In the second of a two-part series, we look at the popular grassroots volunteer activity of writing postcards to voters to understand its role, use, and impact. Please click here for Part 1.
Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, one of the activities that will forever be associated with the rise of grassroots activism is writing postcards to voters. These catchy cards with handwritten personal messages about the importance of voting have grown in popularity with each campaign and election cycle. Along with examining whether postcards boost turnout (they do!), Postcards4VA, one of the earliest statewide grassroots postcard writing groups, has been asking the question: What is it about handwriting postcards that appeals so much to volunteers?
The First Postcard Parties
Our original system for distributing addresses was designed for individual requests. But with people preferring to write with others, we pivoted to aid and assist postcard groups that were springing up all over the state. Book groups and knitting groups were now writing postcards. People wrote postcards during breaks at work. Mothers with young children were getting together, and parent groups were hosting family postcard parties. In response to this excitement, we launched our yearly Postcard Palooza to see how many postcard parties could be held in one week. In 2018 we tallied 70 parties! The following year we easily doubled that number.
Those groups continued writing unabated from election to election. When the 2018 midterm election ended, they started writing for 2019 candidates which then naturally turned into writing for 2020. As Jen Runkle, leader of Postcards4VA Alexandria, which is a large, prolific Virginia postcard writing group, says, “When it comes to postcards, we can’t stop, won’t stop.”
Impact on Postcard Writers
In 2017, as postcards went into the mailbox the week before election day in Virginia, we surveyed our writers to find out how postcard writing impacted their political involvement. Even before the results of our research came in, however, we knew that volunteers had positive feelings about writing, after all, writers who had been meeting regularly continued to gather after the election. But, our survey confirmed that those volunteers who found postcard writing enjoyable also experienced continued and expanded civic engagement. We also learned that when it comes to future political activity it’s easier to stay engaged when what you do fits with how you view yourself. Many of our postcarders practiced craftivism (craft + activism) as they created unique, handmade cards.
What else keeps volunteers writing postcards week after week, election after election? According to social psychology research, writing helps people deal with traumatic events. For postcard writer Dinah Wiley, “Writing postcards to voters in the era of Trump has always been therapy for me.” Dr. James Pennebaker, social psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on the relationship between writing and mental health concurred, noting that writing postcards is beneficial “both by putting emotions into words and by building a sense of community among writers.”
Every election we point out that postcard writing brings in a large, enthusiastic, and growing community of volunteers that ends up fulfilling many campaign needs. Though some postcard writers only want to write postcards, others do find their way to a diverse menu of campaign tasks. Postcards and Politics, a group in Springfield, Virginia, prides itself in removing all barriers to volunteering for its members, such as offering childcare so the parents can write postcards, phone-bank or even canvass. According to Keli Jacewitz, one of the group’s leaders, in 2019 almost 100 of their volunteers worked the polls for the primary election, about 80 of them for the first time, and 5 became precinct captains. These volunteers draw from a pool of people where three-quarters of them had previously never been politically active. As Keli puts it, “We are forming a family of lifelong activists through the power of postcards.”
The Starbucks Superstars in Falls Church, Virginia, met on Wednesday mornings before the pandemic. Each week as many as 30 people would be scattered throughout the café chatting and writing postcards. Clare Bowden, leader of the group, loved that writing at Starbucks allowed other people to see their political engagement. “Activism is usually hidden,” she explains. “But for three years people saw us being active every week.” And when the pandemic hit, their desire to work as a group never stopped. Instead of going into the Starbucks, they would exchange packets of blank postcards for completed postcards in the parking lot and get together on Zoom.
Postcards4VA Alexandria started with a few women writing postcards at a local bakery on Saturday mornings in 2018. They expanded to meet with hundreds of writers. In 2020 alone, they were responsible for upward of 200,000 postcards to voters. And like the Postcards and Politics group, some of their writers canvassed and made phone calls or texted.
Being engaged through postcard writers even inspires volunteers to run for office. Jennifer Kitchen, who ran for Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2019 and is running again in 2021, made postcard writing part of her campaign from day one. Postcards4VA Alexandria is all in for one of its own, founding leader Sarah Bagley, who is now running for city council. They even have a special “Elect-a-Postcarder!” initiative for Sarah’s campaign.
During the final weeks before the 2020 presidential election, I asked the leaders of postcard writing groups throughout the state what they were most proud of after having collectively written almost a half-million postcards to Virginia voters. Jen Runkle said without hesitation, “I’m most proud of the community we built.” She was not alone. I received the same response from all the leaders. Mary Farrell of the Vienna Postcard Group added, “It’s the community of postcard writing that has gotten us through all the craziness of the past 4 years.”
For more information, please visit Postcards4VA!
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