Here's What Happened When I Volunteered to Register Voters
Ask people who know me, and they wouldn't say that I’m the first person to volunteer for a cause. I'm not the last person, either — let's say I'm somewhere in between. But after months of listening to coverage of this absurd election, I couldn't get some thoughts out of my head: What if Trump wins and I'd done nothing to try and stop it? What will I say to any potential future children (or, more likely, future nieces) who ask me what I did to try and stop dictator Trump from turning America into a misogynist, white supremacist dystopia? And even though my social feeds are filled with anti-Trump stories, how many people outside of my circles are being bombarded with — and believing — pro-Trump propaganda?
That’s how I found myself on a train that smelled of stale pizza, en route to suburbs of Philadelphia one weekend. They say that every vote counts, but they don’t all count equally. As a swing state, Pennsylvania voters have greater influence on the presidential election than a vote from my ever-blue home state. And the votes in the suburbs are more unpredictable than the votes in the city, which is why the Montgomery County Clinton campaign headquarters sent me, clipboard in hand, to a mall 45 minutes outside of Philly.
As someone who has lived in New York City for a few years, I have made an art of avoiding street solicitors. ASPCA, Green Peace, Lyft, — I don't care the reason. I keep my headphones in, duck my head, and charge by them, avoiding eye contact at all costs. But there I was, outside of a Cheesecake Factory, hoping to catch someone’s attention. "Have you registered to vote?" "Are you registered to vote?" "Would you like to register to vote?" I projected over and over at whoever walked by me. Before my fellow volunteers and I, all friends from college, left the campaign offices, the volunteer coordinator warned us that it was possible we would get no new voters registered at all. “We’ve been campaigning here for months," he said, "It's like finding a needle in a haystack at this point." But registering voters meant more potential votes for Hillary, meant that it was more likely for her to win in this suburb, meant that it was more likely for her to win in Pennsylvania. It felt like we were making the smallest of contributions, like we were the tiniest cog in a huge machine, and one that might not even work — but we had to try. Plus, what more important plans did I have for that Saturday?
Most of the mall-goers I accosted with my questions simply ignored me. It turns out the impulse to avoid a loud person with a clipboard in a public place is human instinct. But I was surprised to see that many people, once they actually understood what I was asking, nodded politely or smiled at me, reassuring me that they were, in fact, registered to vote.
Now, points for politeness, Philadelphia, but I heard "I'm already registered" so many times that I simply didn’t believe it. Only 58 percent of Americans turned up at the polls for the last presidential elections, so I found it really hard to believe that so many people in a random mall on the east coast were registered. But still, their possible white lie was easier to swallow than some of the indifference I saw.
Me: "Are you registered to vote?"
Me: "Would you like to register?"
Me: [Bursts into flames]
I also encountered some women who were upset that I bothered them at all while they were eating (the hazards of approaching people at the food court, where they were sitting ducks). I met some older voters who wanted to talk politics. There were sweet parents shopping with their children, proud of me for hitting the pavement for democracy. And of course, the Trump supporters — they were surprisingly civil, but they also firmly let me know to whom their vote was going.
Still, those who didn’t want to register upset me the most. Their apathy was hard to stomach, especially when it came from women or people of color. How could they not care? Didn’t they know what’s at stake? But it wasn’t my job to lecture strangers. It was my (unpaid) job to get people signed up to vote. And I did. Five hours of asking questions at a sea of faces netted three new registrations. My small team of four left with 18 completed forms, and that's not much, but it's something. If the other groups of volunteers from the same field office also got around 20 new voters, and we kept at it every weekend, we could make a real difference. Maybe the cogs were powerful after all.
Being treated like a piece of gum someone stepped on was less than pleasant. It was close to dehumanizing, being dodged for most of the day, asking for strangers’ attention, hoping to get someone — anyone — to sign up. It was dreadful and exhausting — one of my friends gave up halfway though, surrendering to a massage chair for the next few hours — but it is also genuinely necessary. It was similar to how I view running: grueling while I'm doing it, but after I'm finished I have a high that gets me back on the treadmill the next day. It felt amazing to have made a difference, and that nagging voice asking me, "You don't want Trump? Well, what have you done to help?" was finally quieted for a bit.
But obviously, registering voters is only one part of the process. It doesn't mean that those voters are going to make it to the polls. Who’s to say that any of the people we registered will actually cast a vote? (Tangential question: Why do we have such a convoluted system designed to discourage voters?) And that's the next step. A volunteer from the Clinton campaign called me just yesterday, asking if I can came back to encourage suburbanites to get to the polls. I'm looking into train tickets.
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Photo Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOX