Working the Swing Shift
I'm sitting in Kerry/Edwards campaign headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a circa-1970s office chair in a dusty makeshift cubicle. I push one of the campaign's cell phones into my warm and slightly sore ear to drown out the voices of the other volunteers and staffers, most of whom attend to their various tasks like people hell-bent on saving the world, tripping on stairs and forgetting to eat anything beyond stale pretzels and Cheez-Its for two out of three meals a day.
My phone rings, reminding me that I've become a telemarketer, one of the most unpopular breeds of people on the planet. I am not your average dinner interruption though – I'm an unpaid partisan worker bee, a role that seems to make me either laudable or revolting to those on the other end of the line. So far, I have yet to be anything in between.
For the past two hours, I've been calling registered New Mexico voters to encourage them to vote by absentee ballot, what some think is a more traceable and countable (think Florida in 2000) method of voting than going to the polls. When the volunteer coordinator explained my task, I innocently asked if I should mail a confessed Bush voter an absentee ballot. "Absolutely not," she said incredulously. "We're a partisan organization. If they aren't going to vote for our candidate, we aren't going to just give them a ballot." Here in Kerry campaign headquarters, I must bury my vote-no-matter-what stance. I am here to get the Democratic nominee elected, not to get more Americans to vote for the leader of the free world than voted for the last American Idol.
In every presidential election since I turned 18, I've voted in Utah, even by absentee ballot. And, I'm a Democrat. It's like a recurring nightmare in which I'm stuck outside a house with huge glass windows. I watch everyone inside laughing, having meaningful discussions, listening to great music, dancing and eating delicious food, but I can't figure out how to get their attention. No one ever notices me. I never get in.
There's no question that Utah is Bush country, which means we're like Texas, only the President never visits here. We're going Red, end of discussion. Kerry supporters in the Beehive State cast their ballots in the popular vote, the race that doesn't matter. The state feels like a political ghost town, with a lack of yard signs, bumper stickers, television ads and debate. Dick Cheney is a tumbleweed who rolls through town for expensive-per-plate fundraisers. In his wake, the wind just whistles.
Battleground states are like the most popular girls in school. People follow their every move and try to guess what they're thinking, while at least two adolescent boys compete for their attention. Some girls, and some states, are more popular than others. New Mexico, with its mousy five electoral votes, cannot compare to the dazzling 20-electoral vote Ohio. But after 2000, only a fool can't see the beauty in five electoral votes.
For a Good Time, Call
At the Albuquerque office, volunteers are encouraged to make a total of 3,500 calls each day. Yesterday, sixty volunteers set a new record by placing nearly 4,000 calls. Because most of my calls have gone to voice mail, I draw my breath, ready to record my best message yet, when a small shaky voice answers. "Hello?" she says, as though she hadn't heard her phone ring in fifty years. "Hi, I'm Lucy calling from New Mexico Victory 2004, working in the neighborhood to elect John Kerry," I deliver, wondering how such an awkward line ever made it into a script. "I'm calling today to see if you're planning to vote for John Kerry this November."
She pauses then says, "Well I'd sure like to, but I can't see." I hesitate, imagining a shriveled blind woman listening to a wind-up radio in dark room, alone on Election Day. As the returns are reported, she hopes the voters have elected Kerry for her. But almost immediately, my sympathy is replaced by something far baser – a pang of joy. For at that moment, I realize I've found one, one of the coveted voters both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are spending millions of dollars to discover in swing states around the country. I have found a woman who would have been counted as a no-show, but will now be a vote for Kerry. And she's mine.
I tell her that someone could come to her home and help her vote on Election Day or assist her in completing an absentee ballot. Sure, I'm speaking off the cuff (there are no instructions about responding to blind people on my script), but here in New Mexico, a state that Al Gore took in 2000 by a mere 366 votes, every vote counts. I'm pretty sure the Kerry camp will ante up a minivan and a volunteer to get this vote. I feel like standing up and saying, "I'm a Utah Democrat making a difference in the presidential election!" Instead I end the call, make a note on my phone list, and put my finger on the number of a Marco Sanchez. Maybe he'll be a new Kerry vote, too.
The Circus Is in Town
You'd never guess that Albuquerque's Kerry campaign headquarters used to be a bridal shop except for a centrally located white lattice archway. The staff tried to transition from nuptials to nationalism by covering the structure in little American flags, but nothing can hide the feeling that the space has had many incarnations, and will have many more. You get the sense that the circus could be gone in hours, possibly by sunrise on November 3.
Starting at about 10 a.m., someone turns on a crockpot of something sloppy that will simmer for the next twelve hours, feeding anyone who's brave enough to serve themselves. A white board by the front desk announces how many days until the election and the early vote in New Mexico, two numbers designed to raise adrenaline levels enough to get volunteers to stick to their phone lists. There are Kerry signs, Kerry collages, Kerry quotes and pictures of Kerry doing funny things. But compared to other campaigns I've known, I hear the name of the opposition more often than I hear the name of our candidate, and it's not because "Kerry" is too sacred to utter aloud.
On my first day as a volunteer, I meet Mony Flores-Bauer, the former president of the Oakland League of Women Voters, who's sporting a t-shirt with a large lipstick kiss in shades of the American flag. "Look around here," she says in a low voice. "Where are all the men? They're back sitting in that meeting room while all the women do the hard work." She tells me the shirt is from Vote Run Lead, a non-partisan initiative that works to engage women in political participation, including running for office.
Mony lives in the Bay Area and is in New Mexico for three days to volunteer for the Kerry campaign. She left on the spur of the moment, telling her boss she just needed some days off, and is staying with people she's never met. "California is going Kerry," she tells me. "I'm much more effective here." Mony speaks Spanish and has a passion for women and politics, so during her days in Albuquerque, she rallies a group called Latinas for Kerry and establishes a chapter of Unidos con Kerry. After watching her operate, I start to think that if more people like Mony worked on this campaign, Kerry would win.
The idea of traveling to volunteer in a swing state has been heavily promoted by the campaign. At the Democratic National Convention, the Kerry campaign urged supporters to travel to swing states, and on its web site, the "Join the Travelers" section asks when and where volunteers can spend their time (swing state options come in a handy pull down menu) and what they can bring to the campaign, such as cell phones, Spanish skills or a laptop. Annie Chavez, New Mexico volunteer coordinator for Kerry's Travelers, says she expects about 40 out-of-staters to become part of their grassroots campaign before Election Day.
Mony and I take each other's pictures in front of the Kerry/Edwards bus parked outside the offices as passing traffic honks at us. While I imagine how funny this page will look in my photo album, she tells me that she's going to show her pictures to a group of Kerry supporters in California to inspire them to volunteer here in New Mexico. The bus has "Believe in America," painted on the side. I'm starting to believe in an America that can overcome the Electoral College without legislation.
But I notice that the two of us never talk about why we're working to elect John Kerry. We discuss voter mobilization, youth apathy, the deficit, the Latino vote, 22 million unmarried women who failed to vote in the last election and healthcare reform. Of course we want John Kerry to win, but we never discuss why we want him, his policies, his agenda. No one here talks about that.
I meet volunteers who worked on the Howard Dean campaign, including a labor party leader, a California retiree and a mother of six children. They still talk about the pre-Iowa primaries and Dean's downfall with disappointment, spouting various theories about the mechanics of campaign peaking. They're here working, but as obvious members of the Anyone But Bush camp.
My local hosts tell me that if Florida hadn't been the scandal state in 2000, New Mexico would have taken its place. For months after the election here, local papers reported uncounted ballot boxes in car trunks and other illegalities. This year, 527s and other partisan groups have been accused of registering voters illegally. In August, Republican attorneys filed a lawsuit against Bernalillo County requesting that every voter present a government-issued ID with an address that matches the address on their voter registration card, a move that Democrats say would effectively disenfranchise youth and low-income voters.
At a College Democrats meeting on the campus of the University of New Mexico, Jesus Munoz with a group called Young Voter Alliance announces a protest rally against the suit, which he says would affect 40 percent of the county's voters. "This is our Florida," he shouts from the front of a meeting room. "This is our butterfly ballot. We should be pissed off." A young city councilor named Martin Heinrich says, "If the Republicans will do this, it's obvious that they'll stop at nothing." The students nod, murmur and seem invigorated enough to put their names on a sign-up sheet.
By this point, I'm having dreams about the Kerry campaign, a sign that someone's let me into my imaginary house party. I'm now a guest, but instead of laughing and living it up, I'm experiencing increased anxiety about what will happen on November 2. The election seems more important and less predictable here on the battleground.
For my last day of volunteering, I relocate to Santa Fe, officially dubbed The City Different, and immediately sense that the name fits. The offices are quiet and staffers have time to make jokes and spray paint cowboy boots that say "Kick Bush out of office!" I am assigned to call people who have expressed support for Kerry and ask them to volunteer at a labor union rally featuring Dolores Huerta. The people who answer talk slowly and tell me stories and jokes. One answering machine says, "A melody pulsates through the universe that makes us all one. Your message will unite us." My next call connects me to man who tells me that an energy field is combining the two candidates into one inseparable being. I assume he's a New Age Nader supporter, but he seems appalled by that suggestion, and tries to explain. I find his diatribe fascinating for the five minutes before I lose patience for this undecided voter of the Santa Fe subspecies.
I politely get off the phone and wonder what would convince this man to vote for Kerry, and at that moment I realize what I miss most in the land of the decided – the messy details that make up any election. I'm ignorant to the blind voters, energy zone believers and slogan-painted buses. I can read overarching analyses and follow the polls (currently New Mexico is dead even), but in order to participate, I had to cross state lines. When I watch the returns on November 2, I'll anxiously await the totals from New Mexico. If Kerry takes the state, and even the nation, I will know that in some small way, I helped make it happen.