Volume 74, Number 23 | Octuber 6 - 12 , 2004

Onboard the swing vote express

By Ronda Kaysen

Let me set the record straight: I don’t do mornings.

A 6:30 a.m call to my friend Annie offered no hope for an honorable absence.

“The forecast says rain,” I said.

“You save the best stuff for last!” Annie gushed, before adding, “Is my ex-boyfriend coming, too?”

By 7:45, we were drinking coffee in the New York offices of NARAL Pro-Choice, the nonprofit organization bussing us to a suburban Philadelphia neighborhood to meet up with volunteers from America Coming Together for Victory (ACT), one of the myriad “527” tax-exempt organizations that have cropped up this election cycle to drum up support for both presidential contenders. With the election less than a month away, and perhaps the largest voter registration drive in U.S. history well underway, I was curious to see what all the hoopla was about.

“What a great way to meet guys,” Annie said, scanning the crowd of mostly young and middle-aged white women. She bit into a glazed donut.

More feasible opportunities existed for Jack, the lone single man accompanying us. While we sipped lukewarm coffee, Jack offered how to coax swing voters to the other side. “The key is to get them to tell you what’s really got them worried,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “And then hit ’em with facts.” I stared back blankly, still sleep deprived.

Half an hour later, I found myself squeezed into a capacity-filled charter bus, barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike. Our guide, Christina, rattled off some rules. We were not supposed to speak to anyone who was not on our list of target homes. We were not, under any circumstances, supposed to go into a person’s house.

I glanced out the window. Another bus, with another group of canvassers in jeans and sweatshirts, listened to their organizer. I caught the eye of a woman who grinned widely and waved. I wondered how many buses were headed to Pennsylvania.

The bus arrived in a Montgomery County parking lot. A team of ACT volunteers — mainly middle-aged African-American men and women in black-and-red “Vote 11-02-04” T-shirts — handed the New Yorkers clipboards with neighborhood maps and lists of names. They herded the group onto idling minivans.

According to its Web site, ACT, the largest voter contact program in history, is “led by experienced political and grassroots leaders operating in 17 battleground states;” its goal is not only to register voters in swing states, but ensure they make it to the polls. ACT coordinates with other progressive organizations, including gay rights and women’s rights groups, to bring the volunteers to the swing voters, aiming to contact more than 17 million of them by Election Day.

Our ACT guide, Herton, a middle-aged lanky man with a generous smile, gave us his cellphone number and sent us on our way. In pairs of two, we hit suburban Towamenican running.

For the most part, no one was home.

Some of those who opened their doors offered a cool reception. One woman, Diane, 40, clearly a Republican supporter with Arlen Specter and Bush/Cheney signs on her front lawn, commented dryly, “My husband tells me who to vote for.” When I asked her what issues concerned her, she looked at me, her eyes wide and sincere, her dog barking at my feet. “We’ve got guns,” she said, with a forlorn resignation. Her husband, working on the car in the driveway, shouted, “If you folks are with Kerry, you can just leave.”

Diane giggled. “I don’t know much about this stuff. Come back in four years, maybe I’ll be more educated then.”

Annie and I hit a few more houses before taking a break in a cul-de-sac to share a Tupperware container of cold spaghetti and meatballs. It was Annie’s first cul-de-sac. A Manhattan native, she had never seen one before and wasn’t entirely sure of their purpose.

We trekked on. I knocked on another door. A teenage girl answered. She called for her mother. Out came an exhausted-looking woman, her hair wet from the shower. “If you voted today, whom would you vote for?” I asked.

“Bush, I guess,” she said hesitantly.

When she said that education and health care were her primary concerns, I rattled off some statistics I’d been handed. “Did you know George Bush cut $140 million from Pennsylvania schools?” I asked. “Did you know the cost of health insurance has increased by 49 percent in the past four years?”

Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know that,” the woman replied. “I guess I have a lot of research to do.”

Jackpot! My swing voter from the nebulous 10 percent on whom the entire election is hinged. Here she was, a mother of two with wet hair and droopy brown eyes. I scribbled “undecided” on my sheet and hurried along.

As Annie and I staggered back to our meeting point a few hours later, every name on our list checked off, we ran into Jack, the token single man. “We’re all done!” I cheered, waving my marked-up list.

Jack handed me a pile of names — 50 more unknocked doors. “I went back and got more,” he said. “Want to help?”

My feet were sore, my head hurt. I gawked at the list. “Thanks,” I said, not sure I meant it. Annie and I stumbled on.

“Let’s get coffee first,” Annie suggested.

As we hobbled to Dunkin Donuts, Herton drove down the road at 3:30 as promised. “You ladies ready to go home?” he said, grinning. We nodded and climbed into the van.

Back on the NARAL bus, I remembered another experience involving a charter bus and an election. Four years and two wars ago, I boarded a bus at 3:45 a.m. at Columbus Circle, and headed for Bush’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., in the hopes of making sense of the 2000 election debacle. I wanted to witness the largest demonstration against a presidential inauguration in United States history and find out why so many Americans were there to protest it. Unlike the ACT operation, there was no Herton telling the protestors where they would be going or handing them highlighted maps and vital information. The protestors were simply dropped off a few blocks from Pennsylvania Ave. and left to their devices. No one even did so much as take a headcount of who was on the bus. Four years ago, the opposition had no leadership, not one that I could find.

An ACT volunteer boarded our bus and clutched the microphone. “Thanks to your support and the support of the other volunteers, we made contact with 1,000 swing voters today,” he said. 

I leaned back in my seat and shut my eyes. Indeed, much has changed since the last election.

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