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Personal Voices: Swinging the Vote, One Door at a Time

While canvassing, the plan is to change voters’ minds, one by one. Such a strategy translates into long, hot hours spent making as much face-to-face contact with undecided voters as possible.
 
 
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Each afternoon, just outside Philadelphia, Penn, dozens of America Coming Together canvassers in matching blue T-shirts spill out of minivans into the hot, suburban sun. Armed with anti-Bush pamphlets, voter registration cards and Palm Pilots with the names of undecided voters, they scour the neighborhood trying to swing the vote their way, one door at a time.

America Coming Together (ACT) is one of the many organizations working to mobilize progressive voters and convince undecided folks to vote against Bush this November. In an effort to influence the election, thousands of people have been gravitating toward battleground states and many of them have been canvassing through such organizations as ACT.

Along with a group of grassroots enthusiasts from all walks of life, I was caught up in the migration to swing states this summer and I eventually found myself canvassing for ACT in Philadelphia. With nearly 1,500 canvassers employed around the country, this organization has become one of the largest voter contact programs in the US. It is operating in all seventeen swing states, has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters and has pledged to reach 17 million voters by Election Day.

Here in Pennsylvania, the organization’s plan is to change voters’ minds a few at a time. Personal discussions about the issues most important to voters are emphasized, highlighting the harmful policies of the Bush administration. Such a strategy translates into long, hot hours spent making as much face-to-face contact with undecided voters as possible.
The canvassers I worked with had signed on for a variety of reasons. One was a union member who had traveled from northern New York to work in a swing state. Another was a woman whose mother had died because she could not afford proper medical attention through her health care plan. Others were students and recent college grads. Some canvassers hadn’t been involved in political campaigns since McGovern ran for president in 1972; others were just looking for a part-time summer job before they left for college in the fall.
From the youth canvassers, there were similarities in their criticisms of the Bush administration. Most complained of rising tuition costs, a horrible job outlook, an enormous national debt, a lack of health insurance and a fear of being drafted to fight in a war they did not believe in. For many, it was their first time involved in a political campaign. We were a ragtag group of concerned citizens of different ages, ethnicities and political orientations, unified by our outrage at the Bush administration. What motivated many of us through the long afternoons and weeks of relatively low salaries was the big payoff we hoped would come in the end, with a new president.
The ACT headquarters was air conditioned, crowded and humming with activity from early morning until late at night. It was full of tables heaving with piles of fliers, maps and voter registration cards. The photocopier chugged away incessantly and the constant ringing of cell phones pounded at the air. Tired-eyed organizers stared into computer screens, gave directions to lost canvassers over the phone. People were constantly bumping into one another in the tiny space, conducting job interviews in the lobby, and having impromptu conferences in the hallways. It was an office bordering on chaos, the typical chaos of a campaign office.
The bustle would hit a crescendo at around 3 PM each afternoon when the canvassing teams piled into the ACT minivans and headed into the suburban stratosphere. Often, I found the houses looked the same: well-kept lawns, picket fences, shiny vinyl siding and anxious dogs. This slice of the American dream didn’t look like a battleground, but it was behind these fences, in the minds of these swing voters, where much of this election was being decided.
Our first challenge was persuading voters to talk to a complete stranger about politics after a long day at work. The discussion often took place as the he or she was cooking dinner, holding back the barking dog, and keeping one eye on the kids. At other times, the “potential swing voter” turned out to be a staunch Republican and spoke passionately about Bush’s wonderful foreign policy. Still others were thrilled to hear what we had to say. Some offered us juice or cookies. Once I was even given a copy of the Constitution and advised to read it cover to cover.
It was a sweaty endeavor and more often than not, we’d find ourselves knocking on empty doors. When someone was home, we’d try to get an idea of the voter’s concerns. Then we dug into our facts and figures to show how the Bush administration has handled those concerns. We’d discuss the some 97,000 jobs lost in Pennsylvania under the Bush administration, the $140 million cut from state schools, and the 49% rise in health care premiums there over the last four years.

While criticizing Bush, we also tried to encourage socially conscious voters to volunteer with ACT, talk to neighbors about Bush’s policies and organize meetings to help elect progressive candidates in all levels of government.

This initial voter contact is one part of ACT’s multi-step process, which is designed to influence and educate, and to give voters some of the facts that don’t make it onto the major TV networks. By Election Day, swing voters in ACT’s database will have received various pamphlets and emails regarding the Bush administration’s policies while those leaning towards Kerry will have been urgently reminded to go to the polls in November.
Each evening, as we headed back through the congested traffic into central Philadelphia, we’d tally up our results. I’d usually find that I’d handed out dozens of ACT fliers, registered a few voters, and had handfuls of conversations about Bush’s track record in PA. Aside from the occasional scrape on my leg from an angry dog, I’d often go home with a fresh sun burn and sore feet.
Of course, I also often wondered how it would all add up in November. As of my writing this, polls conducted by The Pittsburg Tribune-Review, and ABC News report that Bush has a 1-3 percent lead over Kerry in Pennsylvania. Although the official presidential campaigns, and mainstream media coverage, will no doubt continue to influence voters, much may still depend on groups like ACT and their canvassers who believe that this is an election no one should be sitting out.

Benjamin Dangl, 24, is a freelance journalist and editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org an online magazine about activism and politics.