Door-to-Door Politics

Reflecting on long, cold days in Ohio, a group of students realize the value of making a difference

“I feel like a Jehovah’s Witness.”  

This was my daughter’s flat response when I asked her about her first day of door to door canvassing in Ohio last week.

Back on November 2nd, three busloads of students from her Manhattan based college set off to the battleground state of Ohio – collectively knocking on 56,787 doors in Cuyahoga County in an effort to inform residents. Although the group was there to support one party, their role was not to recruit but rather to offer guidance on the voting process to residents who were already registered for that party.

She had looked forward to the trip for weeks; however, it didn’t take long for her to question her role.

 “I don’t think this is my thing” she bemoaned, describing the cold temperatures, numerous slammed doors, and questionable accommodations. “So many political ads combined with such bad weather makes Cleveland feel like a dystopia.”

“I sometimes felt like I was intruding on people's right to privacy,” remarked Emma Hede-Brierley, a freshman from Massachusetts, who told me she had never done “anything political before.” “We were told to ask them who they were voting for. Personally, I would not like someone to ask me outright who I was voting for, so it felt weird to pose the question to random strangers.”

By the end of the second day, while thoroughly exhausted and colder than she had ever been, my daughter sounded less deflated.  “A lady in a wheel chair came to the door today,” she said.  “We talked about health care.  I told her the location of her voting place.”

 It was clear why my daughter sounded better – she had begun making connections.

“Although it was freezing cold, the walks tiring and the houses often difficult to find,” said Emma, “speaking to the few supporters who opened their doors was inspiring. Many were happy to see us working to elect their candidate. They reaffirmed my belief in the importance of our canvassing.”

Fellow student, Zach Wilson, who hails from the mid-west, was struck by how an initial, irritated, protest of, “what do you want!” from within the house, would frequently lead to an opened door once Zach revealed his party affiliation. What often followed, Zach discovered, was an opportunity to supply information the resident did not know about how and where to vote.

“Many of these residents might not have had the opportunity to vote for their candidate simply because they lacked information about the voting process.”

“I can’t believe Election Day is not a national holiday,” my daughter later said – a perspective she would not have gained without this experience. “I never realized how hard it is for many people to get to the polls on time or to avoid waiting in long, inconvenient lines.”

Emma felt fortunate to have seen a variety of neighborhoods due to the fact that her group switched locations nearly every day.

“We started in a very low socio-economic neighborhood, then went to an extremely wealthy one and on the last day worked around apartment complexes and middle-class neighborhoods.” Emma said. “It was really interesting to see how the socio-economic position of the neighborhood affected the voting tendencies of the people.”

On the third day, a driver pulled over and asked my daughter if she was out canvassing.  Bracing herself for a possible confrontation, my daughter responded that yes, she was.  The woman in the car was relieved.  As it turns out she had no idea where she was supposed to vote and needed help.

Later, on our nightly phone call, my daughter said this was turning out to be one of the most memorable and positive experiences she has ever had.

After four days of being chilled to the bone, knocking on countless doors, little sleep, fast food, and an occasional raucous slur from extremists in the opposing camp, they boarded the bus for the long journey back to NYC.  Although it certainly added a nice finishing touch when along the journey, they discovered that their candidate had won the election; I think what they got out of the experience and what they will remember involved so much more.

Emma came to realize the futility of narrow minded politics:

“The chants/pep-talks orchestrated by the group leaders,” said Emma “which were meant to fire us up and get us ready for the day of canvassing, conversely made me feel disconnected from the mission.”

“Instead of insulting and criticizing the opposition group - with whom Democrats need to cooperate anyway to accomplish anything for this country,” Emma continued, “the leaders could have voiced more positive positions,”

When asked what, overall she had gained from this experience, Emma remarked:

“Knowing that our work in Cuyahoga County actually made a difference in the election because it helped swing Ohio blue. Our work doubled the amount of people who got out and voted, which in a blue county was essential to helping Obama win Ohio.”

These students experienced a part of America they may never have otherwise and, more importantly were able to meet a few of the faces behind the “issues” and to connect with individuals they rarely if ever encounter in  their college life.

 “Would I ever want to canvass again?” reflected Emma, “Probably not. But together with the support of friends who encouraged us every day to keep going, we were able to accomplish what we set out to do.”


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