On a recent Sunday morning in October, Sam Novey and about a dozen Jews United for Justice volunteers from Baltimore headed to Lancaster County, Pa., to conduct some voter outreach.
Novey, 28, is a Baltimore native and Harvard University graduate who has spearheaded several national voter registration projects designed to assist college students with the process.
But on this day, Novey, a consultant at the Foundation for Civic Leadership, was dedicating his time to inform prospective voters in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods of the importance of this presidential election between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
“This is something I have done a lot in the past with various groups,” Novey said, “but it is the first time I was with JUFJ. So doing something like this with a Jewish group allowed me to express my values not only as an American, but also as a Jew.”
If Clinton is going to win the presidency, she’ll need advocates such as Novey to plead her case as the Nov. 8 election draws near.
While Maryland Democratic leaders say they haven’t sent as many volunteers and resources to neighboring battleground states as in past presidential elections, local residents have taken it upon themselves to mobilize Democrats, sympathetic independents and Republicans disenchanted with Trump.
They have boarded buses, formed carpool groups, driven into southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania neighborhoods and knocked on doors to drum up excitement for Democrats up and down the ballot.
“No one wants to sit in our safely ‘blue’ Maryland when Trump victories in our neighbor states could plunge us into a ‘Trumpian’ dystopia,” said Claire Landers, a member of JUFJ who has been involved with the organization of some of the trips. “Their fear, I think, is literally driving them to do something that might make a difference in a scarily close race.”
Both elected and nonelected Democratic leaders in Maryland have employed various initiatives aimed at harnessing enthusiasm for Clinton, constructing a system that just doesn’t give Democrats wins, but runaway wins.
Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said the official campaign committee for Clinton, Hillary for America, has done a lot to unite Maryland Democrats behind her while re-energizing her base of supporters.
“It’s not the most fun thing in the world to wake up on a Saturday morning, get on a bus and drive for hours,” Conner said, “but we have seen a real interest in our volunteers in Maryland to do that. So I think it is paying dividends, especially with what we are seeing out of places like Pennsylvania in terms of polling numbers.”
State Republican leaders, largely split on Trump, say they have campaigned in Maryland for local candidates but given money to states where the party’s standard-bearer has a better chance of upending Clinton.
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said he has seen a concerted push from Trump- inspired Republican activists to campaign for the controversial businessman.
Residents from Cecil and Harford counties, Cluster said, have made the relatively short trek to the Lancaster County Republican Party’s headquarters to make calls on Trump’s behalf. Cluster also noted he has been coordinating with campaign officials in other swing states such as Florida and Ohio to help Trump out in any way possible.
“We have been very active in our get-out-the-vote efforts with Pennsylvania and a number of other states,” Cluster said. “The Trump campaign, through volunteers here in Maryland, are making a strong push in Maryland to promote support.”
Pennsylvania is deemed one of a handful of crucial states in the 2016 presidential race, along with Colorado, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada.
For years, Marylanders have been Democratic foot soldiers in Pennsylvania, which lacks the union muscle that drives registration and early voting efforts in and around the state.
But this year, the Keystone State, with its 20 electoral votes, might be more crucial than ever despite having voted for the Democrat nominee in every election since 1992.
I understand people are angry, frustrated and want to see change. Trump has capitalized on that appeal, but he is not the answer to some of the gridlock we are seeing right now.
— Delegate Shelly Hettleman (D), 11th District Baltimore County
With a substantial number of blue- collar workers and mining families, Pennsylvania is seen as a hotspot for Trump’s promise to boost coal and natural gas and bring back American jobs from overseas.
As a result, Democratic Delegates Shelly Hettleman, who represents the 11th District in Baltimore County, and Maggie McIntosh, who represents the 43rd District in Baltimore City and is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis, will lead a group of about 20 people to Pittsburgh on a five-day trip through Nov. 9.
Because Pennsylvania is one of 13 states without early voting, McIntosh and Hettleman both say they plan to pound the pavement hard on Election Day. They will conduct last-minute door-to-door canvassing, offer rides to seniors in retirement communities who are unable to drive to the polls and conduct calls from a phone bank.
Their hope, McIntosh said, is not only to ensure a Clinton victory in Pennsylvania but also to position the Democrats to take back the Senate. Democrats must win four seats and the presidency to reclaim the Senate, making the hotly contested race in Pennsylvania between Republican incumbent Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty key for McIntosh.
The Trump campaign, through volunteers here in Maryland, are making a strong push in Maryland to promote support.
— Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party
“It’s going to be rough,” said McIntosh, who volunteered in Philadelphia for President Barack Obama and 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore. “We’re not going to find the enthusiasm for Clinton in [Pittsburgh] that you might find in Philadelphia or elsewhere. But we think it’s important to find every vote we can for Clinton in the Pittsburgh area, as well as the Senate.”
Hettleman, one of Clinton’s 60 Maryland delegates at the Democratic National Convention, said this is the first time she has campaigned for a candidate since being elected to office two years ago.
Like many Democrats, Hettleman is deeply skeptical of the brash temperament Trump has displayed at times during his candidacy and questioned his fitness for office with no previous political experience. Although she noted Clinton is not without her flaws, Hettleman contends Trump is not the best change agent for the country.
“I understand people are angry, frustrated and want to see change,” said Hettleman, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D). “Trump has capitalized on that appeal, but he is not the answer to some of the gridlock we are seeing right now.”
Pennsylvania is not the only state in which Clinton enthusiasts from Maryland have taken an active role.
Roberta Greenstein, a 64-year-old Baltimore resident and community volunteer, was visiting her daughter and grandchildren in Milwaukee last month when she stumbled upon the city’s Democratic campaign offices.
The next day, she went back and asked to volunteer to make phone calls. She was immediately given a script that asked Democratic voters if they were going to vote and, if so, which candidate they would select.
“I think this election is one of the most important I can remember in quite a while,” said Greenstein, who sits on the board of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and also co-chairs the downtown Charm City Hadassah group. “I certainly do not want to see Trump elected, so I am doing what I can to see Clinton elected. I think no one thought Trump would get as far as he did because of the way he has carried himself.”
Several prominent Republicans, including Gov. Larry Hogan, have distanced themselves from Trump. But that’s not going to stop Republican activists from showing their support for Trump at the polls come Election Day.
“We are prepared in Maryland to make sure there is no intimidation or anything that would stop someone from exercising his or her democratic right to vote.”
— Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party
Nick Panuzio, chairman for the Trump campaign in Maryland and also chairman of the Talbot County Republican Central Committee, said Trump has brought in many Maryland Republicans who have never participated in the election process.
“We have seen a lot of people from all around the state who may normally not be as vocal in the election come out in great support of Trump,” said Panuzio, former Republican mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. “This movement is real, and I feel he has gained a lot steam from all different ethnic groups within the state and country.”
Jews for Trump, a national group comprised of Jewish Trump supporters, lists 73 Maryland voters on its website who have vowed to cast their vote for the GOP nominee.
Phil Kaplan, a 37-year-old Jewish lawyer and Towson resident who backs Trump, is not among those in that group but nonetheless plans to vote for Trump. His plan on Election Day, he said, is to take part in Operation Red, an online movement that is encouraging Republican supporters to wear red to the polls.
“I’ll say this: Trump supporters are very worried about possible rigging of the election, cheating, etc.,” Kaplan said. “I can’t confirm any of that, of course, but there has been a lot talk about that. So our overall feeling is that there has been such immorality in the tactics used against Trump that anything is possible, so we just want to show our solidarity by wearing red.”
In recent weeks, Trump has implored voters to poll watch, suggesting the election is “rigged,” and voter fraud could make the difference in the election. Maryland state law permits poll watchers, but it also restricts them from talking to voters or challenging them on any grounds other than identity.
Panuzio will lead a group of 300 party-trained poll monitors to Baltimore City and 150 to Prince George’s County on the day of election to watch for suspicion activity such as voter impersonation and double voting.
The goal, Panuzio said, is to protect the privacy of each voter while allowing the presence of poll watchers to ensure that the process is legal and fair.
“We don’t want the polling places in Baltimore to stay open past the time they are supposed to stay open. People have plenty of time, ample time, to vote, and we are going to be sure that they vote ontime,” said Panuzio, referring to the 8 p.m. cutoff time for voters. “We just really want to make sure things are in order.”
Given the strength of the laws to combat voter intimidation, Garrett Epps, a constitutional law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, expects voting to go smoothly.
“Everybody has the right, within the legal limits, to observe the conduct of an election,” Epps said. “If [poll observers] became concerned that irregularities are going on, they have every right to bring it to the attention of their party’s attorneys who can go into court and try to make sure things are done correctly. What they can’t do, I don’t think, is to storm into the polling place and start trouble.”
Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Department of Justice has dispatched observers and monitors to safeguard the voting process. The law prohibits discrimination in the election process on the basis of race, color or membership in a minority language group.
Observers work inside polling places. Monitors, by contrast, are not permitted to go inside polling places unless state officials grant them authorization.
For the 2012 election, the Department of Justice deployed 780 federal monitors to 51 jurisdictions in 23 states to watch for unlawful activity and write up possible civil rights violations. Maryland, however, was not one of the states monitored.
Conner said voter protection hotline monitors and attorneys at the polling stations will be on standby to maintain order in case any disputes arise.
“We are prepared in Maryland to make sure there is no intimidation or anything that would stop someone from exercising his or her democratic right to vote,” Conner said. “As long as people are not getting into line after 8 p.m. and are there on time, they are free to vote without obstruction or interference.”