The term anti-democracy may seem automatically hyperbolic, but if you believe knowing things like the political party of the major contenders in a race and the correct day (or month, for that matter) of the election are some of the keys to a functioning democracy, you may find yourself surprisingly open to the idea that some of the campaign tactics I witnessed in my first political campaign as an organizer were not just anti-Democratic, but anti-democracy.
Near the end of the primary election campaign, I held in my hands a mailer that went out to thousands of Democrats that said "Democrats for (the Republican candidate)" in huge letters, while hidden off in a corner in tiny font was written "Paid for by HRCC" (Pennsylvania's House Republican Campaign Committee, but of course, only the acronym was given). The word "Republican" was nowhere to be seen on the mailer.
A robocall was sent out to thousands of Democrats, asking them to write-in the name of the Republican incumbent when they went to vote, but conveniently failing to mention that person is a Republican. A similar Democratic write-in robocall by the Republican candidate gave an unknowable number of Democrats the incorrect election date, even after the Republican claimed it was a mistake that had been stopped.
I had my first political campaign experience in the midterm elections of 2010 canvassing for longtime incumbent Democratic U.S. Congressman Paul Kanjorski. In 2011 I ran for local office, but I relied on a great and wise person named Brian Victory (who I took to referring to as my Obi-Wan Kenobi) for any and all advice on how to go about executing that small campaign (also some social media help from the dynamic Nabil Cristillo).
This year, I found myself unofficially the head volunteer for a campaign for Pennsylvania State Representative in the 176th District, specifically for Democratic candidate Maureen Madden. Since I was around so much, I also became one of the organizers. I knocked on doors with Maureen to get the necessary signatures of registered Democrats to get on the ballot, wrote phone banking scripts (at times we joined forces with the campaign of progressive Democrat Matt Cartwright to beat notorious "Blue Dog" U.S. Congressman Tim Holden) and helped edit a robocall script. I helped Anne Tiracchia, the chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, schedule Democratic volunteers to be at the polls to counteract the Republican write-in campaign.
This mailer went out with only about a week until the election. As you can see, I wasn't exaggerating when I said it has "Democrats for (the Republican)" in huge letters, it doesn't say the word "Republican" anywhere on it, and even "Paid for by HRCC" is in tiny letters off in a corner. I think a Democrat who wasn't well-informed and received this mailer could have easily fallen under the misconception that Mario Scavello is a Democrat. It's very important to note here that the district in question has a solid majority of Democratic registered voters, but the Republican (who, incidentally, supported the PA version of ALEC's voter ID bill that has since passed into law, as previously mentioned) has stayed in office because he usually has no one running against him.
On Sunday, April 22nd, a day we were only phone banking because the election was just a couple days away, I walked into our campaign headquarters to hear that Mario Scavello had sent out a robocall to Democrats asking them to write-in his name on the Democratic primary ballot for State Representative. Naturally, the robocall, recorded by Mario himself, failed to mention that he's a Republican. But that wasn't all. This robocall - that I must reemphasize was sent only to Democrats - said that the primary election was May 18th, when it was really on April 24th. We knew it was an old robocall because it said he'd been in office 8 years when it's been 10 now, and May 18th was the date of the primary in the last election cycle.
Anne Tiracchia was going back-and-forth with a local newspaper about it, and we were told that Mario said it was a mistake and he had stopped it. But how exactly does one accidentally put out an old robocall instead of recording a new one? I have a hard time wrapping my brain around that. That just doesn't seem like "mistake" territory to me. Now, you may be thinking, of course, from your perspective opposing him, you wouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt that you normally would others. But I phone banked for hours that day, and I can tell you there were many Democrats who were confused about when the election was because of Mario's robocall, and one gentleman told me he had received the robocall with the false election date just 10 minutes prior to my calling him, well over an hour after we'd gotten word that Mario said he'd stopped the robocall. So, either Mario lied that he'd stopped it when he hadn't yet, or he lied that he'd stopped it while letting it continue on awhile longer, giving more and more Democrats a false election date by the minute.
Then there were those who I (only half-) jokingly refer to as Mario's goons. Mario has these big poster boards with a mock-up of what the ballot looks like inside the voting booth with step-by-step instructions written on them telling Democrats to write-in his name on their ballot. Then there's another poster board with his picture and "Democrats for Mario Scavello" in huge letters to go next to it, the post cards that also have write-in instructions, and the miniature write-in pencils with his name on them. None of these materials mention that Mario is actually a Republican - and neither do the goons. These two poster boards are up outside every polling place in the district with someone handing out the post cards and pencils.
But perhaps more importantly than the materials are Mario's goons - highly aggressive volunteers who wait for voters to approach a polling place and, depending on how much of a goon the goon in question is, literally force the pencil and post card into a voter's hand, following them up to the door of the polling place insisting they vote for Mario. I got pretty lucky with Mario's goons at the polling places where I was all day, but I heard bad stories from a number of people I know from the Monroe County Democratic Committee who were at others. Anne and Maureen both spoke with one of our volunteers who was at a polling place with Mario himself who said she felt he was intimidating her.
When I say I got lucky, I mean I was mostly with more friendly volunteers of Mario's, but that wasn't true for the whole day. At the very beginning of the day, at a church in East Stroudsburg, Mario's goon was handing out the post cards and pencils and told a Democratic voter to write-in his name because he votes with Democrats in the PA House. That's a lie, and I told the voter that wasn't true and I could tell them details if they wanted to hear them. They smiled at me and handed me the post card that had just been handed to them. After they went inside, I asked Mario's goon if she really believed that Mario votes with Democrats because he's usually a party-line voter and has voted for radical right-wing policies. She said she didn't believe me, so I told her about how Mario was an original cosponsor of an ultrasound mandate bill that would, in some cases, require a transvaginal ultrasound (recall Governor Corbett's advice to women to just close their eyes). All she said in response was he must have had a reason for it.
I didn't think anything of it, but several hours later a guy who said he wasn't a voter went in the church for about 15 minutes, came out, and told me he was the constable and that they'd gotten multiple complaints about me accosting voters and forcing abortion discussions. I told him what had happened with Mario's goon earlier in the day, then a voter came by so I gave them my pitch for Maureen Madden, and the constable said what I was doing looked fine and that they hadn't had any complaints inside all day, so there was no problem. Evidently, some of Mario's goons called the Monroe County voter registration office and pretended to be voters with very exaggerated stories.
Perhaps individually the mailer trying to blur the political party of the candidate, or the robocall to one political party with an election date that's a lie, or the thuggish campaign tactics at the polls aren't anti-democracy; I think reasonable people can disagree and there's no question it's a weighty charge. In aggregate, I can't help but feel that our opponents attempted to manipulate the electoral process itself rather than engage in a legitimate, honorable campaign.
Maybe I should have been more cynical about politics generally and expected all this; not that I was totally stunned by it, but I also couldn't say I expected it. This was the first time I experienced political dirty tricks first-hand. It was reminiscent of a particular scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Weeks later, it still does not feel like hyperbole to say they engaged in tactics that could be described as anti-democracy in nature.
The good news is the Republican write-in campaign was a dismal failure. On to November.