Volunteer on Election Day 2008 (USA)
Pennsylvania, a Swing State
(Some names are changed.)
My voting is done and I’m in my Ford, driving to one of the downtown campaign centers. My mission, as I understand it, is to drive people to the polls, perhaps a la Congressman Charlie Wilson. That’s what I volunteered to do and as of a phone call yesterday, there are 80 people who have indicated they need a ride.
I am totally pumped. Maybe it’s my adrenaline-tinted glasses, but I think many others are as well. This is a very important election. I want my candidate, Obama, to win, but I also want Pennsylvania to break records for voter turn-out. I want new and apathetic citizens to just DO it.
Driving "Miss Voter"
I live outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s an industrial town of about 80,000 which has experienced phenomenal demographic changes in the last 15 years. Formerly full of whites of German heritage, it has had an influx of Latinos. The rapid westernization of Iran is a good analogy for the rapid change which occurred here. Schools, government, and hospitals have admirably tackled the challenge of bringing these brothers and sisters into the fold of full participation in society. And this presidential election is The One to entice them to register and to vote.
The plan is that I drive any voter, not just Obama supporters. This works for me. However, this effort is being handled by the Obama campaign, so they are more likely to have made contact with Democrats. Let’s just break that record – and then make the huge voting turn-out a habit.
As I cruise across the Penn Street bridge at 10:00 am, a white-tressed man on the sidewalk holds up 2 campaign signs: one for a local candidate and one of the familiar McCain/Palin signs. I smile at him. I am pleased that he cares enough to be out on this cool cloudy morning supporting his choices. Then, to show him that I also care, I hold up an Obama door-hanger sign.
Further down at the same time, another mature man is setting up a folding chair in front of the community college. He has fashioned a cardboard top hat for himself in red, white and blue and holds a hand-made sign “Honk for Change.” Because he isn’t quite ready, I refrain from blasting him with my Ford’s version of an “ah-Woo-ga.”
It’s 10:05 as I report to the downtown office. Many people of all colors and ages are going in and out of the office, all wearing clothing or buttons proclaiming Obama. I wear a single Obama button given to me on Saturday by a volunteer from New Jersey. The dispatcher of volunteers asks “Are you out-of-state or local?” “Local.” “Do you know the Evenside- Slaughter Avenue neighborhood?” “Yes.”
Canvassing in a Tough Neighborhood
(Slaughter Avenue is a name which causes erections of the neck hair on many Berks County suburban residents. It’s one of those places that strikes an emotional chord in the gut, like “HIV positive” or “the projects.” This association with personal danger is not totally undeserved: there has been a lot of drug activity there. And boarded-up houses. And the occasional shooting. Evenside is the name of a subsidized housing neighborhood on one of the nicer parts of the street.)
A city neighborhood like Slaughter Avenue is EXACTLY where I want to be. These are the disenfranchised. These are the people who get hurt first in a poor economy. These are people who are pumped up about a black presidential candidate, but need support to get out of the house on Election Day to make it to the polls. Sadly, part of the “living in the present” behavior of the lower class is that they don’t schedule ahead an activity such as voting.
Don’t mistake me: I am not a saint. It is daylight, there are many people out, and I worked at a school in this neighborhood for two years without getting killed.
I’m given an address along Slaughter Avenue. It’s a staging area that needs people. I drive there and uneasily park along a street with “Do not park here on Tuesdays 8:00 am to noon. Municipal street cleaning.” I hope the street sweepers have off today. The staging area is obvious. Good. It’s a folding table and signs and boxes in front of a bodega. Everyone milling around is smiling and excited.
I report in to the young man in charge. Rick was behind the table with cell phone, laptop, and talking to four people at once. His friendly face beamed under a black cap. After signing in, I say “I’m here to drive people to the polls.” “We don’t have a list of rides yet, so will you do door hangers?” “Sure.” He gives me a stack of door hangers and a manila envelope with a street map, lists of addresses of registered Democrats, their ages, and check boxes to mark indicating whether they have already voted, need a ride, or other info. Trying to help me, he says it’s just a few blocks in that direction. Obviously from the way he is talking about the area, he is an out-of-stater.
I am so excited about being part of an election day – first time – that I just start walking. Halfway there, I re-examine the map and it turns out that my section is seven long city blocks away. Not that I can’t walk it, or that the walk won’t do me good, but I’m annoyed. I don’t want my time to be wasted on this critically important day. Yesterday, I thought I’d be driving Miss Daisy to the polls. Today I am putting hangtags on doors.
A Gringa with Obama Door Hangers
The hangers are ingenious. There are previous Obama hangers I saw proclaiming “Election Day is November 4th.” My hangers say “Vote for Obama TODAY” and actually have the address and name of the polling place for my particular territory. Impressive - not only that they figured it out and printed an appropriate amount, but that they actually have them at the right place at the right time and are giving them to each volunteer covering a sub-territory in a precinct. Amazing.
So, now I am taking a long walk into the ‘hood where my former students live. As I walk over the graffiti-ed concrete bridge towards my territory, I see the Schuylkill River and, in the distance, Northwest Elementary School. Northwest El is the school where I taught. It’s the place where the FBI eventually found the body of Erica Martez, poor seven-year-old girl murdered by her mother’s scum of the earth boyfriend-abuser. It’s a rough part of town. I meet an old man slowly waddling across in the opposing direction. “Hi! Have you voted yet?” “That’s where I’m going right now.”
Walk, walk, walk. It’s cloudy and cool, yet muggy. At the beginning of my territory, I stop to check my information on the actual polling place. If someone asks me where it is, I want to know. To really know: to have seen it and be able to describe it and how to get there. As I am zeroing in on St. Mark’s church, another Obama volunteer comes up to me and introduces himself. Trey is a young, hearty, black man who lives in Reading but grew up in New York. He is as pumped as I. Totally pumped. I guess he likes seeing an older white gal hoofin’ around the neighborhood for Obama, and he tells me “You go, girl!” Mmm, mmm. I feel the luv!
Two gentlemen walk out of their rowhome and see us standing there with huge sheaves of Obama hangtags and call out, “O-bomb-ah!” Trey says “I can’t HEAR you.” They go through this routine three or four times, laughing and shouting more loudly each time. As an old gringa, I don’t think I can pull that off.
Have You Voted Yet?
I go door to door. A woman with self-professed dyslexia sees my Obama button and paraphernalia and tells me she hopes she voted for Obama. She just looked for the D’s for Democrats because the letters in names just dance around. I say I hope it worked.
I chat with people I meet on the street. “Have you voted yet?” Some have. Some aren’t registered. Three school girls (school is closed) walk down the brick sidewalk. I say hi but otherwise respect that they should not be talking to me – a stranger. But they spotted my button and hangtags. After we pass, one of the girls calls out “My mom’s voting for Obama!” “Excellente!”
I come to a household with open front door and Spanish being spoken. Yo hablo espagnol pocito. [I speak Spanish a little - emphasis onlittle.] “Hello? Hola?” Fortunately, they were bilingual. I tell the resident that her polling place is at St. Mark’s, “iglesia negra” just around the corner. However, she has a girlfriend visiting and the friend asks me where her polling place is – giving her address. I have no clue. I just get the address for the territory I’m covering. Two of the three phone numbers I’ve been given for questions don’t work, so I give up. Then she states where she voted last year. “I would try there, then.”
Small Problems, Big Results
Somehow in the ‘hood, people seem to know I am a volunteer. Although I wear only one campaign button (the door hangers are all gone), I carry the tell-tale manila envelope. And my rosy white cheeks and Anglo blonde hair probably state the case that I am a “visitor,” as well. I go past a convenience store/gas station and a black man in an Eagles sweatshirt comes out. He walks right to me “O-bomb-ah!” “Have you voted yet?” “Yes and my aunt and my mother, too.” He then tells me about problems he saw, that the Spanish don’t know how to vote, and problems his mother had because the poll workers said her name doesn’t match what they have. I offer a few words of advice but I don’t have the phone number for reporting problems that can’t be solved right at the polls. I feel inadequate. However, as we close our conversation, the man says “God bless you!”
I walk back, feeling good, wondering if I will be a chauffeur now. Crossing back over the river bridge, I run into my slow-moving bridge buddy now approaching from the opposite end. He is ambling with a companion. We smile and greet each other. “So, you got there?” “Yes, I got there.”
I am back at the staging area. There are more volunteers now: a carload from Rockland, NY and White Plains, NY. Then a busload of volunteers arrived from Wilmington, Delaware! Wow. It puts all us locals to shame. One of the Delaware women asks “Where did you get your Obama button?” “It was a gift. But, YOU should have it since you traveled all this way to get here.” I give the button to her, then put a sticker on to give myself some appearance of authority. The only sticker available is “Latinos for Obama.” Should I write in Gringos above Latinos? I don’t. And who is to say that there isn’t a Garcia somewhere in my family tree?
The bodega has graciously permitted the Obama campaign to set up shop on the sidewalk in front and to run an electric cord for the laptop. It is also allowing volunteers to use their employee bathroom behind the kitchen. However, as it is a small grocery, we must be respectful and take care to go in one at a time. (This became a little bit of a challenge for the volunteers who have just had their collective bladders jiggled during the bus ride from Delaware.) However, the grocery is also getting some business from us as individuals and from the campaign – a platter of sandwiches.
I talk to Rick, the coordinator, about the phone numbers not working. He seems simultaneously harried and on top of things. “Any rides needed?” “Not yet. That will probably happen later, at night.” So, I agree to take another walking assignment.
This time my territory is very close to the staging area. This assignment is called the “second pass.” There are no hangtags to disseminate. This pass is door knocking and face-to-face work. We are to ask the individual if they have voted yet. If they haven’t, we insure that they know their polling place. It’s a new polling place for me to find. Fortunately, it’s another church which is easy to locate. My tactic, if I get a live human, is to ask if anyone in the household needs assistance getting to the polls. One tells me that he is going later. I want to advise him against waiting, due to predictions of long lines. But I don’t want to come off sounding like his mother (something my husband says I’ve perfected), so I say nothing.
I like this area. I’ve driven near it, but never saw these streets a few blocks off the main route. The homes are nice with gardens and sheds and even one with Christmas lawn reindeer tucked in the back, waiting for their season. I see a well-dressed trim black woman unloading bags from her minivan in front of her house. “Have you voted yet?” “Yes, I have.” “I’m just checking to see if people need help getting to the polls.” “Why, thanks, sweetie.”
So it goes. Many homes do not answer my knock. I’m tired. And hungry. I packed a lunch and snacks which are sitting in my car. The car I thought I’d be occupying all day shuffling 80 or more voters to the polls. Oh, well. This also had great value. I get back to the bodega staging area. Feeling proud, I sign out.
© 2008 Maren Elizabeth Morgan