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Celebrities and progressive groups team up for (virtual) get-out-the-vote push

Mandy Patinkin wants you know that if you can work from home, you can volunteer for the November election from home, too.
Billy Eichner, Mandy Patinkin.
Billy Eichner and Mandy Patinkin.Getty Images, NBC

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has put a halt to some traditional get-out-the-vote efforts, but a group of celebrities and progressive organizations wants you to know you can still volunteer from home.

"The Last Weekends" campaign, details of which were shared with NBC News ahead of its launch Wednesday, aims to be a one-stop shop for liberals looking to volunteer in a COVID-19-safe way in the critical final weeks before the November election.

You might get a lesson in letter-writing from Mandy Patinkin or Andrew Yang or a pep talk about phone banking from Billy Eichner or Elizabeth Warren, or you may have a chance to connect with zero degrees of separation with Kevin Bacon or Hillary Clinton, who are also involved, among others.

"Volunteering to help get out the vote is one of the most important things we can do in our country to effect change, especially during a pandemic that has disrupted traditional voter contact efforts," said former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is also involved.

Led by Swing Left and 27 other prominent progressive groups, the campaign aims to expand on a similar effort in 2018, which organizers say recruited more than 140,000 volunteers who contacted more than 2 million voters during the four days before the midterm elections.

Democrats have largely stopped canvassing and knocking on doors for fear of exposing voters and volunteers to the coronavirus, even as some conservative efforts continue apace.

But organizers say there are plenty of ways to volunteer from home, such as writing letters, making phone calls or sending text messages to voters in key states with multiple important elections, or hosting virtual fundraisers over services like Zoom.

"It equalizes what people can do in different states, even if you're not in a 'super state,'" said Tori Taylor, co-executive director of Swing Left. "We're really committed to making volunteering a great experience."

The celebrities, through videos for the campaign and their own social media platforms, provide awareness — but also manpower.

Patinkin, perhaps best known for portraying Saul on Showtime's "Homeland," said in an interview that he and his wife have been writing letters every day.

"This is a critical moment in the survival of humanity — and I know that's a grandiose thing to say, but this is a global election," Patinkin said.

He compared the experience of connecting remotely with a voter through a letter to that of an actor connecting remotely with a viewer through film. "Both the consumer and the writer have some distance and privacy," he said.

Patinkin is also participating in a virtual reunion with the rest of the cast of "The Princess Bride" this weekend to raise money for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

"It'll never happen again. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event," he said.

He joked that he might paraphrase his character's famous catchphrase, substituting President Donald Trump for the villain who killed his character's father: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my country. Prepare to die."

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The actress and comedian Kathryn Hahn fondly recalled piling into a car to canvass with strangers in the last weekend before the 2018 election. She obviously can't do that now, but she said she's still volunteering.

"It's not enough to just make sure that we ourselves vote, but we've got to volunteer and to get our friends and loved ones to volunteer, too," she said in an interview. "I just don't want to be on the other side of this thinking we didn't do everything we could."

Because so many Americans this year are expected to vote early, either in person or by mail, the campaign has expanded the traditional get-out-the-vote period from the final weekend before the election to the final three weekends and the period in between.

A'shanti Gholar, the president of Emerge, which trains Democratic women to run for office, said virtual volunteering can be easier for people than blocking out the big chunks of time typically required to canvass — especially for women who may be bearing most of the burden of working and child care from home.

"One of the things we've heard is that it's freed up a lot of time for people to volunteer," she said. "It's given people who may not have the chance to be involved in a campaign to have the opportunity to do it."