The Unlikely Canvasser: A Story of Voters from Three Elections

Canvasser during the 2008 election.

I’m the last person you’d want for grassroots action. I’m not organized and I don’t really like meeting new people. Truth is, I don’t have faith in a two-minute meeting between strangers to change minds. But in 2008, desperation over the election outcome made me volunteer to go door-to-door and get out the vote in Alexandria, Virginia, where I lived and had grown up.

Desperation and fear pushed me out my door at 6 a.m. on Election Day to the campaign headquarters. I’d be a “floater,” driving voters to the polls as needed. The HQ address turned out to be an old rowhouse on King Street with a handmade poster out front, cheap bunting slung in the third-floor windows, and a few twenty-somethings at a table.

Never mind my floater assignment, they said. Instead, they had a more important task for me: a line organizer “had gone rogue” and they needed me to go “usurp her.”

Change of Plan

“Keep people in the line at the polling place. Don’t let them leave,” they said. “Track how long people have to wait.”

I drove to the polling station, mulling how I’d manage that. Before I cajoled anyone, I got another call. I was back to floater, taking people to polls.

Fine. I felt like an imposter with my name tag and clipboard, passing citizens in a McDonald’s.

Connecting Voters

The most memorable stop was taking a 35-year-old man to vote for his first time ever. He had never felt like his vote would make a difference. He’d never imagined a black man like him had a chance to become president, not in his lifetime. But his mother prodded him and his friends called so at 10:30 pm the night before Election Day, he dialed the number to request a ride.

His name appeared on my list and I knocked on his door. He climbed into my Honda. In front of the polling place on Seminary Road, he took a breath. “So this is it,” he said. We saw signs from the campaigns and tables near the entrance. He was paralyzed.

I followed his gaze: white people with flags and stickers lining the sidewalk, waiting.

I showed him the sample ballot. We recapped how he’d call when he was done. “Is that your number in my phone?” he asked.

Then he got out and stepped into the unknown.

Back in the car afterward, he was elated. He moved like a different person. He’d tell others they should go vote. When I dropped him off, he thanked me, got out and yelled, “Obama!”

Then Come the Results

I watched the returns with friends that night. The networks had Virginia going for John McCain. It was razor close. Finally, a few minutes before 11 pm, they called Virginia for Obama, then California and Oregon. McCain gave a moving concession speech.

I had never felt so good about an election, that individuals could make a difference.

In 2012, nervous again, I canvassed further west, in Loudoun County. The organizers gave us scripts: “Can we count on you? Do you know where your polling place is? Do you have a plan for what time of day to vote?” I ran down mine and took the list of addresses.

Standing before a house with a Romney yard sign, I double-checked my clipboard: correct address. Guy comes to the door, irritated: I’m the fourth canvasser today. “Yes, Jeannie has voted in the last three elections and she’ll vote again today.” Why didn’t anybody ask about his vote? “Maybe we didn’t have your info,” I said.

I didn’t say, Maybe the Romney people don’t have your information either. In that election, we learned for maybe the first time that a fundraising advantage didn’t cancel out grassroots action — canvassing.

Last year, in the 2017 Virginia election, I tromped Lorton area sidewalks for the governor’s race, even as several articles came out saying canvassing didn’t change people’s minds.

How Canvassing Changed

But canvassing had changed. I wasn’t sent to persuade people, just make sure friendlies had a plan. Researcher Michelle Michelson, a Menlo College professor who studies canvassing, says that “talking to folks about their voting plan” — time of day, location, how they’ll get there — makes a difference. They can then see themselves voting.

“A face-to-face visit form a canvasser at one’s home from a trusted source is the most powerful method of increasing voter turnout,” says Michelson.

Door-to-door work puts you in front of all kinds of people. What amazed me each time — even as the political climate got more polarized — was that everyone was polite. I still don’t like to bother people at home. But it heartens me that people opened the door to a stranger with questions.

We have lots of reasons to vote in mid-term elections. But we also have reasons to get out and encourage others to vote, not the least being who you meet along the way.