Dialing for Democracy

I’ve had over 700 conversations with voters over the last month while phone banking for Progressive Project Turnout. That’s about 699 more than I thought I would have when my team was pulled out of the field in early August because of COVID-19 and transitioned from door knocking to phone calling. I mean who answers a number they don’t recognize these days? Well, as it turns out, a pandemic is a damn good time to call people. They’re at home and a lot of them are bored silly and talking to a friendly stranger like me is a nice diversion.

Now, not to paint too rosy of a picture, I’ve probably had twice that number of hang-ups, but I expected that. And then there are the Trumpers, but I’ll save that for later. For the most part, I’ve been deeply moved, honored – and often amused – listening to voters’ thoughts about this election. And best of all, I am very hopeful about November 3rd. No, really, I am. Joe Biden might not have been a lot of folks first choice, but today he is a LOT of folks only choice. Whatever gets us there.

Joe Biden. I say his name a hundred times of day – think Rain Man and substitute Joe Biden for Judge Wapner – that’s me. I recite parts of the script in my dreams sometimes. My dear wife can even do an amusing impersonation of me since she’s heard me on duty from my home office. Besides politely thanking the Trump voters for their time (grr), making the script sound fresh each time is the most challenging aspect of the gig. By the end of my shift, I’m exhausted from the sound of my own voice, but I go to bed hopeful that our democracy will prevail.

We follow a brief script – I identify myself and who I am representing and slide into the main question – “Do you plan on voting for Joe Biden on November 3rd?” And that’s when things get interesting. The good – yes – the bad – no – and the ugly – Trumpers who yell at me. There’s a half a second of suspense after the question exits my mouth and hangs there as I wait for the answer. I can almost predict the answer by the sound of someone’s voice, but that’s not foolproof. One of my early calls was to crusty old woman in rural Pennsylvania. I popped the question and there was an awkward pause and she said in a very bold voice, “I…most…certainly… (here it comes, I thought) AM!” She proceeded to tell me that the only monument that Trump’s head should be on is a statue of Larry, Curly and Moe. Lesson learned – you can’t always judge a voter by their address. See 2016.

Our call list is weighted to registered Democrats, but no data is perfect. Almost all the Dems are happy to speak with me – like hearing from an old friend. Here are just a few of my favorite answers to the first question.

  1. I would crawl over broken glass to vote for Joe Biden.
  2. FUCK YEAH! Like my very life depends on it. (I really liked that woman.)
  3. I would vote for a bag of rotten vegetables over Donald Trump.

We then ask if people plan on voting by mail or in person and this has been a disgusting indictment (there will be many more) of Donald Trump’s assault on mail-in voting. People don’t trust the United States Postal System. I spoke to a woman in Warren, MI who told me, “I work for the post office and no way am I mailing my ballot in.” And I talked to a 36-year retiree of the post office in Raleigh who lamented that she can’t trust the mail because of Trump. She said, “I’ve got a mask, a shield and some gloves – I’m voting in person.”

That said – a LOT of people are voting by mail – and many are delivering their ballots in person to a drop-box or their local Board of Elections. But the most encouraging takeaway from this question is that so many people have a plan for voting – they’ve thought it through in advance because they want to protect themselves and their vote. Americans are afraid their vote will not be counted. So much winning.

The last question I ask folks is the one that has evoked answers that have sometimes moved me to tears. What would you say is the primary issue that concerns you the most in the upcoming election? The number one answer by far is getting rid of Donald Trump. Here are just a few of the most memorable responses.

  • Donald Trump is a doofus and a danger to the whole world.
  • You don’t let someone in your house who will hurt you. He’s in our house.
  • Stopping the descent into Fascism.
  • He’s not even human. (Fascinating new birther conspiracy!)

This is where I often find myself in surprisingly deep conversations with some voters as they share their despair for the state of our union and their hopes for the future. A woman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania said, “Oh, now you’re going to make me cry. I pray for the welfare of our nation and the heart of our country. My husband and I are voting by mail and going fishing on election day. We’ll fish and pray all day that we’ll get our country back.” Gulp. Many people tell me that they fear for the future of our democracy if Biden is not elected. One man called the last four years “the vandalism of our democracy.” These people aren’t all yellow dog Democrats like me. Some of them tell me that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, but they will vote for Biden. A few even confess that they are Republicans, but they can’t support Trump. It is no small thing to hear a stranger tell you how much they love our country.

We’ve been calling into battleground states except for two days of calling into Kentucky. Wow. I can’t imagine anything lonelier than being a Democrat in Kentucky. Our time calling there was as a longshot that Mitch McConnell might be defeated. Not to be a buzzkill, but we can call that race right now. The Kentucky Dems were so happy to hear from a kindred soul that it was sometimes hard to get them off the phone. It was a little heartbreaking. I felt like I was leaving behind those sweet residents of The Island of Misfit Toys. I promised them that Joe Biden would come back for them.

The other primary concern on most voters’ minds is COVID-19. I spoke with an essential worker in PA who just returned to work after being out for almost four months recovering from COVID. She is what we call a highly motivated voter. People know that this pandemic is far from over and they want to put an adult in charge. I’ve heard touching stories from older people who haven’t seen their grandchildren in six months. I can hear the weariness in their voices. I probably stay on those calls longer than I should.

I learned quickly that each state has its own personality. Maine and New Hampshire don’t suffer fools or unknown callers gladly. I got a lot of, “It’s none of your damn business who I’m voting for.” Yep. Live free or die. Both of those states are looking good for Joe, but Susan Collins’ karma ticket is about to be punched. I imagine she is deeply troubled. On the bright side, she’ll have more time for brewskies with Brett Kavanaugh. What? I LIKE BEER.

And now for the Trumpers. I’ll give them this – they are faithful parrots of their fearful leader. I’ve heard things like Joe Biden is a pedophile and Kamala Harris is a Muslim. That’s when my superpower of lip biting comes in handy. My absolute favorite response/insult from a Trump voter came from a young, white man (surprise!) in rural North Carolina. He said/yelled at me, “I DON’T VOTE FOR DEMOCRATS. CNN IS BULLSHIT. FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.” I desperately wanted to respond, “So, that’s a hard no on Joe?” Honestly, the Trumpers inspire me because they are a visceral reminder of how toxic Trump’s presidency has been for our country.

Sometimes I have a hard time falling asleep after my shift. There are always a few conversations that I replay and can’t quite let go of – like the young black woman in Detroit. When I asked her what her primary concern was in this election she sighed – a heavy sigh much older than her years – as I waited for her answer. She said in a flat emotionless voice, “I’m a black person, so who I vote for doesn’t really matter because nothing ever changes for us. I hope things will get better this time, but we’ll see.” Damn. I doubt I’ll ever let go of that conversation.

I’ve been surprised and deeply touched by the voters who have thanked me for what I am doing. Hearing a “Take care, girl” at the end of a call can really lift your spirits. The truth is that I love my job. Every day feels important – like when I talked a 93-year-old disabled woman through the process of requesting an absentee ballot. Dear Lord, I hope she mails it in early.

The bad news is that I’ll get the pink slip on November 3rd. The good news is that Donald Trump will, too.

Go to VotingMatters.org/NC to update your registration, request a mail-in ballot, or find your voting location.

Democracy at the door

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for 1,294 years – I mean days – and I have bitched and moaned and cried and cussed about it almost EVERY single one of those days. And yet, he remains president. So, I came to a realization in early June that I needed a new strategy for getting rid of him and I applied to be a Field Representative for Progressive Turnout Project – a grassroots-funded organization with the sole mission of getting Democrats to the polls.

I do not want to go to bed on November 3rd with the devastating thought that I did not do everything I could possibly do to prevent Trump from being re-elected. I know that feeling. November 8, 2016. The mere mention of that date makes me experience COVID-19 symptoms.

And that is how I found myself interviewing for a young person’s job at my seasoned age. The pandemic mandated that the interview process be virtual – on an app called HireVue. The first interview consisted of answering five questions recorded by different people – no live interactions. It was weird, but fortunately my bestie Carla had introduced me to the Marco Polo app earlier in the pandemic, so I was used to talking to myself.

The second interview was with two live women young enough to be my daughters – that I had at 40. They were both bright and energetic and didn’t seem horrified that I was a mature applicant. Our conversation went well, and they offered me the position the following week. Yikes! I was really doing this.

Project Turnout is headquartered in Chicago and my training was three days on Zoom with about 75 folks from other battleground states. The trainer was perky and had a good sense of humor. I found him amusing until he started explaining who the organization’s core donors are and said, “You know your liberal aunt who watches way too much MSNBC? That’s our base.” Wait, that’s me! I felt like the other 74 people were staring right at me in my Zoom box.

I met some nice folks in the breakout rooms during training. They were all so young, but I found that exciting – they were smart and so politically engaged. I only felt old during the ice breaker on our third day. We broke out into smaller groups and were asked what our walk on song would be if we were running for president. I thought that was a fun question until the trainer started calling on people for their answers. OMG. I had NEVER heard of the first half dozen songs. I thought I was safe with my answer – Lizzo’s “Like a Girl” – until the person before me used it. I panicked knowing I was up next and before I knew it, “Girl from Ipanema” fell out of my mouth. Shut up. I know I choked. NO ONE in my group had any idea what I was talking about. Thankfully, the trainer moved quickly to the next person and I could melt from mortification in the privacy of my own square.

My first day in the field – we call it Turf because we’re hip like that – coincided with a heat wave. A certifiable “feels like 104” heat wave. If you have known me for more than five minutes, you know that I loathe summer with a passion. I hate the heat and fear the sun. I’m a fair skinned Irish girl who adheres to the schedule of a vampire during the summer months, so I was filled with high anxiety as I hit the steamy streets.

I left my house with enough water to float a pontoon. All kinds of water – tap, seltzer, Vitamin Water. All the waters. And ice. And frozen washcloths. That’s a trick I learned years ago. Put a wet washcloth in the freezer overnight and pack it in a cooler for your day in the sun. Pull it out when you start to melt and put it on top of your head under your hat. Trust me – it can save your life.

I was so afraid of dying from heat stroke on the streets of a foreign neighborhood that I really had no fear of knocking on the doors of strangers. I was armed with my iPad that contained the scripted questions we are to ask the registered voters we speak with. Oh, and, of course, we are following strict COVID protocols – wearing a mask and stepping back six feet after we knock on a door. So, do not whine to me about a mask making you hot, okay?

The first day went well except for our iPads overheating. Note: iPads will do that when exposed to the Seventh Layer of Hell. We were encouraged to take breaks as needed and our supervisors delivered ice packs later in the afternoon. There is simply no way to adapt to that kind of heat and I have even more respect for folks who work outside in the elements. It is damn hard, and I am damn old.

I had worried about bathroom breaks while in the field – especially in this pandemic. Not to worry – I sweated so much those first two weeks that I NEVER had to pee at work. And I was slurping up liquids like Tom Hanks when he cracks open that coconut in Castaway. It was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done and when those two weeks were over I felt like I had won Survivor: Forsyth County – especially when some of my much younger teammates were complaining about how tired they were.

The other thing that got me through those sultry first weeks was some of the great interactions I had with voters. I am amazed that anyone would open their door to a stranger these days – during a global pandemic. I wouldn’t – unless it was a 12-year-old girl holding a stack of Thin Mints. But so many people have opened theirs and engaged with me in substantive conversations about their voting habits and their concerns for the upcoming election.

People have been so kind to me. Some have invited me inside – we are not allowed to do that. Many have offered me cold water and lots of them have told me to “keep cool” or “be careful” – one very elderly man even offered to walk me to my car because he was concerned about a neighbor’s crazy dog.

All these people have at least one thing in common besides their kindness – they do not want Trump to be re-elected. They are deeply passionate about getting rid of him. These are my people. Funny thing – I bet I was in the field three days before I even heard someone say Joe Biden’s name. There might not be a lot of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe, but there is a freaking ton of enthusiasm for giving Trump the boot. Whatever gets us there.

My favorite moments have been the conversations with first time voters. I spoke with Victor – a sweet Latinx man in his 30’s who just became an American citizen and will be voting for the first time in November. He is concerned about immigration and education – he has two children. And I’ve talked to several 18-year olds who are excited about their first vote. They want to make a difference. These people give me hope.

Our lists of contacts are highly data driven – focusing on inconsistent Democratic voters so I have only run into two Trumpers so far. Once the mark of the MAGA is revealed, we are instructed to say thanks for your time and move on. I listened, no doubt with glazed eyes, to a woman who told me that Hillary believes in abortion in the ninth month and that Joe Biden is a pedophile. My inside voice was screaming “FAKE NEWS” but I managed a wan smile as I bid her good evening. And then I remembered the grizzled veteran I met who usually votes Republican but is voting for Biden in November. My pace always picks up with those thoughts.

This work has also been a humbling reminder of my white privilege at times. I ended one evening speaking to three young black women in a row – all single moms with children. It was after eight in the evening and they were weary from their day, but they opened their doors and talked to me about their voting habits. One of the questions we ask is how likely you are to vote in November – on a scale of one to five – five being very likely. One of the women said to me, “I don’t really know. I’m not even sure who is running.” She seemed embarrassed and almost apologized. I told her who was running and that she had nothing to feel bad about. This woman wasn’t stupid – she was worn out – from the day, from yesterday, from tomorrow. I could feel her fatigue – she had gotten her kids fed and would soon be putting them to bed – and yet she took the time to talk to me – the liberal aunt who watches too much MSNBC.

On the drive home that night, I thought about what a luxury my obsession with politics is. I grew up with parents who instilled in me that voting is a precious right and that every vote counts. As an adult, I have had the time and sometimes the means to work for and support candidates that embraced issues important to me. I have been to endless fundraisers and sipped cheap white wine while someone droned on and on about what they were going to do for me. I have been inspired and I have suffered painful defeats. I have been afforded the invitation to participate and the arrogance to believe that my presence can make a difference.

Our field canvassing has been suspended because of COVID concerns and we are now phone banking, texting, and letter writing. When I got the news, I thought of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “When the Gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.” Yes, I am out of the heat, but I miss seeing the faces of the folks I’m talking to. There is no more effective communication with a voter than an in-depth conversation in person. And besides, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat a mature masked white woman in a bucket hat on a hot day.

I hope I’ll be out there knocking doors again soon. It is by far the hardest work I’ve ever done. And, without a doubt, the most important.