Meet Three Women Who Made Getting out the Vote in Pennsylvania Their Full-Time Jobs
For Maryn Formley, it was a conversation with a 20-year-old man who didn’t know he was old enough to vote. For Thaís Carrero, it took being denied entry to the Pennsylvania state house, where she worked, because she forgot her badge and a co-worker didn’t think she “belonged” there. For Eileen Olmsted, it took living abroad to help her understand the importance of civic action and democracy in the United States — and her personal need to be more active in that process.
Those experiences led these three Pennsylvania women to make getting out the vote their full-time jobs. Maryn Formley founded Voter Empowerment Education and Enrichment Movement (VEEEM), a faith-based organization that increases voter turnout in the Black community, in 2017; Thaís Carrero began working at CASA in Action, an organization that mobilizes voters to elect candidates that support immigrants and communities of color in 2019; and Eileen Olmstead, who joined the League of Women Voters Pennsylvania as a volunteer in 1978, has since become the Pennsylvania chapter’s communications director.
These women told Supermajority News about their work getting out the vote in Pennsylvania, and what it’s like to be an activist on the ground just days from election day.
How did each of your backgrounds and experiences lead you to voter engagement work?
Maryn Formley: After going back to school in 2014, I did some work on a local campaign and much of what I saw during that experience was disheartening. We were out canvassing for votes and I asked a young man if he was voting on Tuesday. He said, “Oh, I’m not old enough to vote yet, I’m only twenty.” He thought he had to be 21 to vote. I saw a gap between what we learn in school and what happens when we’re in real life, and I knew there was something I could do.
I’m also a woman of faith, so I saw an opportunity to educate voters through their groups of faith and to mobilize them in their congregations to get others to vote as well. VEEEM is nonpartisan because we just want Black people to vote regardless of who they vote for during this double pandemic of coronavirus and racial injustice.
Thaís Carrero: I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. My mom was a nurse there, so I feel I was born to serve. I have it in my blood. When I moved to Pennsylvania, I found a position at the Pennsylvania statehouse. Once, I forgot my badge, and a woman I worked with wouldn’t let me enter behind her because she didn’t know if I “belonged” there. I knew then that I had to take my fight for the Latinx and immigrant communities a step further, so I stayed in the statehouse until a position with CASA came up. With CASA In Action, the major reason why we’re doing work with voting engagement is the need for representation on all levels of government.
Eileen Olmsted: I moved to the Middle East after I got married and returned to the United States in my late 30s. My experiences overseas really made me understand the need for civic action on the part of citizens. I lived in a country where there was no recourse [for injustice] because there was no way of having your opinion heard. When I came back to the United States, one of the things I had in mind was joining an organization like the League of Women Voters so I could have a voice, and so I did. That was 40 years ago.
During the June 2 Pennsylvania primaries, issues like voting deadlines, crowded polling places, and ballots being returned too late caused many peoples’ votes to not be counted. Maryn, you were on the ground during those primaries. What is your perspective on what happened?
Maryn Formley: After George Floyd lit the world on fire, people were angry and they wanted to turn out, so I think turnout was better than had [George Floyd] not happened, and I felt like there was a big push last minute to get to the polls. But [voter turnout was still] lower than it normally would be for a presidential primary. We know some of that has to do with the consolidated polling locations and confusion about voting by mail. Pennsylvania had passed Act 77 in 2019, and we were excited about having the opportunity [as a result of that legislation] for people to vote by mail who normally can’t vote because of lifestyle barriers like transportation and childcare. VEEEM did caravans in African American neighborhoods to remind people to vote by mail because you don’t have to go out and stand in line, you don’t have to be in places where you won’t have social distance — we did this all in the primary.
What have you and [your organizations] been doing to alleviate issues of disenfranchisement and confusion about opportunities to vote by mail to combat their occurrence in the general election?
Thaís Carrero: CASA in Action is working with a coalition on how to alleviate issues with vote by mail and voter registration. For many people, the ballot being in English is a barrier to voting. We are working with the Secretary of State to make the ballot more accessible for Spanish speakers.
Eileen Olmsted: The League of Women Voters Pennsylvania holds candidate forums on the national, state, and local levels. Recently, we’ve had people coming up to us [asking to hold candidate forums for] hot city council races. We do candidate forums in such a nonpartisan way that we get a lot of respect from all candidates. Now, we have to limit the number of candidate forums because we are asked so frequently and don’t have enough manpower to do it all, so we’re focusing on the “hot button” races. With COVID-19, it’s all been virtual and we live stream the forums on Facebook. We also offer basic civics lessons for high school students about why voting is important, how to vote, and why local elections are important in the lives of our students.
In August, Pennsylvania officials said they are willing to count mail-in ballots up to 3 days after November 3 provided that the ballots are mailed by election day (a decision the Supreme Court just affirmed). USPS, however, has said it still might take 2-5 days to mail the ballots. How are you communicating this news to Pennsylvanians, and what are you telling people who don’t want to vote by mail?
Maryn Formley: We’re starting by telling people “vote by mail as soon as you can,” but if you’re down to the wire and it’s a week before election day and you haven’t registered to vote by mail, it’s not going to happen, so you need to make a plan [to vote in person].
Thaís Carrero: We are telling people who want to vote by mail to request their ballot ASAP and then send the ballot ASAP. If they don’t want to vote by mail, it is understandable because many people CASA in Action works with are from countries where the government is corrupt and elections are rigged. If this is the case for someone, we tell them to make a plan to vote in person.
Eileen Olmsted: The League has taken on the role as informers to the public through digitizing our civics engagement course, sending out a newsletter, and making all of our material downloadable. We’re trying to dispel bad information that people are getting about voting by mail. There’s no reason to doubt our civic servants in the post office and the department of elections. They’ve been doing this for years, so why should we suddenly believe that they’re going to do this in a fraudulent way?
What do you say to those who don’t want to vote because they don’t feel either candidate is perfect? Why is voting important?
Maryn Formley: Voting is important because your voice matters at every single level of government. Regardless of your party, race, or ethnicity, your elected officials are supposed to be able to answer for what it is that your community needs. We are our own advocates and nobody is going to stand up for us — no party or organization. Each person has that responsibility to advocate for what they need.
Thaís Carrero: Voting is important because it’s a life or death situation. There are people dying at the border, there are people dying of coronavirus. Voting for the “perfect candidate” isn’t as important in the grand scheme of things. Our lives are important and it is important to elect someone who will protect our lives.
Eileen Olmsted: Voting is an obligation. Voting is something that isn’t easy — you do have to do a little bit of work. But if you get to know how government works and how city councils operate and how much power they have over, for instance, policing or cleaning up your streets or collecting your garbage, you learn that it’s very important to get involved. We tell students that five out of six people over the age of 60 vote, and two out of six people aged 35 or under vote. Why do young people allow older people to make decisions about their lives? It’s time they take the initiative.