Dozens of Philadelphia progressive organizations are planning “mass action” and preparing protests for the days after the Nov. 3 election in the event of coordinated voter intimidation, mail-in ballot invalidation, or other electoral discord.
The local groups, which range from immigration advocates to clergy to liberal political activists, have signed on to an effort called “nobody comes for Philly,” a pledge to vote, then “not rest until our state counts every vote.” Activists have worked for months, holding Zoom calls to share information about potential voter suppression tactics and to lay plans to protest in the days after Nov. 3 to demand every vote be counted, mail-in or otherwise.
The mobilization is being publicized in part through Philly We Rise, an online clearinghouse for Philadelphia progressive activism that was founded after President Donald Trump’s election.
“This moment has been a crash course in how our electoral process works,” said Bryan Mercer, executive director of the Movement Alliance Project, a Philadelphia-based group that connects community organizations. "Unfortunately, all along the way of that process there are opportunities for forces that want to undermine democracy to do so.”
As for Election Day itself, the Working Families Party, a labor-aligned third party, has partnered with other national organizations to recruit “election defenders,” or volunteers who will be stationed outside polling locations to pass out water and personal protective equipment.
The “defenders” — more than 400 in Pennsylvania, so far — are undergoing training in “de-escalation” tactics in case of voter intimidation or “aggressive electioneering” at the polls, and will be connected with lawyers who can support voters, said Nelini Stamp, campaign director for the Election Defenders program.
Stamp said the volunteers would not act until asked to.
“We will have things that are signifiers that people can call on us, but we’re not going to interfere unless called upon," she said. "We’re mostly going to be standing there with PPE, masks, sanitizer, and hand warmers.”
The strategies come as Philadelphia city officials, local and federal law enforcement agencies, and state election authorities prepare for a range of scenarios that could throw the presidential election into question, whether it be rogue poll watchers; state legislators appointing electors friendly to Trump regardless of the election results; or the president exploiting the anticipated delay in results as mail-in ballots are counted.
Officials have come up with game plans for these scenarios. So have activist groups across the country, and especially in Philadelphia, a heavily Democratic city in one of the most critical swing states.
During the first presidential debate, Trump falsely claimed that poll watchers for his campaign were barred from polling places in the city, saying “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” and called on an extremist group that supports him (and has a presence in Philadelphia) to “stand back and stand by.” His campaign has also targeted voting procedures in the city and state, including suing over poll watchers and ballot drop boxes.
The effort to mobilize protesters that is being coordinated through Philly We Rise is one of a handful. For example, Refuse Fascism, founded after Trump’s election, has organized protests every day since Oct. 3 and plans to do so through the election and beyond. A national coalition of progressive organizations is planning under the name “Protect the Results” and is organizing a Philadelphia protest on Nov. 4.
Among the “nobody comes for Philly” pledge endorsers is Juntos, a Philly-based Latinx community organization. Executive director Erika Guadalupe Núñez said the immigrant rights organization is dedicated to protecting the integrity of the election in part because many of the people it advocates for can’t vote, so “that makes every eligible voter that much more precious.”
“A lot of Philadelphians can’t vote. Ours happens to be because of citizenship and borders,” she said. “But a functioning democracy is in all of our interests. If we see any sort of possibility that folks' votes aren’t being fully counted, then we’re not going to accept it. ... Our role is to protest and call attention to how this injustice is happening.”
Some organized labor groups have signed on, too, including Unite Here Local 274, which represents hotel and food service workers. Rosslyn Wuchinich, president of the local, said the group is focused on get-out-the-vote efforts now, but as Nov. 3 draws near, labor will be “one very powerful voice in the diversity of powerful voices in Philadelphia that will be demanding that we count every vote and protect democracy.”
Organizers said the last several years of progressive activism in the city have in some ways led up to this moment. In 2017, Reclaim Philadelphia — which has signed on to the Philly We Rise effort — rallied progressive voters to elect Larry Krasner, a criminal justice reform proponent who spent his career fighting police misconduct, to be the district attorney.
And last year, liberal groups backed Kendra Brooks, a Working Families Party activist, who became the first third-party candidate in modern history to win a seat on Philadelphia City Council.
Progressive groups came together this year like never before, activists said, amid the pandemic and the nationwide protests for racial justice after the death of George Floyd. Thousands of Philadelphians protested police brutality and systemic racism for months, establishing conglomerates to demand a criminal justice system overhaul, and securing a historic agreement with the city after activists led homeless encampments for months.
“This year has represented trying moments for every community in the city as people struggled with the pandemic, the economic crisis, with the blatant police brutality and oppression against Black lives,” Mercer said. “In these hard times, our communities are stepping up more because we need to. If there’s an attempt throughout this election to stop the count early or make sure every vote isn’t heard, then our communities will come together again.”