Lately I have been involved in some Get Out the Vote (GOTV) activities, knocking on doors, talking to some folks on the phone, and grabbing people I run into, encouraging people to vote and in particular, to support the Democrats. I have felt such urgency regarding the importance of these midterm elections that I wanted to do something. It has been an enlightening experience, sometimes heartening, sometimes discouraging.
I got frustrated pretty quickly with both the phoning and the door knocking in the neighborhoods. Most people have caller ID these days and just won’t pick up the phone if they don’t recognize the name or number, so you’re lucky if one out of ten people answer. Some are happy to share their opinions, others not so. I have to admit that I don’t pick up either when “unknown name, unknown number,” “not in service,” or city names show up on the phone window, and sometimes even when “DFL” showed up. Ironically, when I decided to answer some of those calls because I wanted to hear what they were saying and say thanks to others doing GOTV calls, especially if they were working for the Democrats, the ones I picked up were robo-calls about health insurance, credit cards, or car service.
I’ve done GOTV calling and door knocking during previous elections and felt frustrated by it then, too. Political strategists say it’s effective, but I’ve always wondered, knowing how irritated a lot of people get and wondering if anyone’s mind is changed. So, I quit calling and took a list of houses to door knock, thinking I’d rather talk in person; it’s harder for most compulsively polite Minnesotans to be rude or obnoxious face-to-face, although some have honed their skills quite well.
If you really want to get more in touch with the public, go door knocking. A young girl about 10 years old asked me if I was going to see her grandma. “If she lives right here, I am, to talk about voting.” She said, “I don’t like voting and grandma won’t vote; she never votes.” I didn’t have a chance to talk to grandma because she didn’t answer the door, but I met the girl’s father who was very polite and seemed appreciative of the interest. Some people go out of their way to say “thank you for doing this work,” which is nice to hear but perhaps masks the unspoken “so I don’t have to.” Some people really want to talk about their frustration with what’s going on with our government with a do-nothing Congress, politicians who don’t recognize that Social Security and Medicare are programs that citizens pay for, out-of-control health care costs, and a sitting president who exhibits narcissistic, petulant, racist, uninformed behavior, unaware of the responsibilities and limits of his office, saying whatever comes into his mind at the moment, using Twitter to vent like some grade school kid. Scratch that. Most grade school kids have more self-control and some parental oversight.
I went to some of the multi-unit buildings in town with a friend, knowing we’d cover more ground and wanting to hear from more people, which we definitely did, from the dems with a big D to the vehemently opposed to the carefully evasive. One man told me there was no way he’d vote for Democrats, that they were doing the work of Satan. When I asked what he meant by that, he said it was the immorality. My eyebrows flew up into my hairline, and I couldn’t help but respond, “Really? With a president who treats women the way Trump does?” He responded that JFK and all those other presidents were worse, that Hillary would have let all of “them” in the country, and that all they did was lie. I persisted: “What about the over 200 lawsuits against him and the mistreatment of thousands of employees in his businesses?” He didn’t want to hear any more, and it’s probably good he closed the door. It’s certainly not advised to get in heated arguments doing GOTV canvassing, and you know that you’re not going to change someone’s mind when they’re vehemently entrenched, but I was truly more amazed than heated and very curious about what bizarre statement would come out of his mouth next.
We talked to people of all ages. Some in their 80’s and 90’s who had voted their whole lives weren’t going to miss this election either. Many voted early and others had lined up rides to get to the polls, taking their oxygen and their walkers with them. A few others didn’t know when they were supposed to vote. Many people said they were undecided, voting Independent, or that they voted for the individuals, not a party, which I took as code meaning they weren’t familiar with the candidates or the issues. Call me cynical, but when I asked if they had any questions about the candidates or issues, they never did.
Both my friend and I are hopeless optimists under thin veneers of cynicism, and we both went into higher gear with people who said they weren’t going to vote because the system was rigged, their vote didn’t count, they were sick of all the attack ads with no focus on issues, the politicians were all a bunch of liars, the parties are all the same––what’s the difference. We were empathetic with feelings of anger and hopelessness, but we wouldn’t accept “the parties are all the same” line, encouraging people to consider which party they thought would fight (and has fought) for the rights of the average citizen for education, health care, civil rights, housing, and even the right to vote. We did our best to convince people that their vote counted and that it was very important for them to show up.
I can’t help but reflect on the long history of people fighting for the right to vote in our country. It didn’t happen with a swipe of a pen. The United States Constitution did not originally define who was eligible to vote, leaving it up to the states to determine eligibility, which resulted in a tangle of laws. Most gave that privilege only to white, male, adult property owners, about six percent of the population. Women, Catholics, Jews, Quakers, blacks, and other non-male, non-white, non-Protestant people had to fight for 100 years and more to gain the right to vote. Many were beaten, imprisoned, or worse for trying. The right to vote did not come about in a grand sweep, but rather in bits and pieces of legislation delayed by racism, religious intolerance, and sexism. Amendments to the Constitution have granted all citizens the right to vote, yet we still have attempts at voter suppression.
A young man I just met is voting in his first election today, as I’m writing this on Election Day. He said, “I’ve never voted before. This should be cool.” Yes, isn’t it though? How could we ever take it for granted?