Saturday, November 3, 2012

"Go vote. It makes you feel big and strong."

I'm sitting in a room with tables and phones in Richmond, Virginia.  I feel a little like I'm at a phone-a-thon fundraiser as phones ring all about the room, answered by cheerful volunteers.  Quiet lulls are punctuated by long bursts of phones ringing off the hook.  It's not a fundraiser, though - I'm answering calls made to the voter hotline.

This morning I got a crash course on voting in Virginia.  It turns out that today is the last day people can "absentee vote in person," but many of them don't know where to go.  Other people who plan to vote on Tuesday fear they are not registered to vote, or don't know if their polling place has changed, or they can't get out to vote unless they have a ride.  Fortunately, I can now help with all of these issues, and in fact that is my job from today until the polls close at 7pm on Tuesday, one call at a time.

Last polling place to close in MO, 2008
Four years ago when I volunteered for the Obama campaign, I spent the summer organizing people in St. Louis to register voters, and then later - right before the election - to get out the vote.  Those last four days were a flurry of activity: printing out maps for door-knockers, picking up coffee being donated by a local coffee shop, delivering signs, going door-to-door, and finally ending up at the last poll open in the state of Missouri to encourage voters to stay in line and cast their ballots.  Four days straight filled with frenetic motion, culminating in the election of Barack Obama.  Depending on your political leanings, this may not have been your preferred outcome, but regardless of who you wanted to win, it was democracy in action.  And that's a beautiful thing.

Here in this room, answering people's queries on the phone feels significantly different from working with people face to face, but, whereas knocking doors is a numbers game (it takes a lot of knocked doors to register a few voters, or convince a few people to get off their butts and go vote), responding to hotline calls has the feeling of a much higher rate of return.  That is, I really feel like I'm helping almost everyone who calls.  Many people sound a little frantic or confused when I begin talking to them, but they're pretty cheerful by the time they hang up.  And more importantly, I get the sense that the vast number of people who call could not or would not have voted before their call, but after calling they're equipped to vote.  Hooray democracy!

Only the best quality snacks to fuel the volunteers
Recently I was reviewing the structure of our federal government with my 9th grade students and quizzing them to assure they did indeed know what "democracy" means.  During this discussion, one student looked up the word's etymology.  The result?  It originates from the Greek demokratia, with "demos" meaning "the common people" and "cracy" meaning "rule or strength."  In other words, democracy = power of the people!

Okay, I'm geekin' out a little bit here.  I know I am.  But c'mon!  Power to the people, people.  It's a gorgeous idea.  And I know it's not ideally realized anywhere, let alone in the U.S., but every Virginian who's helped by the hotline is a little more power to at least that person.  And I think this is very cool.

I'll leave you with two of my favorite calls of the day so far.

One, from just a bit ago: "Hi, Sarah.  How are you?"  I ask if I can help, or answer a question.  "Nope.  I just wanted to see if anyone was answering this number."  I assured him that the hotline was well staffed.  "Okay, well that makes me feel better."  Okay, then...  That call just made me giggle.

Another call from earlier: an elderly woman phoned, wanting to double check her polling place.  She wasn't able to give me her voter ID because, she explained to me, her hand tremors so badly that she couldn't read the number.  So she called her husband over, but he had to fetch a magnifying glass to read the number.  Meanwhile some third person was plunking out "unchained melody" on a piano in the background.  This whole time she was being adorable and chatting me up.  Eventually we retrieved the number and could verify her polling place, which she will get herself to on Tuesday.  To cast her vote, as a citizen with a voice: power to the people!


  1. So proud to know my daughter is a part of this! No matter who you plan to vote for, know that there are people who really care about this country and only want the best for all of us.

  2. Hooray Sarah! My husband has been helping out down in Virginia Beach the last couple weeks. My contribution has been manning the fort and taking care of the bambinos while he's away. ;) Get out the vote Virginia!!