One sunny autumn Saturday in Portland, Oregon before the 2004 election, the two of us walked a NE Portland neighborhood as part of a voter registration effort, knocking on the doors of those addresses that were missing from a list of registered voters on 13th Ave. In a couple hours of canvassing, we found five citizens interested in registering to vote, including one 76 year old gentleman who had never registered before.
Now, those are decent results; voter registration is a fairly arduous task, but with enough of us working on it, the numbers add up. Between August and October of 2004, Democrats added over 67,00 registrations in Oregon, but that was only about 1,000 more than Republicans added in the same time frame. In 2008, Democrats added over 40,000 registrations in Oregon between August and October, while Republicans added fewer than half that. (In both cases, non-affiliated registrations came in a fairly close third.) We still believe that more voters = good.
But in the course of the afternoon we found out that our results were more surprising. We ran into another canvasser who had been working on an adjoining section of the same street, and had found nobody willing to fill out a registration form. In fact, he was having trouble even getting folks to open their doors to talk with him. We also happened to knock on the door of a house where several young ACT (America Coming Together - remember them?) canvassers were living. They had already been through the same neighborhood more than once. How did we manage to uncover five willing but unregistered voters?
Howard Dean said many times during his campaign that we are tired of being divided by race, tired of being divided by income, tired of being divided by gender, tired of being divided by sexual orientation, tired of being divided. And he left out another one, age.
When we knocked on doors on 13th Ave., we talked with people of all ages and several ethnicities. Except for the household of ACT workers, the youngest residents had children, but most of the people we spoke with were our age (52) and older. The majority of those answering the door were women.
When Grandma tells the grandkids to pipe down so she can open the door, looks through the peephole and sees a young man, perhaps looking like nobody she knows, perhaps dressed and pierced and tattooed (not that there’s anything wrong with that) in ways that she sees as strange or vaguely threatening, what are the chances that she will open the door? If she doesn’t, that personal interaction, the core of grassroots campaigning, never happens. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be suspicious of our innocent selves, but the fact is that some will be. If that is as far as we get, then we not only fail but we also waste time and money doing it.
Could it be that our team was more successful in starting the conversations that led to successful registrations because we were one white, one Black, one female, one male, and of a “certain age?” Could it be that we made a team that was more of a “match” for the neighborhood? The way to show just how tired we are of being divided is to partner across those divides, to help create an environment in which people want to hear our message before we offer the message itself.
And that is the lesson that we should have learned from all the years of triumph of right wing messaging over rational argument. People will be open to almost anything if they want to believe it. There is a lot more to politics than being correct; otherwise, we wouldn’t be in a close race today. You and I might hold out for evidence, but a lot of decisions are made based on affinity.
Oregon’s deadline for new registrations for this November’s election is October 16th, so there are a lot of folks from a lot of organizations out there asking “Are you registered to vote at your current address?” Also, we have a new tool to make it easer for those with Oregon Driver’s Licenses or IDs, online registration at oregonvotes.org. But it's still human connections that make it happen.
My canvassing partner that day is now a State Representative, and is now in his third campaign in that neighborhood. One day after a church service a few years ago, that gentleman he helped register for the first time made a point of speaking with him: “I want you to know that I did vote, and I voted for you!”