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In one Pennsylvania city, a street by street fight for every vote
John Micek

READING, Pa. – Paula Hass, as one former American president so often says, is fired up and ready to go.

Standing in her doorway on a rainy and chilly Saturday, Hass, a registered Democrat, says she “always votes.” 

“I’ve voted all my life,” she says with a grin. “I’ve been voting since I was 18 years old. The only Republican in my family is my little brother - we have no idea where he came from.”

Becky Ellis, Christian Cortes, and Raya Abdelaal, canvassers for Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Votes, the political wing of the women’s reproductive health organization, smile back and thank Hass for her time.

Then they’re down the steps, back into the rain, and onto the next door. They’ve been at this for about an hour. With 30 doors to knock on this late October afternoon, they’ll be at it for another hour, at least.

From house to house, Ellis, Cortes and Abdelaal repeat a single task over and over again: They pull a voter’s name from a tablet computer; ask that voter how excited they are to be voting, ask them if they know where their polling place is, and ask them if they have a plan to vote.

If they answer “no” to any of those questions, the volunteers identify a local polling place and then offer to help get that voter to the polls on Election Day. It’s exacting work. And, sometimes, people don’t want to talk.

Democrats need to flip 23 seats to retake control of the U.S. House in 2019. With competitive contests across the state, Pennsylvania could hand Democrats up to a third of the seats they need to reach that critical tally.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Votes is spending $2.5 million to re-elect Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and other down-ballot Democrats. Working with other advocacy organizations, the group plans to knock on some 775,000 doors in 32 counties statewide between Oct. 23 and Election Day in an effort to turn out the vote.

“With a more conservative Supreme Court, abortion access and reproductive rights in this country are in danger. It is critical that we elect champions for reproductive health care who will protect these freedoms in Pennsylvania,” Sari Stevens, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Votes, said.

The canvassing effort on this Saturday afternoon is focused on a particularly important voting bloc: Latino voters whom Democrats count as a critical constituency.

Latino voters are a growing - and increasingly youthful - voting bloc that will make up an ever greater share of the electorate in years to come. And that means the competition to claim them is intense.

Reading is 68 percent Latino, which means it’s rich in potential Democratic votes. And the push here is “the only LatinX outreach program in the northeast,” Stevens said.

Republicans are making a similar outreach effort.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said in August that the Keystone GOP planned to “[contact] hundreds of thousands of voters throughout Pennsylvania--many of whom are Hispanic voters that share the Republican Party’s principles of religious freedom, and who have also benefited from the booming economy that has resulted in record low Hispanic unemployment.”

The staging ground for the Planned Parenthood effort is the headquarters of a local outreach group called “Save Our Inner City Lives.” As a disc jockey spins vibrant Latino music, volunteers hold plates heapd with rice and beans, jerked chicken and roasted plantains -- fuel for the afternoon’s work.

“My family was involved in politics,” says Juan Zabala, who owns the space. “If we solve the problems in our community, we can scale up and solve things on the grander level.”

To further motivate the volunteers, actor Laura Gomez, of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” has traveled down from New York City to lend her voice. 

As a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic without health coverage, Gomez says she took advantage of the breast cancer screenings and other health services that Planned Parenthood offers to its mostly low-income clientele.

“This feels very personal to me,” she said. “Every woman has a Planned Parenthood story.”

Ellis, the canvassing volunteer, has one of her own. As a college student, then newly married to a Chilean man, Planned Parenthood helped out when she suddenly discovered she was pregnant. Her daughter, Katarina, now 17, was born healthy and is a freshman in college.

“Planned Parenthood was there for a girl who didn’t have medical insurance,” she said.

Then she’s off. There are still plenty of doors to knock. And not a lot of time to do it.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at