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The Planet

My Most Excellent Midwestern Doorknocking and Phonebanking Adventure

by John Byrne Barry

In October, I worked in Milwaukee for ten days as part of the Club's voter education program-I was one of thousands of Club staff and volunteers who knocked on doors or made phone calls to make the environment matter on November 2. I wrote daily reports for our Web site, some of which are excerpted below.

[October 25, 2004]
Dial, Wait for Beep, Read Script, Hang Up, Dial Next Number

I think I know what to expect. In some respects, the day plays out like I imagine. I make more than 100 phone calls telling people about how they can vote early by going down to their local city hall and asking for an absentee ballot. It's as tedious as I expect. I leave 80 messages that all sound pretty much the same.

I arrived in Milwaukee yesterday, and will be knocking on doors and making phone calls through Election Day to help get out the vote. Bob Bingaman, our national field director, says that 12-hour days are considered part-time. I start phoning within an hour of arriving. It's easy and hard at the same time. Dial, wait for beep, read script, hang up, dial next number. We're calling Sierra Club members, urging them to vote early, and also asking them if they'd like to volunteer to help get out the vote. I probably talk to 25 people. Most are pleasant, polite. Some are even grateful. One is thrilled to find out she can vote early because she has to work on Election Day. "You mean I can go down to city hall tomorrow and vote...during the day?" Yes, I assure her. I make her day and she makes mine. Many people have been called several times already. One man says, politely, "Not to give offense, but we've already gotten 16 calls." An elderly woman, who answers the phone with a gentle, curious voice, snaps at me as soon as I say I'm from the Sierra Club and finishes my sentence for me: "And you want me to vote. Dammit, I don't need anyone to tell me to vote."

Midday, Talia, one of the organizers, drives me and another staff member through our "turf"-South Milwaukee, Cudahy (cud-a-hay), and St. Francis, three working class/middle class communities just south of Milwaukee along the lakefront. Modest one- and two-story houses line the residential streets. Factories stretches for blocks along the main street of Cudahy. There are taverns on many corners, about the same size as the houses. The bank clock we pass in Cudahy says 80 degrees at about noon, but it's probably not that hot. For a Californian, this place is a riot of color. The golden leaves. The blue sky. The green grass. The leaves are all over the ground, but most are still in the trees.

We're not advocating for a particular candidate, but educating people about both presidential candidates' environmental records and encouraging "infrequent environmental voters" to the polls. Our experience, as well as some studies, show that the single most important reason these infrequent voters vote is that someone asks them to. It's peer pressure. The good kind. Are we guilt-tripping people? Arguably yes, but no more than my dentist does when he tells me to floss every day. Voting, like flossing, is a good thing to do. Both help prevent decay in their own way.

[October 26, 2004]
It's Wisconsin Nag-the-Voter Week

The best story of the day comes in the evening when Deane Paul, one of six volunteers who show up to phonebank, is calling residents of Cudahy telling them they can avoid the long lines on election day by voting early. "All you need to do," she says, reading from the same script I repeat a hundred times today, "is go down to Cudahy City Hall and ask the city clerk for an absentee ballot."

"Well, I am the city clerk," says one man, "I know all about it."

I don't like making these phone calls at all. I'd rather dig ditches. I can't imagine doing this if it weren't important. Yesterday, I had more adrenalin. It was new. Today, I have to find ways to reward myself when I get to the end of a page. There are about 35 names per page. When I get towards the bottom of the page, when there are only five or four or three names left, I move faster. When I finish, I go for a short walk to refill my coffee mug. I check my e-mail. I pop a handful of M&Ms in my mouth. I study the electoral college map on the New York Times Web page and see all those too-close-to-call states in the Midwest.

One of my colleagues refers to this as "nag the voter week." But will anyone decide not to vote because they get too many calls? I doubt it.

Still, it's discouraging that so many people are indifferent or annoyed. "I'm sorry. We don't vote," says one woman curtly, almost proudly. "I don't want to talk about it." I get that about four times. "Not interested." I get a couple of those. A few people tell me they know about early voting, but want to go to the polls on election day. "I like to walk down there on election day with my son," one woman says, "so he can see what this is all about."

[October 27, 2004]
Sixty Blind Dates

I knock on my first door today.

My heart is pounding, my mouth dry, as if I'm waiting for a blind date to answer the door, except that I've been on plenty of blind dates and this feels harder. Blind dates are one at a time. Here, I've got a list of 60 names.

No one answers the door.

I take out a fact sheet comparing the environmental records of John Kerry and George W. Bush and, above the headline, I write, "Sorry I missed you. Hope you make it to the polls on November 2."

No answer at the second door. Or the third.

I can't believe how nervous I am. It's late afternoon. Dusk is a couple of hours away. I'm on Illinios Street in Cudahy in a pleasant established neighborhood where the tree-lined streets are named after states. I've driven out here with Ned, who came in this morning from Pasadena, California, to help here in Milwaukee. We're walking on opposite sides of the street; he's got the even-numbered addresses, I take the odd. I can hear him talking to someone about pollution-control technology.

The fifth door I knock on is answered by a tall man with white hair and a white beard. He holds a soda in one hand and a paper plate of food in the other. I start by talking about the four polluting coal-fired power plans in southeast Wisconsin, how they contribute to smog, which exacerbates asthma. I ask him if he's familiar with the plants. He nods. He listens, doesn't say much. As I give him a fact sheet, I ask him if he knows about early voting, that you can go down during the week to Cudahy City Hall and vote absentee right then and there. To avoid possible lines on election day.

"Oh, I'm retired," he says, "I've got all day." He smiles and thanks me as I leave.

Well, that wasn't so bad.

But I already can't wait to be finished.

At my next stop, I see a woman in the side yard. By the time I tell her I'm from the Sierra Club she stops me. "I'm a Bush. I'm a Republican. Thanks for your time anyway."

Ned and I walk for a couple hours until it's too dark to read our scripts. We've each knocked on about 45 doors. I've had maybe six or seven folks listen to my spiel and take my fact sheet and seem friendly, sympathetic. None engage me in conversation, though Ned has a few people who argue with him about technology. I'd prefer to run into that, to have a real dialogue instead of just give a speech. I know my facts, but no one today tests me. I get maybe four or five "not interested." One says, "I don't vote." That discourages me, but I know I have to just brush it off and go to the next door. It's all about numbers. (Maybe more like blind dates after all.)

[October 28, 2004]
"This election will be decided by new voters ... if they get to vote"

While we're trying to get voters to the polls, our opponents are trying to get them to stay at home.

Club organizer Rosemary Wehnes forwarded a flyer she received today from Sheila Cochran of AFL-CIO Voter Protection. Allegedly from the "Milwaukee Black Voters League," this flyer has been circulating in Milwaukee's African American neighborhoods:

The flyer's aimed at newly registered and infrequent voters, says Cochran, and not a single point is true.

All the more reason for us to keep doing what we're doing.

This afternoon I sit in on a conference call with organizers from all the other voter education sites, as well as Carl Pope and other Club leaders. One participant says the Sierra Club is getting complaints that we are contacting them too often.

Carl says this is a sign that we're reaching people. "If people are calling to be removed from our lists, we're doing our job. We don't hear from those who are excited about what we're doing."

He adds: "The election will be decided by people who didn't vote in 2000."

[October 30, 2004]
Wind-whipped Walkers

I'm exhausted. My legs feel rubbery, my eyes bleary.

The day starts with controlled chaos. Between 9 and 10 in the morning, about 60 volunteers, many who have driven up from Illinois, pour into the Club office. Everyone is assigned to one of eight teams, each headed by an "area chair."

Our message is easy. We ask for a particular person from our list, say who we are, and urge them to remember to vote on Tuesday. Depending on their response, we ask them if they know where their polling place is.

I'm teamed up with Donna, from Crystal Lake, Illinois, just across the border. She and her husband are volunteers in the Club's outings program. Most people are friendly and say, of course, they are voting. A few are wary. One woman, when I ask if she's going to vote, says, "I'm not sure." I tell her where the polling place is.

There aren't many involved conversations, though there's one elderly woman who answers the door with her face partly painted white and red.

"Looks like I interrupted you getting ready for a Halloween party," I say, stating the obvious. She grins and we talk for a few minutes before I tell her what I'm there for. I have three names at this address. One is her husband, now deceased. Another is her son, who lives in northern Wisconsin. She assures me that she votes in every election, no matter how small.

[October 31, 2004]
Halloween in South Milwaukee

Within 15 minutes of heading out to knock on doors, a man trick-or-treating with his son and daughter steps up to me, nose to nose, and says, "four more years, four more years."

He reeks of alcohol. He's swaying towards me, then away from me. He's got a coffee mug in his hand, but I doubt there's coffee in there.

He grabs me by the arm. "Bush has got it all under control." Then he mumbles something about Kerry. I can't decipher it. His kids climb down the steps, back towards us.

"We're OK on Bush, right," he says. I don't bite. "We're just knocking on doors and urging people to vote."

I would be afraid, but he's smaller than I am, drunk as a skunk, and more creepy and pathetic than he is menacing. He's there waiting for me after I go to the next house where no one answers my knock. "I'm just going to follow you and harass you," he says, but he's already teetering away, following his kids to the next house. "I'm just kidding. I admire you. You're with me on Bush, right. Four more years."

We don't start on Sunday until about 3 p.m. The Green Bay Packers game starts at noon, and we don't want to be interrupting people while they're worshipping in the state religion. The lore is that when the Washington Redskins play the Sunday before Election Day and they win, the incumbent president wins. If they lose, the incumbent loses.

Well, guess who the Redskins are playing today? That's right. The Packers.

There are a lot of conflicted Wisconsin Republicans this week.

The Packers beat the Redskins, though the game is a nail-biter, as it seems the election will be.

It feels surreal to be knocking on doors asking people to vote when kids are traipsing around the neighborhood trick-or-treating. But all of a sudden, it seems, the trick-or-treaters are gone. Later I find out, when talking to some kids in costume sitting on the steps, that in South Milwaukee they trick or treat from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Tomorrow Bush and Kerry will be in downtown Milwaukee, one on the east side of the Milwaukee River, one on the west.

[November 1, 2004]
One Voter per Ward

It's miserable weather. Mid-40s, steady slanting drizzle. If it was raining harder, we wouldn't be able to manage, but the rain is light enough that we can still read our lists, knock on doors, and leave literature. I carry my lists and literature in a plastic bag and peek into it to find out the next person on the list. Within an hour, everything is damp. The papers stick to each other. The pen won't write on the wet paper.

We're only knocking on doors where we have not reached someone in the past two days. Lots of "NH's"-not home.

It's an ordeal. I'm not having fun. No one seems to be home. Still I'm thrilled to be here in the center of the storm, grateful to be doing something, even knocking on doors where no one answers.

There's one woman I talk to who isn't registered and doesn't know where the polling place is. I point towards the elementary school on Packard and tell her that if she brings her ID and a piece of mail that shows her address, like a utility bill, that she can register at the polls.

Our team leader Rosemary reminds us as we huddle in the car after our lunch break, ready to brave the cold drizzle again, that Wisconsin was decided in 2000 by less than one vote per ward.

There are nine of us, covering two wards. You do the math.


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