Heather Stone didn’t expect to be spending the months leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election glued to her computer and smartphone at home.
The Democrats Abroad Israel chairwoman tells Haaretz that in a pre-coronavirus world, “our teams of volunteers would be out there doing ‘Get Out the Vote’ events in every Israeli town where American citizens live. We managed to squeeze in some in-person events between Israel’s two lockdowns, but obviously we can’t anymore. Now, everything we do is virtual,” she adds, in a phone interview from her home.
Four years ago, Stone and her fellow Democrats spent the autumn of 2016 crisscrossing Israel, setting up tables in downtown shopping centers and visiting campuses with overseas students, encouraging and assisting potential Democratic voters living in Israel to register and cast their ballot. Her calendar was peppered with events promoting Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy.
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This year, confined to her home along with the rest of Israel, by necessity she’s focused on online efforts to put former Vice President Joe Biden in the White House: placing ads on social media; holding online events; doing interviews for the Israeli media; and assisting voters via Zoom and the phone.
Her counterpart, Republicans Overseas Chairman Marc Zell, is just as busy fighting to get President Donald Trump reelected – so much so that our telephone interview is continually interrupted by the beeps of call waiting. He explains that these are calls from voters or local volunteers seeking his assistance.
“People are calling me every 30 seconds – it’s crazy,” he says. “We’re seeing a degree of interest in registration and requests for absentee ballots that I haven’t seen in the 30 years I’ve been doing this. We get calls from people who haven’t voted for 30 to 40 years; we’re hearing from first-time voters who have never cast an absentee ballot from Israel. It’s quite a phenomenon.”
Four years ago, he too was out and about, hosting visiting dignitaries from the Trump campaign and arranging events like the grandiose Trump rally overlooking the Old City, where he correctly predicted that the evening’s keynote speaker, campaign aide David Friedman, was destined to become the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
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Though he isn’t able to meet them in person, Zell says he’s impressed by the large number of U.S. citizens in Israel who are making the effort to vote, even mid-lockdown, because they “want to support Trump, they want to vote for Trump. Many of them say they want to recognize and show thanks for the good he’s done for Israel, for the United States and for the world. And many others say they’re very worried about the alternative,” he adds.
Stone also reports high interest in voting from U.S. citizens who are just as committed to voting against the incumbent president. “We’ve seen our Democrats Abroad Israel membership really swell in the last seven months,” she says.
Interestingly, she adds, “a lot of our newer members live in far-flung places where you wouldn’t expect them to live if you have preconceived ideas that we’re a bunch of Tel Aviv liberals. We’re seeing interest in Biden from a lot of people who are living in religious communities – from Beit Shemesh, Modi’in and communities over the Green Line like Efrat,” she says, referring to the West Bank settlement.
How does she know interest in voting is up? The international online platform her organization utilizes to help citizens vote – votefromabroad.org, nonpartisan and accessible to voters from both parties – records the location of its usage. Platform usage in Israel is more than double what it was in 2016, “and we’re still only in early October,” she notes.
‘Like teaching origami’
According to Stone, one silver lining of the pandemic is that “because people in the United States are talking more about voting by mail, it seems to have made the topic more top of mind. So Americans who live here in Israel and may not have voted in a long time or never voted are thinking about voting. We get a lot of calls from people saying: “I haven’t voted in a long time, how do I do this?”
The answer to that question isn’t a simple one. Assisting overseas voters was already a complex and challenging task even before COVID-19, because each of the 50 states has different requirements and procedures for absentee voting. A person who might be considered eligible to vote in one state would not in another. Complicating the matter further, the pandemic has seen numerous states revamp their absentee ballot and vote-by-mail procedures during the past six months.
“The world of absentee ballots is changing constantly, the rules are changing,” Zell says.
For example, Stone says, her group has had to make a video showing voters how to correctly fold certain New York state ballots and envelopes. “It’s like teaching origami,” she jokes.
The biggest problem this year by far, Stone and Zell agree, is trying to ensure ballot applications – and, subsequently, ballots – are able to reach states in time to meet deadlines and be counted.
The coronavirus crisis has caused serious delays in postal service in both Israel and the United States. In previous elections, the mail service could be bypassed: American citizens had the option of dropping them off at a branch of the U.S. Embassy so they would be sent to the United States in a diplomatic pouch.
But the embassy informed U.S. citizens in September that they “strongly encourage voters to submit their ballots electronically or by fax if that option is available.” It also warned those voting in the 20 states where hard copies of ballots are required, that the embassy could not guarantee ballots would be delivered on time if sent after October 2. After that date, they said, there might not be time to ensure they would be sent on time. They encouraged voters to send their ballots directly through private courier service. The embassy also asked voters to "Please also check the regulations in the state in which you vote as deadlines may differ, and you may have alternative voting options such as electronic voting or by fax."
But couriers are expensive. To address the problem, Stone forged an agreement with DHL, offering voters a 40 percent discount that reduced the rate to 75 shekels ($22). Under the deal, members of Democrats Abroad were trained to offer back-office support in the process of preparing the ballots, to ease the burden on DHL workers.
Zell says he wasn’t pleased when he initially discovered it was Democrats Abroad who had been trained and he was told it was “too late” for Republicans to be trained. “So I contacted DHL management and they welcomed us with open arms ... and trained our whole team.” In a bit of partisan sniping, he calls the Democratic courier deal “underhanded, and I didn’t appreciate it. But they are Democrats and that’s what they do.”
Stone responds by calling Zell’s account “utter nonsense.” She says that Democrats Abroad Israel approached Zell and asked him to co-sign a notice to inform all U.S. citizens of the service, he refused, insisting that “he wanted his own ‘deal’ for Republicans Abroad.”
Ultimately, he got his way. A separate deal was cut and Republican volunteers were trained to facilitate use of DHL.
Zell says his organization is doing its best to help voters for whom the DHL price tag is too steep even with the negotiated discount. “We pick up the ballots from them and are working to send them to the U.S. in bulk, via mail, or with people who are traveling to the United States.”
Stone “rebooted” Democrats Abroad Israel in 2016, bringing it into compliance with Democrats Abroad (an official arm of the Democratic Party). She says she’s grateful to have access to the international group’s network of volunteers, who are working together to help expat voters around the world complete their ballots, assisting by phone or in online “Zoom rooms.”
Democrats Abroad also helps fund targeted advertising and outreach on Israeli social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“I think the coronavirus has pushed us to get out of our comfort zone, to rely more on digital campaigning – and we’ve learned a lot from it,” Stone says. “And we’ve seen the benefits now from it. I think a lot of our growth is due to it. I think if we could have done a typical ‘out on the street, get out the vote’ campaign, we might not have had the resources to put into digital ads, which are proving very successful.”
The Republican group operation seems to focus more on local volunteers and is more telephone-reliant. Zell claims to have fewer resources because, unlike Democrats Abroad, Republicans Overseas is an independent political organization that doesn’t receive support from the GOP.
To address the high demand for assistance, he says, Israel has been divided up into regions, and precinct captains have been assigned around the country to assist voters in areas closest to them.
Many older people who aren’t tech-savvy, as well as U.S. citizens in the ultra-Orthodox sector – some of whom don’t own computers or smartphones – need help navigating a world in which ballot applications need to be obtained online.
Like in 2016, his group is working extra hard to expedite processing the votes of Americans who are casting their ballots in key swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“But at the same time, we’re taking the position that every vote is important, even from the bluest of states. We have to remember that in 2016, when the Democrats purportedly won the popular vote, this fact was used to undermine President Trump’s authority.”
Zell says that as he mans the phones, he misses the handshakes and backslapping of old-fashioned retail politics, and eagerly looks forward to their return.
“I like people – and elections are about people. Campaigning is about people, and it’s not the same if you do it virtually by Zoom. I miss that, just like I miss it in my daily life,” he says. “This whole lockdown thing is excessive, in Israel and when it’s done in the United States. It’s another reason I support President Trump. We can’t live like this.”
When they aren’t wrangling volunteers or helping voters, Stone and Zell are busy making local media appearances, often going head to head on radio and TV stations.
In this department, Stone is convinced she has the tougher job. Israeli journalists, she complains, “are all locked into this perception that Biden and the Democrats would be bad for Israel,” and it isn’t difficult for Zell to make his case that Trump is the safer bet.
She, on the other hand, says she’s “fighting the uphill battle to educate them that this just isn’t true.”
Detailed information and instructions on voting in the US election from Israel, can be found at https://republicansoverseas-israel.org/ or https://www.democratsabroad.org/il