The Morning Call: Face-to-face political campaigning returns to the doorsteps of Lehigh Valley voters

As Molly Burns rings a door bell, searching for the next voter on her list, she looks like a political canvasser from any other election cycle.

The 22-year-old is equipped with an electronic tablet, comfortable sneakers, a white “voting matters” T-shirt, and a backpack stuffed with pens, voter pledge cards and a water bottle.

Burns did political organizing while she was a student at Penn State, but the changes in her latest gig are hard to miss. The voter pledge cards and pens in her backpack are packaged in plastic bags to minimize contact, and her friendly expression is obscured behind a black face mask in the sweltering July heat.

Those new barriers don’t feel like an obstacle to her. As she steps away from the door in Allentown’s West End, waiting to see if anyone is home, Burns says she typically would stand back at least 6 feet on someone’s front steps — far enough for someone to open the door and not feel crowded, but close enough that they can hear her.

“I feel like 6 feet is still pretty close,” Burns said, as she stuck a “sorry we missed you” note on the voter’s door and checked her tablet for the next address.

Burns is among 150 Pennsylvania staffers for the Progressive Turnout Project, a national field organization aiming to turn out Democratic voters. The group launched its canvassing program in Pennsylvania last weekend, part of a $52 million effort across 17 states pivotal to the presidential or U.S. Senate contests.

After a primary election with virtually no face-to-face contact between voters and candidates once the pandemic reached Pennsylvania in March, the new canvassing efforts by the progressive group and some candidates are a marked shift from that cautious approach.

As a Morning Call reporter followed Burns during her Sunday afternoon route, only a few people appeared unsure about engaging with a stranger on their doorstep. A woman peeked out a window, declining to talk after Burns identified herself — a not-uncommon response to canvassing in pre-coronavirus times as well.

One man was willing to chat through his glass front door, and was fine with giving his information for a voter pledge card — as long as she would write on the card so he could avoid touching it.

Others didn’t hesitate to step outside. William Novoa, 57, stood on his front steps to talk and pose for a photo before dropping his voter-pledge card into the bag Burns held open.

“We get deliveries and stuff like that,” Novoa said when asked if he’s had other people knocking on the door since the pandemic began. He added that his family is cautious about who comes inside the house because his wife has an auto-immune disease.

Progressive Turnout Project launched its canvassing program later in Pennsylvania than other states, due to the infection trends here. In addition to the Valley, organizing efforts are underway in Philadelphia, Scranton and Harrisburg, with rising case counts in Pittsburgh delaying door-knocking there.

Will Mantell, the organization’s spokesman, said that in states like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin, they’ve tallied voter conversations at a similar rate to what they’d expect in a typical year.

Those conversations are the first step in a series of repeated outreach efforts to certain state voters as the Nov. 3 general election draws closer. The group is targeting inconsistent Democratic voters, aiming to ensure that those who otherwise might sit out decide to cast a ballot.

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