Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004

Can you hear me now? Reaching swing voters by using free minutes

By Ronda Kaysen

“Everyone loves being in the park and helping get rid of Bush. What more could you ask for on a Sunday?” said John Raskin, the 23-year-old wunderkind founder of Democracy in the Park, a political action group that contacts swing voters using free weekend cell phone minutes.

Since July, Raskin’s mobile phone bank has made 110,000 calls to swing states, reaching about 20,000 people — a significant feat even by this election year’s voter-mobilization-crazed standards — while sitting in Central Park, Union Sq. and Tompkins Sq. Park in the East Village. By the moment of truth, Nov. 2, Raskin’s group plans to have called 65,000 more potential John Kerry voters.

With detailed phone lists delivered to him every week from America Coming Together for Victory (ACT), a national voter mobilization group, Raskin’s small army of dialers calls voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and beyond on Sundays, when their cell phone plans offer free, unlimited minutes. Once they pinpoint potential Kerry voters, they send the information back to ACT’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

A Harvard graduate now living on the Upper West Side and working for Housing Conservation Coordinators, an affordable housing organization in Hell’s Kitchen, Raskin borrowed the free cell phone minutes strategy from Moveon.org, an online political organization. Moveon.org encourages its members, among other things, to host weekend cell phone parties in their living rooms, a strategy that has its limitations in New York City’s cramped quarters. Adapting the idea for an urban setting, Raskin expected 15 people to join him on his first Sunday Central Park excursion. Instead, 120 people came armed with cell phones and they’ve been chatting ever since. “This kind of behind-the-scenes voter mobilization is going to be the stealth force in this election,” said Raskin, speaking to The Villager on his cell phone. “It’s all under the radar, you catch a glimpse of it once in a while, but it’s powerful.”

Jared Goldstein, a 37-year-old underemployed Web strategy consultant, makes his calls from his apartment while he does his weekend chores. “I don’t know if the people in Missouri can hear me putting away my laundry while I’m talking to them,” he said over a clear Verizon Wireless connection. He has never had a dropped call while swaying voters, he said, only the occasional busy signal. Goldstein lost his Department of Commerce consulting job in community technology when the Bush administration slashed the Clinton administration’s $40 million-a-year Technical Opportunities program for the underserved. “Working for the Bush administration was really frustrating,” he said.

Goldstein was discouraged from participating in voter mobilization efforts in past elections because New York results have usually been foregone conclusions. But access to new technology has changed his role in the campaigning process. “This group got us over that hurdle,” he said, referring to Democracy in the Park’s ability to close the geographical gap between New York and the swing states. This election, with its large-scale voter mobilization drive, is unlike any Goldstein has ever seen before. “I’ve never seen Democrats and progressives this energized or this angry in my life,” he said. “I’ve never seen people getting into mainstream politics like they are now.”

The technology boom has had a dramatic effect on this year’s election. When Howard Dean arrived on the national scene with his Internet-driven antiwar campaign, it was clear that the 2004 election would play by a new set of rules. During the August Republican National Convention at Madison Sq. Garden, protestors communicated with each other with text messaging on their cell phones. Some of their messages were infiltrated by police surveillance, according to some protestors.

“It just shows how when the technology is there, people use it,” said David Samberg, a spokesperson for Verizon Wireless. His company noticed a marked increase in text messaging during the R.N.C. As for subscribers using their free minutes for political activism, Samberg saw no problem with it, providing callers respect the national Do Not Call registry. “It’s interesting, that’s for sure,” he said. “You’re always interested in how people find ways to use their phones.”

Ellen Webner at AT&T Wireless had not heard of the current cell phone mobilization effort, but saw no problem with it, either. “I think it’s a great way to use technology,” she said. “Anything to get out the vote is worth it.”

Democracy in the Park has no operating budget, no staff and consumes all of Raskin’s free time. The organization’s Web site, www.democracyinthepark.org, was created by a volunteer, Jesse Harold, and funded by donations from other volunteers. It now has a sister organization, Democracy on the Quad, which draws students from Raskin’s alma mater, Harvard, as well as Amherst College, M.I.T., Vassar, Bryn Mawr and 45 other schools. “With very little money and no staff we’ve been able to accomplish a lot,” said Raskin. “We’ve established a precedent for something that works.”

With the cold weather setting in, Democracy in the Park has moved its forces off of park benches and into cafes. Harold Kramer, owner of the Raven Bar on Avenue A, plans to host a Democracy in the Park phone-banking session this Sunday and all weekend before the election. Until this election, Raven Bar had never been a center of political activism. But for Kramer, this election is unlike any other. “When you open a bar, you’re not going into politics,” he said. “But then again, I didn’t expect Bush to win in 2000 either.”

During the debates, Kramer hosted debate parties, shutting off post-season baseball for a Bush-Kerry showdown. According to Kramer, his bar was filled to capacity, despite the Yankee game competing for airtime. “My bar is actually helping to change swing-state votes,” said Kramer. “There’s only so much I can do in my little corner of the world over here, but anything I can do to help get Kerry elected, I will do.” Kramer is convinced that his efforts will pay off. Kerry will win in a landslide, he said.

Raskin expects a future for Democracy in the Park after the election. “People on the Left are just realizing that we’ve been vastly out-organized by the Right and we’re done,” he said. “We’re done being disorganized, we’re done being left behind, we’re done being left out of the news media.”

Will all his efforts deliver Kerry to the White House in January? “My gut is flip-flopping everyday,” he said.

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