No matter the phase in the election cycle, says Prince George's activist John Mitchell, canvassing can seem like drudgery. "Most doors you knock on will not be opened. Many people who answer will be unimpressed with your presence. But in my experience, the wonderful opportunity to connect with like-minded citizens is very rewarding."
/By John Mitchell/ I hate canvassing, but I’m glad I do it.
“Canvassing” is often shorthand for “door-knocking,” where we are given lists (perhaps likely voters, perhaps registered Democrats, or perhaps all registered voters) and fliers for causes and candidates. But it is more than that.
Early in an election cycle, canvassing is often a listening session, asking voters to tell us which issues are of greatest concern, and what problems they need our political leaders to solve. The results can help candidates hone their message, or find thought leaders on the issues to help them devise solutions. It is a way for humans to communicate directly with each other about the issues they care about most.
Later on, canvassing becomes “campaigning” – urging voters to support a particular candidate or initiative, and dropping off informational literature even if no one answers the door.
As I write this, canvassing is in the “get out the vote” or GOTV phase, where we encourage voters to get to the polls. We may still need to persuade people to vote for a particular candidate, but if the candidate is a Democrat and you are knocking on the door of a registered Democrat, the primary task is to get them into the election booth.
No matter the phase, canvassing can seem like drudgery. Most doors you knock on will not be opened. Many people who answer will be unimpressed with your presence. But in my experience, the wonderful opportunity to connect with like-minded citizens is very rewarding. I have been invited into people’s homes to take a deeper dive into the issues, or help them understand the ballot. I have had lengthy discussions about how best to resolve a problem, or which candidates are most promising. And most often, I leave having formed a citizen-bond with someone else who recognizes that we are all on the same team. Election polls don’t vote. Corporations don’t vote. Only humans vote. Canvassing is a uniquely human endeavor.
Canvassing often takes place independent of the weather. I have canvassed while trying to keep the sweat from dripping onto the literature, and when cold enough to need to hop in the car to warm up. Some of my most rewarding canvassing has been in heavy rain. It seems that the mere fact that I would walk up to a door while soaking wet – with even my smile wet – is enough of an icebreaker for people to want to learn why I am at their doorstep. I have been invited inside, out of the rain, and offered towels to dry off, followed by a more relaxed human-to-human conversation about daily struggles, major concerns, and promising solutions.
This election year, it has been particularly rewarding to canvass for Ben Jealous, who has been endorsed by Progressive Maryland, Our Revolution, teachers, nurses, and labor movements. Back during the primaries, I had to explain who Ben is, but more than once, I got cut off before I could finish my elevator pitch: “He is a Rhodes Scholar; he was the youngest ever President of the NAACP and took it from a downward trend to growth again; he led the fight to end the death penalty and for marriage equality; he wants Maryland to have a ‘Medicare for all’ system to replace the current for-profit health risk racket; he wants to end mass incarceration and move money from the prison system to the school system, where it belongs; he wants to fully fund our schools, make pre-K available to all, and allow our children to eventually graduate from college or trade school debt-free; and he wants to raise the minimum wage to a living wage starting at $15/hour; he favors mass transit for all over ‘Lexus lanes’ that only serve the wealthy; and he wants to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, move us to 100% clean and sustainable energy, and develop a vibrant wind and solar industry right here in our state. Oh, and instead of giving billions to large companies to entice them to bring jobs here, as an experienced investor in startups for good, he wants to make it easier for Marylanders to start and run their own small businesses, right in their own communities.”
I rarely get through it all. “Stop right there. He’s got my vote!” At that point, my heart is full; I wrap up a neighborly conversation, and move on to the next door. I confess to prejudice: If I see evidence of small children in the home, I may stress fully funding schools; if I see evidence of teenagers, I may stress debt-free higher education; if I encounter pre-Medicare occupants, I may stress single payer Medicare for all. But I am always open to surprises, like when I said “Ben wants to move money from the prison system to the school system,” and I was interrupted by a woman who said, “I work in the prison system!” I thought, “Oh, no; how do I back-pedal out of this one,” but she continued, “and I agree. I see too much money being wasted, a prison that should be closed, and a need to invest less in incarceration and more in rehabilitation.” Music to my ears! That conversation went on for quite a while, and I left revitalized for the next slog of door knocking.
The focus from now until Election Day is on getting out the vote. The results are encouraging, but we can’t let up. During the eight days of early voting four years ago, 189,175 Democrats and 87,035 Republicans voted. Today (Wednesday a.m.), with only six of the eight days of early voting completed, 294,459 Democrats and 112,105 Republicans have voted. And in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2:1, new registrations during early voting favor Democrats by a 3.5:1 margin. This all points to far greater enthusiasm, so far, among Democrats, even as all voters are more engaged.
We don’t know how people voted, of course, and there will certainly be Democrats who vote for Republicans and vice versa, plus other party candidates and write-ins, but after an incredible two years in our nation of discrimination in favor of corporations and attacks on basic human needs, the picture the data paints is of a new birth of freedom among “we, the People,” because the best indicator of freedom is exercising the freedom to vote. The most human act we can take is to encourage another human to vote. Check with Progressive Maryland, your candidate, or your party for opportunities to do just that.
John Mitchell is a resident of Accokeek in southern Prince George’s County, member of Greater Accokeek Progressive Activists (GAPA) and Progressive Maryland who also serves on the Our Revolution Prince George’s Steering Committee. A former social worker turned attorney, when he gets tired of canvassing he thinks about his grandchildren, then knocks on one more door, then one more.
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