where the poll site is, and know that every worker there should have the P.P.E. that’s required,” said Ivan Garcia, the civic engagement director for Make the Road Pennsylvania, an advocacy group for immigrants.
Mr. Garcia is also aiming to find a silver lining in the consolidated polling locations and potentially long lines on Tuesday. Using the group’s separate advertising arm, Mr. Garcia is paying to target voters’ phones, or “geofence” them, at polling locations in Philadelphia, Lehigh and Berks Counties and serve digital ads to those who are near polling centers.
“People will go to vote, they’ll get frustrated and see how frustrating it is to vote in person, and then we’ll send them digital ads where they can now request their ballot to vote by mail for the general election in November,” Mr. Garcia said. “We want to do it while voting is still fresh in their mind.”