Week 11: All Good Things
August 16, 2020
Welcome to my final post as an AGS Summer Fellow. This summer has surpassed all expectations I had for it, and I am extremely grateful to the American Grand Strategy Program for their unwavering support during even the most uncertain and unstable times.
I am proud of what I was able to accomplish as the policy research coordinator for Empower the People’s MyVote Project. In the span of a few months, we were able to recruit and train a team of hundreds of volunteers from more than a dozen states to research every single local, state, and national candidate running for elected office in the Florida. We launched the website (https://myvoteproject.com) in time for the August 18 primary election, and it has already had tens of thousands of visits. I am confident that by November, information on North Carolina and a few other states and localities will be available on the site.
Although the website was certainly the biggest accomplishment of the summer, there were a few other highlights that are worth mentioning in this final post. First, we hosted two big events: a candidate forum and a policy panel. The candidate panel featured sixteen candidates from the MyVote Project’s birthplace, Broward County. The Sheriff and State Senate elections in particular were hotly contested due to pressures from civic organizations that were born out of the horrific school shooting that took place in Parkland. Second, we hosted a policy panel on healthcare in the time of COVID-19. The panel was moderated by Kaylee Hartung, a national reporter with ABC News who covered the first known COVID-19 death in the US. The panelists were Dr. Kleper de Almeida (Chairman of the Infection Control Committee at JFK Medial Center), Dr. Peter Ubel (Professor of Business, Public Policy, and Medicine at Duke whose research explores controversial issues about the role of values and preferences in health care decision making), and Dr. Erez Schori (an ER doctor from NYC).
In addition to the amazing work I was able to do with Empower the People this summer, I also did an internship with the North Carolina Democratic Party, led a research team that explored how to conduct elections safely during a pandemic, took a class at Duke’s DC Summer Institute on Law and Policy, got scuba certified, successfully applied to be a poll worker, read a few great books about race in America, and donated blood. All in all, it has been a rewarding and enriching summer, and I’d like to thank you one last time for tuning in!
Week 10: Website Launch!
August 9, 2020
Hello everyone! Huge news this week: We finally launched the pilot version of the voter education website we’ve been working on all summer! This limited launch is intended to help voters educate themselves about Florida’s August primary elections. If you are a Florida resident, you can go to https://myvoteproject.com/ and enter your zip code to find information on every single candidate on the ballot. Even if you aren’t from Florida, there’s a part of the website devoted to educating voters about the policy issues that were reported as most relevant to this election cycle. We’re also planning on expanding to include at least a few more states before the November election (and North Carolina is certainly a strong contender to be the next state we research). It has been super gratifying to finally have something tangible come out of all the work we’ve been doing these past few months. In order to research every single Florida candidate, we ended up recruiting more than 200 volunteers from more than a dozen different states.
The work isn’t over yet though! We decided to partner with some graduate students from Stanford to analyze the impact that the MyVote Project has on voter education levels. In order to do this, we’re conducting a massive phone bank experiment. The phone bank first assesses voters’ knowledge of local politics, and then half of the participants receive no further information. The other half of the participants are told about the MyVote Project and are sent a link to the website. At some point in the future, the researchers will follow up with both groups to determine what impact, if any, the MyVote Project website had on their election knowledge. I’m very excited to see the results of their work. In other news, I had my final presentation of my summer research project on provisional ballots in North Carolina, and was able to share my findings with Damon Circosta (Chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections) and Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland (sponsor of H.R. 1 and Chair of the House Democracy Reform Task Force). That’s all I have to report this week, tune in next week for my final post!
Week 9: Our Second Big Event!
August 2, 2020
Hello again! This week was awesome. To follow up on our first ever Candidate Forum (which featured 16 candidates for elected office in the MyVote Project’s birthplace, Broward County), we hosted an expert panel on Healthcare in the Time of COVID-19. The panel was moderated by Kaylee Hartung, a national reporter with ABC News who covered the first known COVID-19 death in the US. In addition to the experience and knowledge she’s acquired from reporting on COVID-19, Kaylee also has personal experience with COVID-19 from contracting it in March. Fortunately, she made a full recovery, was able to donate plasma with COVID-19 antibodies, and was even able to meet a man whose life was saved by her donation. The panelists were Dr. Kleper de Almeida (Chairman of the Infection Control Committee at JFK Medial Center), Dr. Peter Ubel (Professor of Business, Public Policy, and Medicine at Duke whose research explores controversial issues about the role of values and preferences in health care decision making), and Dr. Erez Schori (an ER doctor from NYC). Just like with the Candidate Forum, the entire thing was hosted on my personal Zoom account, and I handled all of the Zoom logistics before and during the panel.
In other news, it looks like our website will be launching this Saturday. I think it will be exciting for the volunteers to see what their work this summer created. We’re currently working with some students at Stanford to devise a way to measure the impact (if any) that our website has on Florida voters. We might conduct a phone bank to hear about voters’ experiences with the site, so stay tuned for more information on that. I also got news yesterday that my application to be a poll worker was accepted. In addition, I’ve been making about 60 phone calls to voters every day as part of my internship with the North Carolina Democratic Party. Finally, I’ve been in the Florida Keys with my family for the past week scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and hunting for lobster. See you next week!
Week 8: Our First Big Event!
July 26, 2020
Hello again everyone! This week was an especially great one with Empower the People because we were able to host the first ever MyVote Candidate Forum. We had sixteen candidates from Broward County, Florida (the birthplace of the MyVote Project) join us to discuss their motivations for running and their plans to address various policy issues. More than 100 people tuned in to our forum, and the chat section was buzzing throughout the entire event. This event was particularly exciting and stressful for me because the entire thing was hosted on my personal Zoom account. I handled all of the Zoom logistics before and during the event (which has given me a much greater appreciation for how smoothly the AGS Zoom events have gone ever since COVID-19 interrupted our in-person programming). In addition to hosting the candidate forum, I’ve also been working to edit the policy research that has been done by our volunteers so that it will be ready to upload to the website before Florida’s August primary election. Right now, it seems like we are on track to have information on every single candidate up for election in Florida, as well as information on about a dozen policy areas.
In other news, I’ve really enjoyed the class that I’ve been taking with Duke Law’s DC Summer Institute on Law and Policy. On Monday and Tuesday, we had really interesting discussions with Senator Mike Lee about the role of federalism in lawmaking and the ways in which the separation of powers has eroded slowly over the years. On Thursday, we learned from Dana Remus (general counsel for Biden for President and former deputy White House Counsel) about the controversial Office of White House Counsel and the competing incentives that make the job difficult and important. I’ve also settled into a rhythm in my internship with the North Carolina Democratic Party and have enjoyed talking to people on the phone about the importance of voting and hearing about the issues that are important to them in this upcoming election. One last update is that I’m currently getting ready to drive back home to Florida on Wednesday so that I can spend some time with my family before school starts. Thanks for reading!
Week 7: Exciting Things on the Horizon
July 19, 2020
Hello! Things went very smoothly this week, but the pace of work is still much higher now than it was when I started with my MyVote Project. This has been a positive change for me because I enjoy the high-energy atmosphere that has been created and never have any trouble finding things to do. This week, one of the policy volunteers who has grown into a leadership role and who will likely take over the policy research arm of MyVote once my internship ends has been helping me edit and supplement the policy research that has been done by our volunteers. By the time the website hopefully goes live in August, we’re hoping to have more than a dozen policy areas researched and uploaded to the site. It’s been fun having someone to mentor, and I’m happy to know that this work will be able to continue even once my time with the project comes to an end. Along a similar line, the MyVote project recently invested in its own zoom account, which is a weight off of my shoulders because I had been creating all of the meetings up to this point through my Duke zoom account. This arrangement was tough because I would often have to hop on meetings that I otherwise wouldn’t need to attend just to give people host permissions.
In other news, I successfully obtained my scuba diving certification this week! I also had the first event for a class that I am taking through Duke Law School’s DC Summer Institute on Law and Policy. I’m super excited about the class I’m taking through the institute, which starts next week. It’s called “Lawyers Branching Out: The Courthouse, the Capitol, and the White House” and is co-taught by Utah Senator Mike Lee, Chief Counsel of the Biden for President Campaign Dana Remus, and Duke Law Professor and former Law School Dean David Levi. The course also features guest lectures from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and retired Fourth Circuit Judge Allyson Duncan. Even though I think this class would be worth every penny, I’m also extremely grateful to be receiving a full tuition scholarship for the course from the Provost’s office. Finally, the research team that I’m leading on how to conduct safe elections in a pandemic gave our second presentation this week. Thanks for tuning in!
Week 6: Ramping Up
July 12, 2020
Hello again! The grind to get the demo version of the MyVote Project website ready before Florida’s August primary has been intense recently. The candidate research team was a little overwhelmed this week, so in addition to my normal policy research duties I was called on to research all of the candidates up for election in Florida’s 16th-21st congressional districts. Some of these districts have quite crowded fields of candidates running on practically every platform you could imagine. One interesting candidate I came across was Laura Loomer, who states proudly on her campaign website that she is “banned on nearly every single social media platform, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Uber, Lyft, Uber Eats, PayPal, Venmo, GoFundMe, Medium, TeeSpring, and even Chase Bank shut down her access to her online banking!” Needless to say, I definitely enjoyed learning about the different candidates up for election across my home state and was happy to be able to do my part to contribute to the website.
In other news, I started my online scuba diving classes this week and am looking forward to the in-person classes I’ll be taking outside of Raleigh next week. I also completed my online training and background checks this week to be a counselor for Camp Kesem, which is an organization I’ve been involved with for my entire time at Duke that raises money throughout the year to provide a free week of summer camp to children whose parents have been affected by cancer. To give some context on how much I value the work Camp Kesem does, I’ve personally done the following things to raise money for the organization: shaved my head, wore a onesie to my exams, gave bagpipe performances, and jumped in the freezing cold North Sea off the coast of Scotland in the middle of December (twice! – the first video didn’t record properly). Unfortunately, camp is going to be online this year, but I’m sure it will still be a meaningful experience for the campers and counselors alike. Thanks so much for reading!
Week 6: Another Great Week
July 5, 2020
Another great week with Empower the People! Our efforts have definitely started ramping up in an attempt to get the pilot version of the website for Florida up in time to be used during the August primaries. For me, that has meant frequently checking in with our volunteer policy researchers, gathering information about Florida’s congressional candidates, and editing research to ensure that it is reliable and trans-partisan. I’ve started to use trans-partisan instead of nonpartisan because I think it better encapsulates what the purpose of the MyVote project is. To me, something that is trans-partisan is operating at a plane above partisan politics. Trans-partisan voter education materials can include overtly partisan arguments as long as they are identified as such and accompanied by arguments that represent other political perspectives. There’s plenty of more work to be done to ensure that the information we provide to voters lives up to these standards, and I’m looking forward to doing it over the next few weeks.
In other news, I was recently accepted to a part-time internship with the North Carolina Democratic Party that will run from now until the 2020 election. On a related note, I submitted my application to be a poll worker this week. The average poll worker in Durham County is over 70 and therefore at much higher risk during the coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, younger poll workers are desperately needed in order to ensure that our elections are accessible to all who wish to cast a ballot. I also donated blood for the first time ever this week. I know demand for blood is high right now because fear of the virus has kept a lot of people who usually donate blood from doing so. To that point, I don’t think I’ve been anywhere during this pandemic that takes more precautions or pampers you more than the Red Cross does when you’re giving blood. Finally, I got a North Carolina driver’s license and license plate this week because car insurance here costs less than a third of what it does in Florida. Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Week 5: Checking In
June 28, 2020
Hi everyone! This week was an eventful one for the MyVote project. We had plenty of Zoom meetings. My favorite meetings are definitely the ones where I get to train new volunteers on how to do policy research. This week was busy for me in particular because I scheduled one-on-one check-in meetings with all of the current policy research volunteers. These meetings were great because I was able to answer a lot of questions from volunteers who were too shy to ask them in the big check-in meetings. I was also able to provide advice and feedback that was tailored to the specific policies they are researching. Finally, these meetings allowed me to get all of the volunteers up to speed regarding deadlines and formatting for transferring the research they’ve done to the MyVote project website.
Over the next week, my plan is to begin editing and compiling the research that has been done so far and prepare it for the website, which we hope to have up by the end of July. In other news, this week I started an online SCUBA certification course. It has been fascinating to learn about the equipment and expertise necessary to dive safely. Duke’s Anti-Racism Book Club had its first meeting this week, and it was great to see lots of students come on and discuss the book of the month. I also gave the first presentation for my summer research project on provisional ballots yesterday. Finally, one of my best friends from home is staying with me for a few days before he heads up to the University of Virginia for the summer.
Week 4: Home Sweet Home
June 21, 2020
Hello again! This week I felt fully settled in and comfortable with my new routine. All five of the housemates living with me over the summer have moved in, and most of the rooms in the house have been set up. At work this week I trained some new volunteers, looked over policy research that had been done by our first cohort of volunteers, contributed to the candidate research part of the website, and participated in plenty of administrative Zoom calls. Thankfully we’ve started to figure out how to standardize and streamline our new volunteer trainings and have developed a central calendar to help everyone affiliated with the MyVote project keep track of all the different meetings and trainings. This calendar couldn’t have come at a better time, because the coming week is going to be especially packed with Zoom meetings.
In other news, I wrote my first of two summer reflections that I’m doing as part of my Political Engagement Project Fellowship with the Hart Leadership Program. Thankfully, this AGS Summer Fellows blogging has been a reflective process in-and-of itself so writing came easily. Additionally, I joined a current events discussion group with some Duke alumni and Duke’s new Anti-Racism Book Club that was started by my friend Sydney. The book club (@dukearbc on Instagram) is having its first meeting on Sunday to discuss How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi. On Friday, my friends and I celebrated Juneteenth by attending Black Lives Matter protests in Raleigh and Durham. The one in Durham actually turned into a dance party outside of the police headquarters, which was uplifting and inspiring. My final bit of exciting news is that I submitted my voter registration forms today. I’ve begun to feel so invested in the politics of Durham and North Carolina through my various extracurricular commitments that it didn’t feel right to keep voting in Florida. See you next week!
Week 3: Finally Settled In
June 14, 2020
It’s that time of the week again! Lots of important developments this week, the first of which is that I’m finally settled in at my home for the summer in Durham (which is also where I’ll be living during this coming school year). Three of my eight housemates are here so far, and I’m picking another up from the airport today. Now that the house is mostly set up, I’ve felt a big productivity boost. I found it extremely difficult to be productive when I was at home in Orlando. There is one unique distraction here, however. My friend Alan brought along his labradoodle puppy named Summer. Although she is surprisingly well-behaved, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for pet-owners. I never had a dog growing up, so the constant attention that a puppy requires was surprising to say the least. I’m slowly starting to understand the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” and one of my Mom’s favorite videos, “The World’s Toughest Job Interview Ever.” Tons of respect for all the parents out there.
As far as my internship is concerned, I’m happy to report that things are chugging along as usual. We onboarded new cohort of volunteers and are currently finishing up a new recruitment video. Our Outreach and Communications teams have grown so quickly that we are considering a halt on recruitment for those teams, which I’m excited about because it means I’ll likely be seeing a lot more volunteers in the Policy Research team. We’re also looking into collaborating with an apparel merchandising company that was created to inspire civic engagement and voter efficacy across a modern electorate by merging fashion, political advocacy, and activism. I’ll certainly provide updates if that ends up materializing. Outside of work, I helped to facilitate a phone banking event over zoom as a volunteer leader with Organizing Together 2020. It was honestly a little overwhelming at first trying to train volunteers to use the dialer software to coach the people on the other end of the line through the online voter registration process all over Zoom. It also didn’t help that the DMV website and the dialer software both crashed at different points during the 3-hour phone bank. The one upside is that the crashes hopefully meant that we were registering lots of voters. See you next week!
Week 2: On the Move
June 7, 2020
Hello again! This week has been a busy one. Bright and early tomorrow morning I’ll begin the ten hour drive up to Durham, so I’ve spent much of this week packing and trying to spend the last bit of my time at home with friends and family. Once I arrive in Durham, I’ll be moving into the off-campus house where I’ll be living for my final year at Duke. I’ll certainly miss the unanticipated quality time I’ve spent with my family, which has been one of the few silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc for the past few months. Fortunately, I’ll have 8 other housemates and two dogs to distract me from my inevitable homesickness. My little brother Joey, who is currently in hot pursuit of a juggling world record, gave me juggling clubs as a parting gift.
A lot of my work this week has understandably been redirected to support the “rapid response team” that the MyVote Project has created to ensure that our research meaningfully addresses the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery as well as the current national discourse on police brutality, white supremacy, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Much of my time outside of work this week was spent similarly. I helped to craft Duke Student Government’s Anti-Racism Action Items, was invited to speak at a zoom event with civic leaders from across the state about how to effectively take action against systemic racism, and attended protests. I was also happy to see many Duke organizations, such as the AGS Council, holding zoom meetings to discuss concrete, actively anti-racist actions that can be taken over the course of the year. In the midst of all of this, I still continued much of my standard internship tasks, which included the onboarding of new volunteers, editing policy research, and collecting information on congressional candidates. See you next week!
Week 1: Getting Started at Empower the People!
May 31, 2020
Hello! To those of you who don’t know me, my name is James (“Jimmy”) Toscano. I’m currently a rising senior studying Public Policy. My first general area of academic interest is diplomacy, which I’ve explored through three separate study abroad programs during my time at Duke (Duke in Chile my freshman summer, DukeEngage Serbia my sophomore summer, and Duke in Glasgow my junior fall). I’ve also had the privilege of attending the AGS International Staff Ride to France and Belgium my freshman year, was a student leader for the Operation Torch Staff Ride, and I was a student leader for this year’s Staff Ride to Italy before the covid-19 pandemic halted international travel. My other broad area of interest is political participation, which I’ve explored through my honors thesis on the effectiveness of provisional balloting policy in North Carolina, as a senator in Duke Student Government, and as vice chair for precinct 5 (which includes Duke’s West Campus).
Since traveling this summer was out of the question, I decided to focus my internship search on political participation. Fuqua professor Dr. David McAdams connected me with an organization called Empower the People, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, student-led organization that is focused on increasing youth awareness and engagement in our government and society. Empower the People is mostly known for its voter registration and civic engagement programs, through which they actively work with 10,000-50,000 students per semester to implement youth-led projects and initiatives that positively impact their community. The project I will be working on, however, is a new initiative called the MyVote Project that aims to create a platform where voters can discover the policies that matter most to them and find candidates who support those policies, and in turn, candidates can reach voters by making clear and verifiable policy commitments.
This week, I started my internship as Policy Research Coordinator for Empower the People’s MyVote Project. I had multiple zoom meetings with the leadership team to discuss my schedule, timeline, and goals for the summer. I then spent much of the week checking in on the dozens of volunteer researchers from across the country who I am supervising who have given their time to help gather information for the MyVote Project. I’ve particularly enjoyed supporting those who are researching foreign affairs, international trade, and national security. Constantly shifting gears from topic to topic as I meet with different researchers has definitely kept me on my toes and up to date with the news cycle. I hope you’ve enjoyed my first entry, and I am excited to see what the rest of my internship will bring!