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Column: Rebuilding Our Democracy One Postcard at a Time

  • Bill Nichols, of West Lebanon, and his wife, Nancy, have been writing postcards to strangers all around the country as partof the Postcards to Voters effort (www.PostcardsToVoters.org). (Photograph courtesy of Bill Nichols)



For the Valley News
Saturday, April 07, 2018

Not long ago I was reading Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending when a sentence jumped out at me: “In those years before mobile phones, email and Skype, travelers depended on the rudimentary communications system known as the postcard.” It probably caught my attention because my wife, Nancy, and I have been taking considerable comfort in this troubled time from writing rudimentary postcards to strangers all around the country.

We’ve tried other therapies, subscribing to more online editions of newspapers than we can read as a way of encouraging a free press that seems more important than ever these days. We’ve tried deep breathing, meditation, exercise, marches and demonstrations. And I’ve written occasional columns and letters to the editor despite my fear that I might be preaching to the choir, playing the blame game, adding to our paralyzing polarization — maybe even intensifying the hatred that already curdles our public discourse.

We decided our postcards should lay no blame on anybody and come from both of us. So we have to agree on what seems most important to tell strangers about an approaching election. We can choose facts from the rich supply of information that comes to us with the addresses of potential voters. Here’s an example of a card we sent recently to someone in Florida:

Dear Voter,

We write to encourage you to vote for Lori Berman for the state Senate in the April 10 special election. Berman is now serving her seventh year as a state representative. She will work to support public schools, safe gun laws, and affordable healthcare for all.

You might save this note as a reminder to vote. Your vote can help to strengthen our democracy. ...

Thanks for reading — and for voting!

NSN & WmN

When friends first invited us to write a few postcards, I had to stifle a skeptical chortle. It sounded primeval in a political world driven by social media. But these old friends tend to be digitally erudite for people of our advanced age, and they are unusually busy activists. The fact that they were taking time to write old-fashioned postcards was impressive. While the kids are teaching us how to rethink and reboot the politics of gun safety, this looked like a way for older folks to make a difference. So we checked out the website at postcardstovoters.org, which led to a grassroots organization craftily called Postcards to Voters.

So far, we’ve written 140 postcards to people in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Mexico, New York, Arizona, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Florida. We’ve written to support candidates in mayoral, school board, state Senate, judicial and congressional elections, and we’re hoping this is just the beginning, as we move closer to the November elections.

Ordering postcards and buying stamps was simple. The Postcards to Voters people urged us to handwrite the address and message and then sign with only first names or initials. The postcard project aims to be an alternative to mass-produced appeals. It offers a personal reminder to go to the polls along with reasons why voting for a certain candidate might be important.

A handwritten postcard might be an antiquated way for a citizen to reach out to a potential voter, but the project itself is digitally sophisticated. Although we’ve written for a judicial candidate who isn’t running as a Democrat, “Tony The Democrat” coordinates the project in Atlanta. Tony and several volunteers provide information about elections scheduled around the U.S., as well as the addresses of potential voters. This information includes the dates of special elections and positions taken by the candidates we support.

Why is writing these notes so heartening? Aside from improving a citizen’s handwriting, it might have something to do with participating in democracy at the grassroots. I’ve admired the Vermonters who come over to knock on our door in New Hampshire and talk about a presidential candidate they support. They tell us about the person they prefer and remind us that we share the responsibility of electing our leaders. There is something hopeful about contacting a person in Paint Lick, Ky., or Chickasha, Okla., with thoughts about how our political system works at its best.

Maybe handwritten postcards have some of the virtues of home-cooked meals. I welcome a good dinner ordered in from a restaurant, but a home-cooked meal feels more like a gift. Our handwritten, home-cooked cards seem both presumptuous and humble, going uninvited into strangers’ homes, but offering simple fodder that gently affirms the virtues in our democracy, including the beautiful, generous strengths symbolized by our Statue of Liberty.

Thousands of us sending handwritten postcards to voters all around the country might tip the balance in enough campaigns to help rebuild our democracy.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.