President Biden’s safety net proposals may be stalled in the Senate, Trump and his Big Lie refuse to budge from social media, but Alix Smullin isn’t standing still. From her home base in Swampscott, this 75-year old grandmother is in constant motion, crisscrossing Cape Ann and the North Shore, seeding her networks with packets of postcards that will soon be distributed, stamped, and mailed. Since she cofounded Swing Left North Shore/Cape Ann in February 2019, Smullin figures that approximately 1,000 volunteers, at least 700 of them currently active, have pitched in.
A Postcarding Powerhouse
This year alone, some 25,000 cards have been mailed in support of the For the People Act and Virginia election campaigns. But that is just a fraction of the estimated 100,000 cards that flew from her “operation” (as she calls it) in the heat of the 2020 presidential cycle, many to encourage mail-in ballot requests in the face of voter suppression and the pandemic.
It is no accident that Smullin has become the gold medalist of Swing Blue Alliance’s postcarding efforts. She has been involved in politics since her college years, working as staff on several campaigns and volunteering in many others. She worked on the historic campaign of Evelyn Murphy, the Commonwealth’s first woman to hold statewide office as lieutenant governor, and she subsequently worked in Murphy’s State House office. More recently she joined Jon Ossoff’s 2017 congressional campaign in Atlanta and canvassed in Maine in 2018.
So in February 2019, when Swing Left kicked off its campaign to Take Back All the Houses in 2020, it was only natural that Smullin reached out through local political networks, gathering about 45 people in her home, and launched the North Shore / Cape ann Swing Left (SLNS/CA) group along with Bob Scheier.
For a year they met, and grew, at house parties small and large to fill out cards and mail them. When the COVID-19 pandemic ended these social gatherings, Smullin thought the operation might stop growing, but instead, it entered a new dynamic phase, based on a system of postcard pickups at between five and eight locations throughout the North Shore and Cape Ann.
As the 2020 election approached, passions rose and the ranks swelled. Post-2020, the challenge is to maintain the engagement among volunteers, especially among those who have come to political activism after 2016, to build the infrastructure we will need to hold on to Democratic majorities.
There is plenty to do. Smullin’s volunteers are active in the Virginia state election, working with Swing Blue Alliance, Reclaim Our Vote, Sister District, and Red2Blue on getting out the vote with a focus on the House of Delegate races.
As voter suppression continues to expand and threaten outcomes all over the country, SLNS/CA has joined Swing Blue Alliance in a partnership with Common Cause to reach out to voters to call their senators in key states (Arizona, Delaware, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and West Virginia) and urge them to do everything necessary to pass a strong voting rights bill. While not directly part of Swing Left’s remit to elect Democrats, the suppression of the vote of key constituencies directly impacts Swing Left’s work.
How does Smullin find and keep such a devoted workforce? Consistency is a big part. Cards are distributed to hosts in various towns like clockwork on the same day of each week, with early morning electronic reminders that go out for every cycle. Volunteers are encouraged to do only as much as they find comfortable, and Smullin likes to remind them that they don’t have to do it all. What’s critical is that everyone get involved.
The next big challenge is ramping up for 2022. “I want to take some time during November and December to talk directly with the volunteers, ask them what they are concerned about, whether that means voting rights or abortion rights or any concern they might have, and how they want to participate going forward. It’s not one size fits all.”
Sage advice from a long life of activism amid the chaos of big-tent Democrats!
But for Smullin, it’s something much larger that sends on her endless rounds of drop-offs and pick-ups. “Democracy is what underpins our existence,” she says. The anti-democratic tendencies of Trump and the Republicans are an existential threat to our way of living. She cites Benjamin Franklin when he told a bystander in Philadelphia, “It’s a democracy if you can keep it.”
Protecting access to the polls through the Freedom to Vote Act is our challenge of the moment. “Operations” like Alix Smullin’s and the hundreds of workers in SLNS/CA are how we can keep it.
Want to organize your own group of volunteers? Learn more >
– Brent Whelan is a retired teacher, a climate activist, and writer of postcards to swing state voters. He lives in Allston, MA.