With the help of tens of thousands of people like me, the Democrats and 527 Democrat-leaning organizations achieved their goals on Nov. 2: high voter turnout, millions of doorbells rung, a huge and enthusiastic army mobilized to defeat the president. Yet, as an old adage goes, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”
What, if anything, did our highly publicized efforts accomplish? I’ve been reflecting on my experience since the results came in.
I volunteered in two states.
Nevada, a highly-contested swing state, was not far from my California home, so I signed up with a Sierra Club group for a mid-October weekend of campaigning there. In Plumbers and Pipefitters Hall in Reno, we joined some 200 lawyers, retirees, union members and students.
The guru of getting out the vote, longtime organizer Steve Rosenthal, gave the crowd an impassioned stem-winder: “The Republicans put up barriers to voting and it’s your job to take them down!” he cried. “The future of the free world is in your hands!”
Out we went, armed with clipboards, precinct maps, lists of names and our memorized spiel. Up and down the streets of Reno we knocked on the targeted doors, urging people to vote. As the day went on, I found that many people on my list were annoyed, having already been bombarded with phone calls, literature, and personal visits from other like-minded groups such as MoveOn.org. Other people were encouraging. Driving home, I hoped my efforts had done some good.
Two weeks later, because Pennsylvania was an important state where I have relatives, I flew to Philadelphia to volunteer for Election Protection, a coalition of more than 50 organizations ranging from the NAACP and the League of Women Voters to Rock the Vote. On election day, the multi-million dollar coalition effort sent out an army of 25,000 volunteers divided into teams of two or three to selected “high risk” polling places in 17 states—targeting minority communities where, in past elections, voter intimidation had taken place or was suspected.
Along with about 2,500 others, I attended a final training session in Philadelphia the evening before election day. Our mission: to make sure that every voter cast a ballot. If a person was turned away, we had cell phones with which to contact attorneys. We had an 800 number to locate people’s polling places. We were to watch for anything that could intimidate voters, like dark-suited men with earpieces hanging around and looking like law enforcement.
A spirited young organizer took the stage. He asked us to remember the old Westerns where a beleaguered outpost is about to surrender when—tarant tara—a trumpet sounds and the cavalry rides to the rescue. We volunteers, he said, were the cavalry, riding to the rescue of democracy. Except he pronounced it “calvary.” He had us repeat, as he ginned up the crowd’s energy, “The calvary is coming! The calvary is coming!”
At 7:30 a.m. on election day, I arrived at my assigned polling place in a quiet housing project in a predominantly black area, teamed with two young black men—one a lawyer from D.C. and the other a fellow who lived nearby.
We were not alone. Three older black ladies stationed there by the local Democratic Party handed out fliers urging votes for the Democratic ticket. They knew pretty much every one in the neighborhood, greeting voters with hugs and jokes, talking about their families, answering questions. They had been working elections for decades.
The ladies were heavily outnumbered by outsiders: besides we three from Election Protection, there was an observer from a labor union, and two young black women lawyers who had traveled from New York for the Kerry campaign. From time to time during the day, four other nonpartisan watchdogs, a few more Kerry people and a pair of Republican attorneys stopped by.
Despite the Democrat and nonpartisan superiority in numbers, the Republicans had the organizing edge. They had arranged for two certified poll watchers to be stationed inside the polling place, equipped with clickers so they could keep a running count of voters and lists of first-time voters, who could be challenged if they failed to present proper identification. Democrats had neither certified poll watchers nor lists of first-time voters, nor a running vote count.
For the most part, voting proceeded uneventfully. Rarely did anyone have to wait more than a few minutes. On the few occasions when a prospective voter had a problem—name not on the list, no ID, etc.—the person was instantly surrounded by six or eight volunteers desperately eager to set things right. I thought to myself, “We may be the most intimidating bunch here, swamping the very people we are trying to help.”
The day passed slowly. In mid-afternoon a garbage truck lumbered by, a large worker hanging on at the back. As it passed, he shouted, “Bush goin’ kill us all!”
At the end of the day, we said our goodbyes and went home.
Despite my efforts, Nevada went for Bush. Pennsylvania went for Kerry. Perhaps our presence in that Philadelphia precinct helped to prevent skullduggery and fraud. In our polling place, we did assist four or five voters to cast ballots and we directed a few others to their proper voting sites. But I ended up feeling that a vast amount of money and volunteer time had been expended, for minimal results. Those three black ladies at our polling place had the situation well in hand; they knew their community, and they were far more effective than the dozen or so outsiders who, for a day, stood around on the sidewalk with clipboards and cell phones and very, very little to do.
Participating in Campaign 2004 gave me the satisfaction of working with others on an important mission. But that glow was short-lived, as the reality of the election results soon smacked me in the face. Looking back, I feel that I was part of a venture that was well-intentioned and somehow off the mark—a foot soldier following leaders whose battle plans turned out to be defective.
Eve Pell is a writer in Mill Valley.