MADISON, N.J. — How do you tell a story like this without it becoming — oh, sure — a women’s story? Especially when you walk in and there she is, Uyen Khuong, arguably a political force in New Jersey, behind the stove, cooking pho?
Monday is soup day for Khuong’s three teenage children, and no interview or photo shoot, no text from any number of the top New Jersey politicians she communicates with, no Trenton crisis over an overturned vote-by-mail law, not even the multiple Post-it notes stuck to a Mac and hungering for attention, will stop the forces of the Mom schedule.
But have no doubt. Khuong, 46, is a powerhouse. She’s stirring pho, but talking about the bullet her mother took through the neck in Vietnam in 1977.
Now, as head of the Action Together New Jersey group — a 17,000-member outgrowth of the secretive Pantsuit Nation Facebook groups that sprung up around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016 — Khuong has created a statewide “Post-it Posse” campaign to give New Jersey voters a neighborly nudge to vote by mail.
They were nudged. Khuong’s posse sent out packets with mail ballot applications — with their signature friendly Post-it note.
“Don’t forget to Vote! The entire N.J. Assembly is up for Election. — Sharon. :)"
They reached nearly 300,000 voters in the 2018 midterms, targeting infrequent voters: people who voted in 2016, but not in 2014, 2015, or 2017.
The group’s goal: To convert to Vote by Mail (VBM), because, Khuong says, it gets more people to actually vote.
“Conversion rate’s our No. 1 goal," said the Vietnamese-born Khuong, who came to Ohio at age 7 from Vietnam. "It’s developing the habit to vote.”
Khuong doesn’t consider it a stretch to take some credit for Congressional seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat in New Jersey in 2018, bolstered by Vote By Mail, notably Rep. Andy Kim, from the 3rd Congressional District, where the group sent out 80,000 Post-it packets, and Rep. Tom Malinowski, from the 7th.
“Because we were able to reach almost 300,000 voters, everyone took notice,” Khuong said. “That is a campaign level, beyond campaign level, reach."
It’s an under-the-radar, mostly unfunded women’s power center based out of a duplex in woodsy Madison, a town with a train stop and long lines of cars awaiting children exactly at school pick-up time in a state long hooked on party machines and ballot lines.
“When I’m asking [volunteers] to put money, a dollar or $1.25 toward a voter, I’m saying there’s no machine behind this,” said Khuong, known as Winn, who puts in 45 unpaid hours a week at ATNJ. “It’s just us citizens talking directly to another voter. And we have to save ourselves."
Around a table in Westfield, N.J.
Around a table in Westfield in late October, statistics fly, postcards are addressed, notes signed. Stamps are bought by volunteers, postcards donated by a local artist.
It’s a postcard party, cousin of the Post-it gatherings held before the VBM application deadline. It’s powered by voter lists mined by (volunteer) ATNJ data expert Dan Janowski, who created a proprietary database from publicly available rolls.
The New Jersey offshoot of Pantsuit Nation was created a day before the 2016 election, when Khuong decided a President Hillary Clinton would need grassroots activism to succeed. A President Donald Trump put it into high gear.
In 2018, Khuong’s volunteers sent out 284,773 VBM applications to infrequent voters in six competitive districts. Of those, she says, 19,158 who voted by machine in 2016 converted to Vote By Mail: 6.73 percent, higher than the 5.2 percent rate among voters who did not receive a packet.
And, Khuong says, even a small amount can help: Kim beat incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur by fewer than 4,000 votes — on the strength of VBM ballots.
Not everyone is convinced the data supports the group’s claims of influence. Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University pollster, said their turnout figures — 77.8 percent of those who received mailings, versus 75.2 percent of those who didn’t — don’t match his.
“They’re doing a great civic duty, but the claims of their impact don’t hold up from the numbers,” Murray said. He said VBM rates were up among Republicans and unaffiliated in those competitive districts as well.
In Khuong’s view, Post-it posse is powerful because it’s “relational voter engagement:” neighbor to neighbor.
The challenge is scaling it up, and finding funding.
Inside Joyce Friedman’s home, Sharon Coulter, Julie Dennis, Kathi Cobb, and Pamela Brug arrive first, work for hours. They have found community, a binding of neighbors that is itself a defense against what they view as an entirely unacceptable state of the country under Trump.
Their focus, though, is anything but national.
“I grew up in Westfield,” says Brug, an ob-gyn and Action Together Union County cochair. One of Khuong’s early actions was forming branches and Facebook pages in all 21 counties.
“It was a Republican town and I kind of accepted it," Brug said. "In 2017 ... we got our first female Democratic mayor. In council slots, we won four of four.”
They learned the value of drilling down on down-ballot races, often decided by hundreds of votes or fewer.
“We have to remind people to stop talking about 2020,” says Cobb. “We’re here for every election. And then we’re on to 2021. We want to get people in New Jersey paying attention every year.”
The women recite 2018′s achievements — Kim, but also Tom Malinowski, in the 7th district, and Rep. Mikie Sherrill in North Jersey’s 11th. ATNJ was also active in the 2nd, where Democrat Jeff Van Drew won.
The new congresspeople are thankful. At ATNJ’s Gala, Kim (“ … volunteers here tonight and those across the district brought my race over the finish line …") and Sherrill (“THANK YOU ACTION TOGETHER NEW JERSEY”) bought full-page ads. Malinowski was keynote speaker.
In the 2019 elections, Khuong says, 10,000 Post-it packets were mailed per week during a peak nine-week time.
“I had moms who were nursing kids at night doing this,” Khuong said.
A mother’s murder in Vietnam, still unsolved
Mixing a peanut hoisin sauce, Khuong doubles back to Vietnam. She believes her mother’s murder was politically motivated, after she served tea inside a meeting involving her brothers, who, she says, were later jailed by the North Vietnamese after the Americans withdrew.
“We fought with the Americans, but when they withdrew, my four uncles went to prison,” she said. “We never vilified the Americans for leaving us high and dry. This is the situation we’re in. We made our choices; how do we get out of it?”
That family history, she says, informs the focused vision she now brings to the task: How do we get out of it?
“We need the loud voices, but for me I see things differently,” she said. “I focused on people not voting. That drove me nuts."
She is working to bring the strategy to other states.
New Jersey’s VBM law has had a tumultuous history. Days before the November 2018 election, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law requiring that anyone who previously opted to Vote By Mail automatically receive a ballot every election. The mandate was unfunded, and last month, the law was struck down. Khuong expects a fix, but it was a splash of cold water post-election.
Born out of women’s Facebook groups, in the end, Khuong’s movement has remained very much a women’s story. She hopes it will soon include work that is paid, a woman’s quest for sure.
“I think women have done so much for this movement that is unheralded and also unsupported," she said. "I get a lot of lip service.”