Evanston residents travel out of state to impact elections


Source: Postcards to Wisconsin on Twitter

A Postcards to Wisconsin letter-writing event. Volunteers for the organization are working to hand-write 500,000 letters to voters in Wisconsin.

Jacob Fulton, Assistant City Editor

In an election, citizens only have one vote. But in Evanston, activists are moving beyond the polls — and over state lines — to affect elections on a larger scale.

Since the 1992 presidential election, Illinois has remained reliably blue, voting for Democratic nominees in seven consecutive elections. Evanston has elected a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives every year since 1948. As a result, organizers in groups like Indivisible Evanston and the Democratic Party of Evanston have focused their efforts on state and national elections outside of Illinois.

Some activist organizations in the area, including the region-wide coalition Midwest Alliance of Progressives, formed after President Donald Trump won the 2016 election. The organization is one of a few that focuses on voter participation and education.

Founded by the DPOE in fall 2017 and launched in early 2018, the group gathers Democrats in 10 counties across Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. For the 2018 election, it focused on flipping seats from Republican to Democrat in competitive races, and program project leader Barb Cornew said she foresees that the group’s work leading up to the 2020 election will impact both presidential and congressional races.

Cornew said the 2016 election attracted an influx of new activists. Her team has since organized a variety of opportunities, ranging from phone and text banking to canvassing, to allow volunteers to participate in targeted out-of-state races at a variety of levels.

“In the Clinton years and Obama years, people here in Evanston have gotten involved in races all different ways,” Cornew said. “Then, because everybody was so upset after 2016, there’s all these new volunteers that haven’t worked on campaigns before. So we need to engage them too.”

Similarly, the organization Postcards to Wisconsin was founded to return Wisconsin to Democratic control, as some experts project the state will be a key swing state in 2020. Founder Reid McCollum said the program began in 2018, when he organized a group of volunteers to send approximately 200,000 postcards to Illinois’ 6th congressional district in support of U.S. Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) who ultimately defeated Republican incumbent Peter Roskam.

After McCollum saw the results in 2018, he said he wanted to channel that momentum toward the 2020 election, setting a goal to send 500,000 postcards to Wisconsin voters before the state’s April 7 primary. He partnered with Indivisible Chicago to fund the effort, which aims to increase voter turnout state-wide.

“Our cards are nonpartisan,” McCollum said. “They’re all just trying to encourage people to vote. But we are targeting voters who we think are extremely likely to be progressive and vote in line with our values.”

However, Evanston residents’ work has extended beyond phone calls and postcards. Nancy Bruski, an organizer working with Indivisible Evanston, has coordinated canvassing trips to Wisconsin with a focus on voter identification issues.

Bruski said a new voter registration law in Wisconsin limited the documents residents could bring as valid identification when they vote. Her teams educate voters in majority-blue neighborhoods about the law’s requirements to maximize Democratic turnout.

“When you find a new person who’s interested in voting, you give them the information about registering, and then the Democratic Party now has a new potential voter,” Bruski said “In order to win, we have to identify every possible human being who could vote Democrat in 2020.”

Donna McDonald, a volunteer who has canvassed in multiple elections, including twice for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, said it can be difficult for voters to remain focused on elections and issues.

As a result, she said activists and canvassers play a key role in reminding constituents about what’s at stake. McDonald said she saw this play out in the elections of Casten and U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.).

“Grassroots efforts are significant for any election,” McDonald said. “Ads and commercials are great, but grassroots initiatives are what can turn an election.”

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