Outbreak upends York County Dems' outreach efforts

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Political organizing in Pennsylvania has been hit hard with the effects of the coronavirus, Democratic officials say.

Democrats have been forced to innovate to reach voters as concerns about the coronavirus have shuttered political offices and raised questions about the state's April primary election.

Meanwhile, Republicans have fewer concerns, as President Donald Trump faces no threats in the GOP primaries due to overwhelming support from the party.

"COVID-19, as it has with so many other areas, has completely turned political organizing on its head," said Chad Baker, chairman of the Democratic Party of York County.

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There have been 185 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state as of Thursday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. That includes the first two cases in York County.

Both Democratic and Republican organizations in the county have closed their offices until April and canceled organizing events.

Democrats have since had to resort to virtual phone banks, text messaging and online training conferences to maintain social distancing while still interacting with voters, Baker said.

The party has kick-started its digital efforts with older voters, a population that's more susceptible to the coronavirus.

The outbreak could exacerbate the county Democratic Party's cash problems, which predated the infection. 

In February, the party kicked off a fundraising campaign to pay the rent at its York and Hanover offices. Fundraisers, such as a March 28 morning meet-and-greet with Gov. Tom Wolf, are also under the threat of cancellation if the mandatory business closures don't subside.

Gov. Tom Wolf has said the state is unsure about the status of its April 28 Democratic primary, a race in which former Vice President Joe Biden holds a substantial lead in national delegates over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Medical assistants Ashley Moody, left, and Angelica Young work at the first drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing site at WellSpan Family Medicine - Cape Horn in Windsor Township, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Candidates must be directed to the facility for testing by a physician prior to arrival. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Both Biden and Sanders have canceled events in Pennsylvania and other states, further limiting direct interaction with voters. Some have questioned whether the state's Democratic primary will play a role in the nomination at all.

On the Republican side, though, party officials are more confident, as Trump has guaranteed a general election ballot spot to run for a second term.

The effects of the coronavirus outbreak have been "minimal," said Jeff Piccola, chairman of the York County Republican Committee. 

“The biggest effect is that we can’t distribute many yard signs,” Piccola sad. “We’ve had a stream of people coming in for Trump yard signs and, obviously, with the office closed, they can’t pick them up.”

Still, the GOP is also relying on phone banks and mailers to continue to engage voters.

Both parties have emphasized the importance of the state's new mail-in voting option, which is now available for the first time.

The new voting method could be the state's strongest method to maintain voter turnout and keep voters safe, party officials have said.

National organizations hoping to rally voters are also banking on the change in law. That includes NextGen America, a national nonprofit operating in 11 states that is aimed at turning out young progressives.

“Organizing is about overcoming these challenges,” said Sarah Eagan, NextGen's state spokeswoman. “We’ve been adaptable so far. We’re going to be monitoring the advice from Tom Wolf to see what happens."

NextGen, which largely prioritizes organizing on college campuses, has suspended in-person events until at least early April.

But in Tuesday's primary elections alone, the organization texted 700,00 voters, Eagan said.

NextGen has also utilized online conference calls and created outreach videos using the TikTok video application, which is particularly popular among the youth.

"We’re going to act as if the primary is still happening in April," Eagan said.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.