The informed voter: volunteering
Being politically active isn’t always glamorous. In fact, it very rarely is. What we see of politics are potential candidates sitting down at local diners to speak with voters or large and colorful political rallies complete with banners and children on their parents’ shoulders. What we don’t see are people putting up and taking down equipment at voting precincts, campaign interns working 12-hour days for weeks on end or volunteers pacing back and forth in parking lots to dole out last-minute voter information. But this summer, I was one of those people.
My transformation to overworked volunteer began one June evening when one of my best friends, Annie, returned from Seattle as a recent college graduate and found herself suddenly the campaign manager for a family friend deciding to pursue political office. This was exciting for someone who came home to Grand Rapids with a political science degree, no immediate job prospects and an overabundance of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Annie lacked one thing: experience. Wanting to be supportive of Annie’s new endeavor, I gladly offered my services as a volunteer at some point during the campaign.
It was an honest commitment, but one that I let float in an out of my cluttered memory until one Friday afternoon, when I received a phone call.
“Hi. Gabe? This is Dan from the Winnie Brinks campaign. Are you still interested in volunteering on election day this Tuesday?”
After a quick mental scroll through my weekly schedule, I answered “Yes” and gave Dan my residence information so that I could be placed at the closest possible precinct. I hung up with Dan feeling very intrigued and excited by my upcoming Tuesday evening.
By the time that it finally rolled around, however, some of the intrigue and excitement had been replaced with apprehension and anxiety. I tried nervously to envision what my volunteer experience could possibly look like as I drove to the campaign office. Unfortunately, once arriving at the office, my fears were not qualmed. Instead, I was given a folded document called my “credentials,” a coil of twine, a handout with a lawyer’s phone number in case “anyone gave me any trouble” and an address to drive to.
The man distributing these items must have noticed the fear eclipsing my face or possibly my concerned look at the ball of twine in my hand and so explained that the twine was for measuring out the one hundred feet away from the precinct that I must stay outside of and that “I would figure it out.” The words offered little comfort.
Luckily, upon arriving at the precinct I found the volunteer with the shift before mine in the parking lot seated pleasantly under a large beach umbrella. Her name was Susan, and she offered me all the comfort that I needed, gladly explaining how she had been approaching and talking to voters. She was exactly what I needed. Unfortunately, after only a couple minutes’ pep talk, Susan packed up her beach umbrella, gave me one last smile, and was off, leaving me alone and without shade in the hot, empty parking lot.
During the two and a half hours that followed I said “Good afternoon. Would you like information on how to cast a write-in vote today?” upwards of fifty times, endured an amount of sun exposure that I think nearly guarantees me skin problems later in life, received a long lecture from a particularly cantankerous voter on the stupidity of “my generation,” and met a wide variety of thoroughly interesting people.
Then, in a very Cinderella-esque fashion, at 7:45 p.m. I transformed magically from Winnie Brinks campaign volunteer to official precinct (29) challenger of the Democratic Party. But rather than slay some menacing Republican dragon as the term “Democratic challenger” may suggest, I simply had to enter the voting area and watch as the workers counted and recorded the votes. Even though I only sat in an armchair and ate cookies that the one of the precinct volunteers gave me, I was happy to feel so official and especially for some respite from the cruel sun. Finally, after about an hour of watching the volunteers count the ballots and feeling bad sitting back as people considerably older and less nimble than me struggled with the voting equipment (I wasn’t allowed to touch anything), I recorded the numbers that I was told to and was out the door.
By the time I left there was no sign of the sun. Night had crawled across the sky and the air had begun to cool. In many ways it somewhat symbolic of the night and day difference that I felt in my understanding of our political system. Excited about this fresh knowledge, I hopped back into my car and drove back to the office where I returned my credentials and slid over a couple of doors to a “watch party” that the campaign was having. There I was able to reunite with my friend Annie, meet the candidate that I had spent the entire afternoon campaigning for, and share my experiences with people who had undergone similar ones.
And perhaps that was the most valuable thing that I took from the experience: politics is people. They make it happen. People run for office, people drive to their local schools and churches to vote and people count those votes. Voting can become such a game of numbers that it’s easy to forget that those numbers represent real people driving their friends to precincts, real people spending 14 hours at those precincts to manage the vote from start to finish, and real people pacing back and forth in a parking lots across the nation. And that is why I believe that volunteering is such a crucial and irreplaceable component of informed votership. Volunteering makes you one of those people.
Being a responsible voter is like being a responsible driver. To be a responsible driver you don’t need to be a mechanic or know what a crankshaft is, but you do need to have a basic knowledge of how a car works. You need to know where the windshield wiper controls are, when to put in antifreeze, and how to change a flat tire.
Similarly, being a responsible voter doesn’t require a degree in political science or years of campaign experience. It does, however, require a basic knowledge of how politics works and of how people come together to form and facilitate the democracy that we all enjoy. I feel that I gained some of that knowledge this summer and believe that taking the time to get out in that parking lot and volunteering is the best way to pop the hood on the voting process and really see how it runs. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a bit greasy.