In times like these, resistance doesn’t always mean winning. For the better part of a decade, New York State’s Reproductive Health Act has languished in committee, kept from coming to the floor for a vote by pro-life politicians. At the end of the 2017 legislative session in late June, that was its fate yet again.
But this year, tens of thousands of people are upset about the outcome, thanks to a last-minute stunt by the New York Civil Liberties Union and agency partner Huge. For 36 hours, supporters delivered personal messages directly to the lawmakers stalling the bill, using an appropriately dated piece of technology: the fax machine.
Groups like Planned Parenthood and Rally+Rise had been organizing phone banks to support the RHA for months, so legislators had learned to let the calls go to voicemail. But Huge’s Facts Machine converted individual text messages into a fax that was automatically sent to the offices of Governor Andrew Cuomo and NY Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan, spilling a stream of printed paper into their overflowing inboxes.
"Petitions get a lot of signatures, but there’s something about every single time a person took an action an entire sheet of paper prints out," said Armando Flores, GCD at Huge. "It wasn’t just these 3,000 signatures in a single document."
The entire project was created in just a few days, as a last-ditch effort to raise awareness about the RHA in a state many consider to be a progressive bastion. With the U.S. Supreme Court just a single swing vote away from a conservative majority, there is the real possibility that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion could be overturned. A 1970 New York law guaranteeing abortion rights is now woefully outdated, a poor crutch for women in the state if federal protections fail.
"We felt the clear and present danger from the Trump administration in Washington when it comes to women’s rights would send a new message that this is a problem that needs to get fixed now," said Sebastian Krueger, deputy communications director at the NYCLU. "The metaphor that the fax machine represented was a new way of talking about reproductive rights that hasn’t been tried in the last few decades," Krueger said. "We wanted to do something spectacular in the waning days of the session."
A week before the end of the session, the NYCLU approached Huge with a short brief: let people know the law hadn’t been updated since 1970, and that Roe v. Wade was in danger, said Sara Worthington, GCD at Huge. The fax machine idea was one of the first the creative team came up with.
They presented the idea to the NYCLU on Wednesday, June 14th, got approval the next day and worked through the weekend before going live the following Tuesday. "In the ‘70s, fax machines were basically dot matrix printers with a phone attached on the side, so we got all the bits and bobs and pieces to create something old-school," Worthington said. In the meantime, Huge’s Rio de Janeiro office built the website for the project.
The plan was to create an event that would attract people who weren’t normally politically motivated, so they selected Facebook and its easy sharing capabilities as the platform. Huge trimmed the information the NYCLU gave them to make it more digestible for a social media audience. "They have the story that they tell, but it was a little too political, a little too much detail," Flores said. "We wanted to figure out ways that someone sitting on Facebook, a 28-year-old woman that wanted to care about this issue would get involved."
Lawmakers received no such break from the details. Huge created two PDF documents with information on the RHA as templates for the fax messages. During the Facebook Live event, supports could text their name and address to the NYCLU. The texts were converted to emails that were sent to lawmakers’ fax machines. Because of the personal data included with the faxes, lawmakers’ offices were required by law to maintain records of each fax as a comment from a constituent.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, viewers saw a continuous stream of printed faxes. To save paper and ink, the Huge team had printed out two copies of the documents and was feeding them through an empty printer over and over again, so it only looked like thousands of pages were being printed. "We were thinking about the environment," Worthington added.
The event ran for 1,970 straight minutes—just under 33 hours, racking up more than 50,000 views and generating 3,200 faxes, each sent to both Cuomo and Flanagan.
Though the RHA didn’t pass this session, it came closer than it ever has before, and it will be introduced again in the next session. "We’re committed to continuing to fight," Krueger said. "And it’s not lost on us that the Facts Machine is still in our toolkit."