Late Wednesday afternoon, as Election Day stretched into Election Week, in cities and towns across the United States, grassroots Democrats took to the streets under a new banner: Protect the Results. A boisterous crowd stretching five blocks marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Hundreds marched in Boston. In Sequim, Washington, a coastal town on the Olympic peninsula, dozens held American flags and signs reading “Count Every Vote,” singing “This Land is Your Land.” A hundred rallied in Knoxville, Tennessee. More than 300 answered the call from Lancaster Stands Up, a well-organized community group in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The rallies were peaceful, even lighthearted, as many participants expressed confidence in the ongoing process of vote counting and hope that their candidate, Joe Biden, was in a strong position to win. But the rallies were also surprisingly small. And many local organizers are upset at the national groups that launched Protect the Results, claiming they had pulled the rug out from them. “We had 2,000 people registered to attend our event, and maybe just a few dozen showed,” Sara Clough, a leader of Indivisible Austin, told me. In New York City, 7,000 people RSVPed, organizers told me, but only about 2,000 showed up.
What happened? What follows is a cautionary tale in an ongoing saga, one that will only become more important next year, as national organizations and grassroots Democratic organizers work to coordinate their engagement with a future Biden administration. For while progressive organizations try to present a united front to the public, the truth inside the movement is much messier. Groups jockey for position all the time, as attention produces funding. The internet also makes it much easier for entrepreneurial organizational initiatives that surf off fast-breaking news. But as the last few days show, converting a list of events on a map into a wave of successful local actions, in the midst of a pandemic and an intense election and under great time pressure, is no easy trick.
For weeks, Protect the Results, a partnership launched late last year by Indivisible and Stand Up America, two national organizations that have positioned themselves as leaders of the post-2016 anti-Trump “resistance,” had been signing people up to protest, should the results of the presidential election be contested, directing them to what eventually became a map of 450 planned rally locations. By mid-October, more than 100,000 people had signed up. They had gone to the Protect the Results website for a specific purpose. As it proclaimed, “If Trump declares victory before all the votes are counted, makes unfounded claims that the election was ‘stolen,’ tries to stop votes from being counted, or otherwise threatens the integrity of the election or the peaceful transition of power, Protect the Results will activate nationwide mobilizations to demand that every vote is counted.”
This wasn’t a party or a disco, as the Talking Heads would have put it. “We think the likelihood of activation is high so we’re asking hosts and activists to prepare now and be ready to take action as early as 5 p.m. local time on Wednesday, November 4,” Protect the Results declared. When President Donald Trump declared, late Tuesday night, that he had won “already” and that vote counts should be stopped, it seemed obvious that the resistance would soon activate its network of volunteers.
The final decision on whether to take to the streets, PTR local organizers were told, would be made Wednesday morning on a national conference call. But what many didn’t realize was that a smaller group of national organizations would actually make the final decision to go or not. And many were surprised when that group—which included representatives of Color of Change PAC, Community Change Action, MoveOn, PPFA, Public Citizen, United We Dream Action, Women’s March, and the Working Families Party, in addition to Indivisible and Stand Up America—chose to stand down.
According to Darcey Regan, the executive director of the Indivisible Chicago Alliance, who was on that national call, 75 percent of the local event organizers had voted earlier that morning to mobilize. “The idea of a steering committee making the decision was news to me. I thought we were making it as a broad coalition. In addition, many urban event hosts have partnered with many other groups on their events, groups that have no affiliation to PTR or Indivisible or SUA. This top-down decision-making process not only surprised us but caused issues with local coalition partners who felt like decisions that impacted them were being made arbitrarily.”
To add to the confusion, Wednesday afternoon, Indivisible and SUA both sent out texts and emails to the several hundred thousand people who had signed up on the Protect the Results site, telling them that the national organization had decided not to take action. Arguing that “the outcome of this election will be decided by voters, not Donald Trump,” Brett Edkins, the political director of SUA, said in his group’s email, “Now is the time to be patient and wait.” It was an abrupt shift in tone and strategy after weeks of dire warnings, and it flummoxed many local activists. (At the time of this article’s publication, Protect the Results had still not replied to requests for comment.)
Jonathan Smucker, one of the founders of Lancaster Stands Up and a veteran community organizer, was furious. “We’ve been organizing a broad base in Pennsylvania since the 2016 election. Today we’re mobilizing our community to rally for democracy and to count every vote. My patience for this kind of bullshit from national organizations that are not accountable to a base has run out,” he tweeted.
Of course, some of the other local PTR organizers may be breathing a sigh of relief that the whole effort to respond so rapidly to a Trump provocation kind of fizzled. For one thing, some national groups, notably the Movement for Black Lives and America Votes, quietly absented themselves from the PTR effort over concerns that its leaders weren’t taking the threat of violence from the right seriously enough. And in mid-October, Nelini Stamp, a longtime national organizer with the Working Families Party, took to her Facebook page to express her worries about the PTR plan. Noting that a lot of mistakes had been made in 2000 in how the left responded to that contested election, she said, “I am worried we are over correcting a bit,” adding, “If we act really quickly after 11/3 … we WILL play into the Republican and right-wing playbook, they want to see people take the streets immediately after the election so they can stop counting votes. They will use ‘insurrection’ or the many DOJs and election integrity commissions they have to say ‘we can’t count votes peacefully due to unrest’ we must just submit the votes as is.” Somewhat prophetically, she also noted, “We need to prepare for all scenarios and that includes winning y’all, we are so used to losing I think we’re just preparing for all the bad with contested and not anything for if we win out right.”
In the end, it looks like Protect the Results has avoided a mess of its own creation. As I write, it is throwing its efforts behind a parallel project that has also been in the works this fall, to bring the grassroots out on the Saturday after the election. Pulled together by the Frontline, a partnership between the Movement for Black Lives and the Working Families Party, the plan all along has been to hold large demonstrations on that day, which would either be focused on defending against a Trump power grab or celebrating the election returns. The name of the event now is Voters Decided. And it’s expected to be a party.