It’s now a truism that the recent election was won by armies of grass-roots staffers and volunteers approaching voters one-on-one to make the case for President Obama and supportive House and Senate candidates. I was one of those canvassers. I talked to several hundred voters in working-class city precincts. Because these neighborhoods are transient, canvassers would start by determining whether the target voter still lived at the indicated address. And where the listed voter had moved on, we inquired whether the new residents were registered to vote, and if not, offered them the opportunity to register on the spot.
For a canvasser, finding an unregistered citizen who is eager to register is the day’s high point; conversely, arguing with an eligible voter who won’t register can be a real downer. Dogged non-voters fall into a couple of categories. Some are too immature, addled, or overwhelmed to contemplate adding another duty to their list of obligations. Some display an aggressive blend of ignorance and cynicism, insisting that it doesn’t matter who gets elected or their individual vote doesn’t matter. You learn to recognize these types and not spend a lot of time arguing with them. You move on.
But there are others, and part of the canvasser’s art is to recognize the unspoken concerns of potential voters and tactfully address them. Alienation from civic activity is hardly a fringe phenomenon: year after year, barely half of the eligible American electorate votes, even in high-profile national elections. Political partisans find it easy to disparage non-voters. But feeling superior doesn’t get us anywhere. As campaigners, our job is to get inside the head of the reluctant voter and tease out what the barriers may be.
We find people who wrongly think they are ineligible to vote because of a criminal background — and maybe claim to have been given that misinformation by their probation officer. We find people who don’t want to expose their low literacy to the scrutiny of a stranger at the door or at a polling place. We still find people who think that being unregistered to vote makes them immune from being called for jury service.
Beyond all of that, I’ve concluded that an awful lot of people are inhibited by the sheer mechanics of voting. This can be hard to relate to if you grew up in an environment where everyone votes. Whether you see it as a duty, a privilege, or an adventure, if you’ve always voted you may find it hard to believe that anyone could have a mental block about the process, or that anyone would allow such reservations to trump their motivation to improve their circumstances and their community by voting.
On my most memorable day, I spent 20 minutes persuading a woman to register. I worked on her for that long because I could see from the TV show she was watching and from her conversation that she actually had well-developed political opinions. But she had never voted. She was 71 years old.
When we canvass, we answer all kinds of questions — perfectly reasonable questions, many with simple answers, but which the prospective voter never had a chance to ask before. What time are the polls open? Do I have to bring an ID? How long will it take? What if I can’t read the ballot because I’m legally blind? Who can I call if I need a ride? Can I bring my children in with me? Do I have to cast a vote for every office or can I just vote for President? What if I make a mistake marking the ballot? What if I can’t get there during voting hours?
And some take the responsibility so seriously that they feel unequal to the task, and ask, How do I know who I should vote for? As a partisan, of course, I could just tell them. But in truth, I sympathize with anyone trying to make sense of a political race on the basis of unrelenting reciprocal attack ads on television. Voters need tools to cut through the fog to exercise their franchise intelligently. So I prefer to say, well, I am going to leave you this voter guide that talks about some national issues and what the candidates think about them. But isn’t there someone you respect and who shares your values? You could talk with them about how they plan to vote and why. That’s what voters do.
We live in a world chock-full of diverse subcultures and experiences. On some level we constantly define ourselves by what we incorporate into our self-image and what we choose not to incorporate. If I got a flyer in the mail urging me to take up martial arts or calligraphy or rooting for the lacrosse team, I might well think: well, that’s interesting, but I don’t know anything about that, it would be embarrassing to be the only ignorant person there, and it would take time and effort to learn about it. I’m okay with being a person who does not do that sort of thing. And whereas at age 20 my excitement at learning something new might overcome my trepidation, at 40 or 50 the learning curve looks more forbidding. Learn how to program an iPad? Maybe not. Learn how to use an optical scan voting machine? Maybe I’ll pass. Additionally, the “horse race” mentality that pervades media coverage of elections contributes to the impression that politics is just another pastime that some people follow and some don’t. Consciously or not, potential voters get a pass to define themselves among the “nots.”
But with a tutor, the learning curve can be surmounted. So a good canvasser is, among other things, a tutor in the arts of democracy. Civic engagement results from hard- and well-fought election campaigns. Ultimately, canvassers don’t just win elections. They do the vital work of democracy, helping our fellow citizens, one by one, formulate their self-image to that of a voter.