Making it count: The Fight Back Table mobilizes to ensure that all Pennsylvania votes are tallied

In an election in which one candidate has signaled that he is unlikely to concede, progressive organizations are preparing to hit the streets, starting Wednesday afternoon.

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David Gabig holds aloft a "Count Every Vote" sign at a Wednesday afternoon rally on the portico of the City-County Building, in Downtown Pittsburgh, on Nov. 4, 2020. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

David Gabig holds aloft a "Count Every Vote" sign at a Wednesday afternoon rally on the portico of the City-County Building, in Downtown Pittsburgh, on Nov. 4, 2020. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Update (11/4/20): The Pittsburgh region’s first Count Every Vote action, in front of the City-County Building, Downtown, drew around 60 demonstrators who urged patience with the ongoing tallying of mail-in ballots amid continued threats to the process.

A coalition of unions, community groups and faith-based organizations gathered around 4 p.m. on the Grant Street sidewalk as news broke that President Donald Trump’s campaign was asking for a temporary halt to ballot counting in Pennsylvania, and intervening in a court case regarding the state’s ability to count votes received after Tuesday.

“It makes our message even more important, frankly,” said Sam Williamson, district leader of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ. “This will be the first time in America’s history when any party tried to intervene and tried to take millions of votes away from voters after they were legally cast. … It’s disgusting, it’s anti-democratic, but it’s what our president is about.”

Others took a less partisan approach.

Pediatrician Ursula Parlin said she was concerned that the novelty of mass mail-in voting was “being used as a tactic to negate a lot of the votes in this country.” When she votes, she said, she’s “thinking of my patients,” some of whose families need government support in order to secure food, healthcare and education.

Ursula Parlin, a pediatrician, said she believed her mail-in ballot should be counted, because her patients don't have a vote. “Children for a while can’t even speak, for a while can’t even walk, and are forever at the mercy of their surroundings.” (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Ursula Parlin, a pediatrician, said she believed her mail-in ballot should be counted, because her patients don't have a vote. “Children for a while can’t even speak, for a while can’t even walk, and are forever at the mercy of their surroundings.” (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Groups associated with a national umbrella effort called the Fight Back Table have scheduled local events “all week until every vote is counted,” said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, managing director of the progressive grassroots group Pennsylvania United. “Pennsylvania might be waiting for a little while [for a final election result]. We want to make sure we get it right, no matter how long it takes.”

11:15 a.m., Friday, Oct. 30: Hats, ponchos, bullhorns

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy said she was “up to my knees in hats” — black, with “Count Every Vote” written in gold. The managing director of the progressive grassroots group Pennsylvania United couldn’t wait to get them out of her living room, and on to the heads of demonstrators.

Erin Kramer, of the union-aligned group One Pennsylvania, was looking forward to distributing piles of ponchos that were one Sharpie away from bearing the same message.

There was talk of bulk-ordering bullhorns and preparing to contend with tear gas as around 20 leaders of unions, progressive groups and religiously affiliated organizations met via Zoom to plan for a week in which a presidential election could hinge on whether Pennsylvania’s votes are fully tabulated.

The vote counting process “is going to take a week, so we have to be prepared for that,” said Kennedy. Prepared to be vocal, that is. “We have some awesome actions happening all the way from Erie to Westmoreland and lots and lots of places in between.”

The meeting was one of several, over recent weeks, involving activists and advocates whose organizations aligned themselves with a national coalition called the Fight Back Table.

The Fight Back Table was launched in 2016 to encourage collaboration between progressive organizations nationally. In response to President Donald Trump’s statements this year that he may not accept the results of an election he views as compromised by mail-in balloting, and may challenge the counting process, the coalition has prepared, locally and nationally, to echo one mantra: Count every vote.

Conservative media outlets have portrayed the Fight Back Table as a well-funded left-wing plan for "mass public unrest" in the event of a contested election.

Local leaders, though, said they are relying largely on their own organizations’ funds, and planning only “peaceful actions,” as Kennedy put it. That said, they can’t rule out counter-demonstrations, so members were charged with identifying demonstration site escape routes, in case police use tear gas.

Trump early Wednesday declared victory, even as some half dozen states remained too close to call, with millions of votes uncounted.

Local Fight Back Table actions are expected to start at 4 p.m. on Nov. 4, at the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh. If the election remains contested, they’ll continue daily, at various places and times, at least through Saturday, when an early afternoon demonstration on East Carson Street is planned. All events are subject to change, and details of 520 events nationwide are available here.

“We’ve heard a lot from the president about how it’s rigged, the election is rigged, or it’s going to be stolen,” said Kennedy, “and I think we are here to just stand up for the process.”

12:15 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 31: Finding more votes

Anna Standke was spending her child’s first Halloween knocking doors in Rankin’s Hawkins Village. She said she had talked with around 50 to 100 voters per day in recent months, as part of her job for the Alliance for Police Accountability [APA].

The APA was in Rankin because the percentage of borough voters who had submitted mail-in ballots was low, according to G.L. Johnson, the APA’s field director.

G.L. Johnson, field director for the Alliance for Police Accountability, talks on the phone while looking at canvassing data on Oct. 31 in Rankin. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

G.L. Johnson, field director for the Alliance for Police Accountability, talks on the phone while looking at canvassing data on Oct. 31 in Rankin. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Standke, 28, of Penn Hills, was prepared to demonstrate, if necessary, to ensure that the votes she’d spurred wouldn’t be spurned if the count is cut short. APA leaders were "talking about how this week is going to be crazy, and there’s so many things going on," she said. “My four-month-old will be waiting for me, but I’ll be out there with them.”

If it comes to that, Standke will be part of something much bigger.

Nationally, the Fight Back Table involves the progressive groups Democracy Alliance, Color of Change, MoveOn, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, People’s Action and scores of other organizations, according to information one member group posted online.

Locally, organizations started coordinating in early October, Kennedy said. Participating organizations range from the mammoth Service Employees International Union, to the Pittsburgh chapter of the Jewish progressive organization Bend the Arc, to local groups like Indivisible Forest Hills, the Center for Coalfield Justice and Voice of Westmoreland.

Some of the involved organizations are nonprofits that are barred from taking partisan stances. Interviewees emphasized that their position — that every vote must be counted before anyone is presumed to win the state’s 20 Electoral College votes — is nonpartisan. Few mentioned Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“We are wanting to see a peaceful transition of power, if that’s how the election goes, and to make sure that we don’t have a coup in this country,” said Avigail Oren, a leader of Bend the Arc. The word coup “seems like a really strong word, but it really just is a word to describe the flouting of democracy in order to maintain or gain power.”

Locally, each involved group is “chipping in the resources that it can,” said Kennedy. She added that donors contributed to the statewide push to count the votes, allowing organizations to buy sign-making materials, bullhorns, food and water.

Because this is the first general election in which Pennsylvania counties have had to process millions of mail-in ballots, a final tally could take days. On Sunday, Trump said his team was "going in with our lawyers" after the polls closed, in light of his opposition to the decisions by some states, including Pennsylvania, to count votes postmarked by Nov. 3 but delivered later in the week.

The Democrats, too, have “lawyers on deck,” said state Rep. Summer Lee,  D-Swissvale, as she knocked on Hawkins Village doors. She planned to vote on Tuesday, then join many allies who would “shift their attention to making sure that every vote is counted — provisional, mail-in, in-person.”

State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, (left) and Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, walk through Rankin’s Hawkins Village on Oct. 31, knocking on doors and encouraging residents to vote. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, (left) and Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, walk through Rankin’s Hawkins Village on Oct. 31, knocking on doors and encouraging residents to vote. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Already, pre-election, there were “at least seven court cases about how we’re voting in Pennsylvania,” said Kadida Kenner, director of campaigns for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. She was organizing a Wednesday afternoon Count Every Vote rally in Harrisburg.

She wants the rallies to be “super inclusive” and the vibe to be “family-friendly.” The nation, she said, is “going to be looking at Pennsylvania just like they were looking at Florida in 2000,” when a razor-thin margin and a U.S. Supreme Court decision resulted in the election of Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

6:05 p.m., Monday, Nov. 2: Demonstration dos and don’ts

“Our vote is one part of our voice, and we can use it to vote, and we can also use it in the streets,” Aria Florant, Fight Back Table’s training director, told around 130 people gathered on an election eve Zoom. Florant and her allies were there to remind likely demonstration leaders of their legal rights, and their obligations to do what they can to keep events from spiraling out of control.

Participants from all over the country, including Pennsylvania, heard the American Civil Liberties Union’s advice on what to do if the police seize your phone (don’t give them the pass code or consent to a search), or arrest you (don’t resist or argue, just provide your name and ask for a lawyer). They then broke into groups of three, in which one member was instructed to yell, the second was charged with calming them while the third took notes.

The primary focus of so-called de-escalation training is to help demonstrators to keep their own supporters peaceful, said Lisa Frank, executive vice president for strategic campaigns with Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania.

“Every event has [demonstration] marshals,” Frank said, who are trained to contend with “somebody who is just shouting a little bit or being a little rough.” Should someone get physical, she said, every event has a person assigned to communicate with the police.

Today’s electrified political atmosphere, though, brings new concerns. Following clashes in Portland, Trump famously told  the right-wing Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” when asked if he would denounce white supremacists.

That moment amounted to “a call-to-action to white supremacist organizations” which makes it essential “that we have strong security plans,” said Veronica Coptis, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice. “Because it would be naive to assume that there would be no response from white supremacists who are in fear of losing power.”

“There is an opportunity for militias to show up at any event like this,” said Kenner. “It’s a concern.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said city police were aware of the possibility of post-election unrest and were coordinating with state and federal authorities. City officers, he said, will be on 12-hour shifts in the aftermath of the election, and “will have operations prepared in multiple locations throughout the city.”

8:19 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 3: Waiting for results

Sam Williamson watched the election results from a chilly Point Breeze North parking lot, equipped with a big screen and a Rogue BBQ food truck, which attracted a few dozen cars full of labor activists. The district leader of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ was pensive after spending the day canvassing in Frazer. In 2016, he recounted, he was among those surprised by Trump’s narrow victory in Pennsylvania.

Ronelle Burton (right) and her daughter Nekia Burton, a downtown cleaner and SEIU 32BJ member, watch election results at a drive-in election night event in Point Breeze North. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Ronelle Burton (right) and her daughter Nekia Burton, a Downtown cleaner and SEIU 32BJ union member, watch election results at a drive-in election night event in Point Breeze North. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

This year, the electorate seems more energized, he said.

“Turnout everywhere has been high, it sounds like, from first reports, and that’s great for democracy,” he said. “Now the vote counting starts, and we want to make sure that every vote gets counted, and we all wait patiently for the actual results to be full and complete.”

Typically, on the day after an election, activists sleep in, then bask in the glow of victory or lick their wounds. No one interviewed for this story had ever before been involved in post-election demonstration planning.

“This year is different because the stakes are so high,” said Clare Dooley, one of the organizers of Voice of Westmoreland, which has a rally planned in Greensburg. “We are in the midst of a pandemic in which 230,000 Americans have died because our federal government has failed us. We are also in the very last moment when we can do anything to mitigate climate change. And the rhetoric from one of the presidential candidates is unprecedented,” she said, “... in regard to threatening not to respect the results of the election.”

Assuming a close election, disputes over mail-in ballots may ultimately be decided in the courts. Local activists, though, said it was important to make clear, on the streets, that a central tenet of democracy continues to have broad public support.

Said Kennedy: “We are just regular folks who are saying: Our democracy will stand, this is our process, every vote counts, every voice needs to be heard, and we’re going to count every vote.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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