Wednesday, November 12, 2008

North Carolina to Obama:

We know you got this without us. We're just here to rub it in their face!

I rarely volunteer for anything, and in 2004 I felt very ineffective working with the Durham Democrats. I remember answering the phone one day, sorting pages turned in by canvassers another day, and doing actual canvassing on election day itself. I hated knocking on doors. I was alone. It was mid-afternoon and the people on my list were not at home. Their latch key children answered the door. They told me they thought their parents had said something about voting, but they weren’t sure. I told them to be sure their parents did, and checked off “Not Home” by their names on the list. After hours of tramping around some weatherbeaten suburb, I returned to the Democratic party office to find that they wanted me to canvass again. It was late in the afternoon now. This was when I would “make history,” the coordinator told me, turning away to do something else as he said it, as though he knew he were giving me a “line” and didn’t want to expose himself to further discussion. But I had already told some other coordinator I would drive people to the polls that evening. I went to the driving hub, but they had nothing for me to do. I waited around and ate cookies and then was sent to drive back to NC Central some kids who had been taken somewhere to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 -- on election night, when it seemed a little late for anyone to be watching it, and anyway, what kind of doofus had not seen it by then?

But this year, they were saying NC would be close. I had a feeling that, on election night, I would want to be able to say I had done something, whether we were winning or not.

So when a Saturday materialized when I was clear of work and of travel for work, I decided that would be my day of volunteering. I pulled myself away from Svetx’s house later than I had wanted to leave that morning and drove back to Durham thinking I could go to the party office downtown and be directed for canvassing. But no one was at the party office. I remembered I had an email on my computer at home that listed volunteer opportunities. I checked it and found some numbers to call. By now it was 11 am or so, and I was feeling the day slipping away.

The first number had no answer. The second I called was answered by “George,” and he told me that canvassing was indeed commencing at his house at 1pm and I could come by.

I always feel as if I’ve just woken up, with grit in my eyes and hair uncombed, going into an already-established volunteer hub. But George took me and the few others who had shown up into his living room and gave us a clear low-down: Democrats were well-organized for a chance. Some incredible number of new voters had been registered in Durham county. I forget the figure. It was many thousands. And NC was the closest race of all the states according to the most recent polls.

He also impressed on us the need to tell people that straight party voting would not include a vote for the president. That was a separate item to choose on the ballot. He said polls of some Black people after voting in Person county indicated that they had not known this, and had neglected to vote for president since they had only voted the straight party selection. This drew a disapproving exclamation from us in the room. I was thinking, Jesus Lord. In my line of work, we are always trying to keep stupid crap like this from happening. And yet, it’s always like a room full of squirrels, some always getting away.

“We are working with the campaign in Person county on that,” George said.

And we knew to make sure we explained this to everyone.

I was paired with one “Lisa.” We got the usual packets of lists of people whose doors we needed to knock on, plus flyers and door hangers and voting guide cards and sample ballots, and went out to some apartment complexes which George had said were full of low-income minority registered voters -- “good work,” he said.

It takes time to get oriented in a new neighborhood. With apartments, it’s hard to find numbers on buildings. I didn’t really want to split up from my partner Lisa who was an experienced canvasser, but she suggested right away that we do, and later I realized that there were too many addresses on our lists not to.

I walked across grass, climbed over a low fence, jumped a ditch, out of phase with normal sensible foot traffic. I was looking for numbers on the buildings. These apartments had exterior walkways leading to their doors, and I could stand in the parking lots and scan the side of a building facing me and see the letters or numbers where I was supposed to knock.

Mostly, people were not home. As in 2004, I was feeling ineffective. I left flyers and voting guides in door jambs. When I had finished one side of a building, the facade would be adorned with the evidence of my passing, like a tree hung with cards at Christmas.

But there were a few meaningful exchanges. There was RB, whom I spied returning to his door where I had already left my flyers. I called to him on his walkway from another walkway on a different building.

“I left that on your door,” I said.

He was overweight, had his earbuds in, looked to be in his early 20’s. He seemed interested in what I had to say. We talked across walkways for a few seconds and then I said I’d go over to him. I ran down the metal ringing steps and over to stand in the grass just beneath where he was on his balcony.

I had to set my chaotic stack of papers and flyers and maps on the ground to write his name down. It turned out he was not who my list said lived in that apartment. (Later, I found his name elsewhere in my list. He had changed apartments in the same complex. Apparently that happens a lot in those low income apartments. Maybe the landlords keep moving them around to appease their complaints about declining infrastructure.)

RB said he thought maybe he was registered. (I don’t think he would have been on my list if he had not been.) But he had not gotten anything in the mail. (Maybe because he changed apartments and the registration had the wrong address. It becomes clear soon enough how lots of people’s lives don’t line up with the regimentation some conservatives may like to require with respect to who’s eligible to vote.) I asked him about early voting and he said he’d like to vote, as if that idea sounded kind of good to him. I asked him what I.D. and proof of residency he could take to the polls in case he found he was not actually registered. He said he had no driver’s license, but he did have a Medicare card. I thought he was a little young for that, but maybe he’s on a disability plan or something. It was now also clear that he would need a ride, so I called the number I had been given for arranging for rides and told “Rich,” the driving coordinator, a total stranger to me, about this guy RB who would like a ride and may need to register to vote while he was there. Through me, Rich and RB arranged for someone to pick up RB the following day at 1pm. I hoped it would all work out, but as with all these conversations, I never learned what happened in the end.

Another woman took forever to come to her door. She was limping, very overweight. She was registered to vote but was very busy with work lately, and today was having a “bad day” with some medical condition which I forget. I offered to have someone come pick her up and vote right then, but she didn’t want to go. I urged her to go as soon as she could, to make sure she got it done and to allow the Democrats to cross her off the list. Then we wouldn’t have to bother her any more. She said she would try, but the whole time acted like she would be doing it as a favor for me.

A woman hanging out on the walkway said she did not trust early voting. She said it was a scam to not count votes. I pulled out a flyer which had Obama’s face on it next to text urging everyone to vote early. I said, “Here’s Obama, talking to you.” I asked why nobody was home in most apartments, and she said that it was Saturday, and everyone was “out.” When I left her, she was reading that flyer about early voting.

With all of them, I emphasized the need to choose president separately from a straight party ticket, if they did plan to vote for straight party.

I feared approaching a group of Latin guys because I knew I would not be able to communicate with them. They were gathered around the stoop of one ground floor apartment, and I figured most were visiting anyway and not on my list. But I went up to them. They were glad to talk, but knew little English, though their English was far better than my Spanish. One did serve as a translator, and it became apparent that none were eligible to vote. But they said “Obama!” with smiles. The translating guy saw my papers and wanted to sign a sheet. It seemed he thought he could vote right then.

“Here is what I do to McCain,” he said. He took out his knife and put his thumb on the sharp edge, then drew it across his own throat. The bloodthirsty comments and gestures were not relegated to the McCain/Palin rallies alone.

At another set of apartments, these all on ground level, a guy in hospital scrubs was hanging around the sidewalk outside. Given the economic status of this neighborhood, I didn’t think his hospital job was being a doctor. He talked about the neighborhoods -- how where he lived was quiet, but right nearby you could get into trouble. He said someone had been beating up the mailboxes, and he pointed at all the kids out playing, unsupervised. He kept saying “unsupervised” over and over.

He said he had gotten an email saying “don’t vote the straight ticket.” I explained about straight ticket voting not including a vote for the president. I said that’s what they meant -- be sure to vote for the president. He was very glad to have that explained. He said he had encouraged a couple of people at work to register to vote, and he was going to explain that to him.

Some people just yelled at me through their doors. “Yes, we all voted,” one said. I yelled back, “Did so-and-so vote? And what about so-and-so?” I had to check specific names off the list.

At one door, they yelled for me to come on in. I opened the door to find a man sitting on the couch watching football, his wife lying on the couch next to him. They did not stand up. He said he was in the military and about to ship back out, and that he and some others were mounting their own campaign within the military. I said I knew the military folks were the ones doing the real work. He said “You’re right.” His wife never got off the couch, never looked at me. She sleepily said something about going to vote that week. I wanted them to get up and go vote right then -- why were they wasting time, why was I out canvassing while they were lying on the couch? But I don’t know what people are going through. When your husband is home from deployment in the Middle East, I reckon you do want to just lie with him and watch football. Isn’t this one of the “freedoms” they’re fighting for? I moved on.

One guy was an American citizen from Africa. He had a thick accent and said he works at Duke. He said his wife was still in Africa, but that Obama would bring her to the U.S. He gave me a bottle of water. We talked for a while, and I realized that my checking him off on my list made him think he was voting now. No no, I told him, I’m just marking down that I visited you. You still have to go and vote. He said “Oh, okay,” but I doubted how much he understood anything I had said.

A tall man came out his door and stood maybe just a foot from me, glaring and picking his grey and black hair while I gave my spiel. A much younger woman maybe around 20 was behind him. He told me they were going to see some current horror movie. “I like those,” he said. “I like the ones where guys run around with their heads cut off. You remember that one where the guy got his head cut off and was running around?”

The young woman with him was grossed out by this talk. But she got in the car with him and went to that movie.

I arrived back at George’s place a good 4 or 5 hours after beginning canvassing. My hands were cold and stiff from carrying the papers and using my fingers to keep the different flyers and lists separate from each other. During the afternoon, Lisa and I had gone our separate ways in our cars because we had so many doors to cover. George was glad for my help and I told him I was glad I had contacted him that day.

The following weekend I had to be out of town. I had several week days in which I could have helped at the office if I had gotten my act together, but I did not. So, two Saturdays later, I felt again an anxious urge to go out and help.

Svetx and I went together this time. This time it was an aging, well-worn suburb. Multiple large vehicles were in the driveways, dominating the scene; and the dominant feature of many of these vehicles was their large tires.

Again, most folks were not home. In fact, the only memorable exchange from the day was one woman who rolled her eyes when I said I was canvassing for Obama, and said, “We’re all set.” I figured I shouldn’t ask more questions, so I checked her family off as “already voted” and moved on. I probably should have checked, “refused,” meaning she didn’t want to talk.

By now I had the routine down. I could go to George’s house in Durham; step up onto his porch unsure of whom to talk to among the clusters of people conversing, eating, being sent out for canvassing or returning; and someone would always approach me, ask if I were a newly arrived volunteer, take me in, get me a packet, and send me out.

And now, George and his wife were calling their house “The Launchpad.”

I went to The Launchpad again the next day, the Sunday before election day, and was paired with “Fred.” This was the day to suspect that people were at home but not answering their doors. Cars would be in driveways, music would be playing inside, and nobody would come out. Fred joked that it was the neighborhood of meth labs. But I did find one woman washing her car with her friend. I said I was from the Obama campaign, and did we have her support?

“Of course,” she said. But she had not yet voted. She said she had been really busy with school and work. She wanted to vote later that day. I said she could not -- it was the Sunday before election day, and polls were closed. She would have to wait until election day itself.

I hoped that “school and work” would not stand in her way on election day as it had through all of early voting.

At another house, after I knocked, I could hear someone yelling inside to the kids, who repeated the yell at me through the door. “Who is it!”

“I’m from the Obama campaign. I’m canvassing about voting.”

The kids opened the door. An old man appeared at the top of the stairs in a wheelchair. He said his gout was acting up, but he planned to vote on Tuesday with his wife.

Why were people waiting? They could die by Tuesday, I would think. I asked this guy if he needed a ride to the polls. “You look like you could use one,” I said.

“I think I can probably get a ride,” he said.

But I said I would arrange one for him. I made my second call to Rich, the driving coordinator. This time I heard a recorded greeting saying I should email the information to him. But I could not email from where I was. I don’t have a Blackberry or iPhone or anything like that. So I read his information off my paper into the answering machine. The guy in the wheelchair interrupted me to say the phone number was incorrect. So he told me the new number, and I repeated it into the message, which was now rambling too long. I hoped it all made sense. I checked off on the sheet that this guy needed a ride, and I corrected his phone number on the sheet too.

Back at The Launchpad, they told me that if I had noted on the sheet that they needed a ride, then they would be called about a ride. But as always, I don’t know how this played out.

That evening, two days before election day, The Launchpad had volunteers sitting around the dining room table with their laptop computers, updating the information according to the forms brought in by us canvassers. The living room was devoted to giving canvassers instructions and passing out paperwork and flyers and door hangers. His hallway had food -- sandwiches, breakfast bars, fruit. I always took an apple or banana and a Nutrigrain when finishing canvassing.

I left as a new shift of canvassing was beginning for that evening.

Monday before election day, I just didn’t make it out to canvass. I felt bad. I could have gotten more done in the morning before dance practice, then picked up the gear in Chapel Hill for my Tuesday work sooner, then done some evening canvassing. But I didn’t.

Tuesday, election day, I almost didn’t canvass again. I had work which ended around 2pm and I could have been out canvassing by 3:30, but I decided to accept the producer’s invitation to go have lunch. We ended up spending two hours on lunch. I could have excused myself at any time and they would have understood. But we were laughing too much, and too excited with our talk about politics.

So by the time I returned gear to Chapel Hill and arrived in Durham, it was 5:30, an hour after the last scheduled canvassing shift was to begin. But I went to The Launchpad anyway and found the place even more active than Sunday. As always someone met me on the porch as soon as I arrived. “Are you a new volunteer?”

“Yes -- do you need canvassing?”

“You will be canvassing like you’ve never canvassed before,” he said. We were to go out and knock on doors and keep returning to the ones where nobody answered. If anyone had not voted, we were to put them in our car and take them right then to vote. We were not to return until after polls had stopped accepting new arrivals, which was 7:30.

I was put with two women, Alice and Dorothy. Then two more men joined our group. One of the men repeated the instructions just given to us by the instructor. He was middle aged (like me), probably a manager (unlike me), accustomed to repeating instructions regardless of the level of understanding of the person they were talking to.

We received our packets of addresses to visit. Unlike other canvassing excursions, several packets were rubber-banded together. There were too many lists for us five to cover. Alice and Dorothy did not know the part of town we were being sent to, and I barely had a sense of it. The middle-aged manager type said, “It doesn’t matter. You have GPS. Just go to all the doors and throw them in your car and take them to vote.” Then he and the other man left, not really part of our “team” after all, apparently.

Between Alice and Dorothy and myself, we decided to take two cars so that one could be for taking people to vote, the other for getting us around.

It was raining and dark. Alice and Dorothy followed me in my car with my GPS out to a cluster of apartments. Parking in a lot there as if we were drug dealers waiting to make a sale, we tried to figure out how to approach these strange apartments. It was 6pm now, just 1.5 hours before polls would close. We could not see numbers on the buildings from my car, so we divided up the addresses for that complex as best we could. Alice and Dorothy went together, and I went alone. And we left the lists for other neighborhoods in my car to keep them dry.

It was completely dark except for the orange streetlights. I wished I had my headlamp with me. I wished I had an umbrella, but I would not have had a spare hand to hold it. There had been a rack of donated umbrellas back at The Launchpad. I did have my fancy raincoat though.

I could hardly see letters on doors from the sidewalks, and I would have to walk all the way around buildings to find their numbers. A middle-school aged girl helped me a little, pointing a few buildings out. But, for someone who lived there, she did seem rather confused about building numbers.

The wooden steps leading up to apartments were wet and completely dark. People kept their charcoal grills and outdoor chairs on the landings of these stairs for me to bump into. When I would reach the top of some stairs, I would hold my lists up to streetlight angling in from somewhere and learn the names at the address where I was about to knock. My lists were becoming soaked. Later, a housemate told me that he had been just punching out names on his own soaked papers that night, harking back to the hanging chad of yesteryear.

It was like trying to get work in the movies, all that searching for doors in the rain and knocking, and nobody answering.

Almost all folks were not home, but in a few cases, a kid opened the door and relayed information back and forth between me and someone lying on a couch, apparently tired from work. Usually that person on the couch was not the one on my list. But she would say she had voted, and that the person on my list had intended to vote, so I would check them off as “already voted.”

Many had said someone had already come to see them that day. I figured, MoveOn.

I was thinking that if this election were to go the wrong way, that we White volunteers could be seen as hassling Black people for nothing. Decades ago, Whites went to Black houses to prevent them from voting; now we go to try to get them to vote and wonder why they can seem lackadaisical about it. Maybe we Whites should just lay off on both counts.

Tramping around in the rain, trying to discern puddles from flagstones, someone parked her car and walked by me. “Obama?” she said.

Yep. She knew why the white people were coming these past weeks. After the election, the visits from White people would dwindle, as if we don’t really care about the Blacks, we just want their vote for our man -- which, to be honest, is true about some of us, given the fact that we generally don’t go to Black neighborhoods much. This is all the more reason for the folks at The Launchpad to continue the community activism, as they have said they are going to do, and reach out to neighborhoods in Durham and find out what people really want from their local politicians in between elections. This is when the meaningful work can be done, perhaps.

By 7pm I had banged on all the doors on my list at that neighborhood, but there were many other lists for other neighborhoods in my car. Andrea and Dorothy and I decided to split up completely -- go to completely different neighborhoods and just do what we could. They took a map with one cluster of places they could visit. I took another and drove over there, a strange backroute I navigated between swipes of the wiper blades, roads which are home to some, but as strange to me as a new city.

It was hit or miss. One row of houses did have people at home and warm cooking smells. Kids ran to the doors and opened it when I said I was from Obama. “Obama!” they repeated. A parent would make his or her way from the living room where the TV would be on, election exit polls already coming in while, no doubt, last minute canvassers like me still were going door to door in battleground states across our nation’s time zones where polls would be open for several more hours.

“Yeah, we voted,” they would say. I would ask if anyone in the area might still need a ride to vote, and I could take them. But everyone they knew had also voted.

I finished that cluster of addresses and drove to another cul-de-sac with another cluster on my map. There, nobody was home. I banged on doors until 7:30, then figured that was about it. I could have done more canvassing on previous days, but I had done a fair amount, and now we’d reached the cutoff. I called The Launchpad to confirm. They said to come on in. It was too late to get anyone in line to vote.

At The Launchpad around 8pm, they told me to just drop my papers in a stack. None of it mattered now. The dining room was empty of data enterers. Nobody would be tallying the results, generating new pages. But the porch and hallway were still crowded with people eating pizza, saying they were nervous, saying they wanted to keep working to avoid thinking about it.

And look what happened. NC went blue by a margin less than the number of new voters the Democrats had registered in Durham County. People in NC can probably reasonably say, all their efforts were necessary and worthwhile.

Even my home state of Virginia, where I attended all white high school, where state tax money goes to maintain the statue of Robert E. Lee, went blue.

I’ll let my family seethe for a while before contacting them.


Stew said...

:-) Yay!

Ajit said...

Dang, that was the most honest portrayal of what Obama's grassroots looks like.

Marsosudiro said...

Dang, that's a lot of happening! Good work, man.

So there were ~14,000 write-in votes for president. I find it amazing that 14,000 people in NC would write in someone's name. Let's assume that even 10,000 of those were for Nader. Who were the 40 people per county voting for?!