As much as I might like to avoid politics, and mostly do, they have a dastardly, kind of insidious way of intruding into my life. Into many of our lives. I’d love to be that guy who has more important things to do than argue Ds vs. Rs, someone who has more important things to write about than Marjorie Freaking Taylor Greene. I aspire, in my daydreams, to be someone who has no time for the never-ceasing nonsense coming from politicians, all of whom (or, at least most of whom) seem to do nothing but bicker about problems that keep getting worse.
I’ve tried to stay above the ruckus. I really have. Over my adult life, I’ve done just about the minimum when it comes to politics and politicking. I’ve voted, like everybody should. I’ll offer my opinion, but almost always only when asked. I blog-vent, when I feel the urge. It’s hardly grabbing a megaphone and heading to the soap box on the local town square.
That’s been it for me. Politics, as we all know, are tiring. I just don’t have the energy.
Sometimes, though, getting involved is unavoidable. Sometimes, ignoring all those intractable problems or simply shaking your head at the stupid show is impossible. Sometimes, if you have a conscience at all, the minimum just doesn’t cut it.
Several weeks ago, I somewhat timidly, and definitely reluctantly, asked a friend about helping out around the elections. I could monitor the polls, I suggested. I could hand out the forms that you get at the precincts before you vote. I could enter voter data somewhere. Heck, I could make food runs for all the poll workers, I imagined. I wasn’t sure when I could be available, of course, or where. And I’m not sure I had the time to go through classes to learn how things work. I wanted to lend a hand, get past doing nothing, feel like I contributed a little something. But, damn, I wasn’t offering to really work. Not go door-to-door or anything.
I was, in effect, the worst kind of nightmare for the dedicated and passionate people who give up their time and efforts to make elections go. I was a volunteer with limits. A barely warm body with demands. I was altruistic, but on my terms. (I was, in other words, all for throwing a dollar into the tip jar … if I could get a little recognition for it.)
The poll-watching thing, not surprisingly, didn’t happen. But another friend put me in touch with a cousin who was flying into Georgia to help in the U.S. Senate runoff election between the incumbent, Rev. Raphael Warnock, and one-time University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker. The race was a big deal, locally and nationally. I knew, if I was serious about getting involved, that I’d have to commit.
So on a rainy Monday and Tuesday in Gwinnett County, not far from our home in Alpharetta, my newfound activist friend and I spent a few hours doing democracy’s dirty work, trudging up and down suburban streets, knocking on doors, handing out flyers, and imploring people to get out and vote for our guy. Election workers, campaigners, your high school civics teacher — politicians, too — all like to say that, in a democracy, that’s the kind of grassroots effort that counts. That’s how elections are won and lost.
In my decidedly small sample-size experience with this, I can’t say that’s entirely accurate. But it seems pretty close.
A slight detour here: When the grass grew too long on our near-acre plot in the Middle of Nowhere, DE, all the Donovan kids knew what was coming. Someone, chosen through some mysterious process known only to my father, was going to get roped into cutting the lawn. All of it. And that was a chore and a half. Pushing and pulling a mower through thick, weedy grass (really, calling it a lawn is stretching it more than a little), inching along so that the mower wouldn’t stall out — but trying to get through it quickly enough so that a whole summer day wasn’t shot — was an absolute slasher show. Miserable. Work. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.
The real pain of it was the fact that our family, despite being responsible for the upkeep of the biggest semi-grassy patch in the center of Willow Grove, didn’t own a mower. Never did, as far as I can remember. Which meant that someone — often me — had to go knock on the neighbor’s door.
I remember the dread approaching the front porch, the feeling that I not only was intruding — which, clearly, I was; “One of those dadgum Donovan kids is on the porch again …” — but that I was bothering to ask a favor. A big one.
“I was wondering, Mr. Faircloth, if … um … you know … could I borrow your mower? Please?”
That’s what I was thinking last week as I trudged up driveways and zig-zagged across suburban streets, doing what in the biz they call “canvassing” for votes. “Sorry, I know I look like some drowned rodent, and I know it’s cold out, and you’re probably busy, and I know you hate people knocking on your front door — everybody hates that, it’s annoying — but, you know, here’s a flier. Have you voted yet?“
Well I was also thinking, “I hate this. It damn well better be worth it.”
And, “Please please please, I hope no crazed right-wingers live here.“
Knock knock …
The blue circle on the doorbell came to whirring life, the first sign that there’d be a lot of stoop-standing in this door-to-dooring and a lot less face-to-facing than I imagined. My political partner and I, Mindy from Seattle, were in a neighborhood in Lilburn, about 20 miles or so from my house and 25 miles or so northeast of downtown Atlanta. We were equipped with a list of dozens of houses to hit up, a bunch of cardboard fans with the Reverend’s face on them, big postcards stating our intentions, and a couple pads of stickers that included a QR code that provided information on where to vote. The idea, ideally, was to get facetime with potential voters, but if no one was home — or, equally as likely, if no one answered the door — we were to tuck the flier into the door jamb and slap the sticker somewhere the homeowners could see it. In a gut punch to writers and college professors everywhere, this was called a “lit drop.”
Mindy and I stood in front of the Ring camera, cardboard fans prominently proclaiming our allegiance and relative benignness, watching the little blue circle spin until a voice crackled on from … somewhere. That’s the thing about those doorbell cameras, of course. The voice could have been on the other side of the door or the other side of the planet.
“Hi,” Mindy yelled to someone, somewhere. “We’re just going door to door seeing if you’ve voted yet …?”
“Already voted. Thank you.”
“In the runoff? This election?” Mindy asked. This election, this runoff, a racist Georgia anachronism, was triggered when neither candidate got more than 50 percent of the votes in the November general election. Mindy and I were charged with making sure people understood that a vote in November did not equate to a vote in the December runoff.
“Yes. Last week.”
“Oh, great. Can we ask … for Rev. Warnock?” This was, I guess, a kind of exit poll question.
“Awesome. Thank you, thanks very much. Have a great day.” Wherever you are.
Truth is, we already had determined who that voice likely had voted for, if indeed that voice had voted, because we were working off a list, accessed by an app on Mindy’s phone, that evidently was a combination of public record (which shows that a person at that address voted in November, but didn’t show for whom) and a database of Democratic voters compiled by the Georgia Democrats (or, perhaps, the Democratic National Committee).
After a few more knocks and doorbell punches on a few more houses, Mindy scrolling through the app to make notes after each stop (checking off “Lit Drop” and “Nobody Home” or “Voted” or any other box that applied), it became clear to me that we weren’t likely to be greeted with gun toting red hatters in this neighborhood. It made perfect sense, of course, especially in a state like Georgia and especially in times like these. The grassroots organizers on both sides of the political divide know that knocking on doors (and punching bells) is not about changing minds. That’s darn near impossible in today’s environment. It’s about knowing where your people are and getting them out to vote.
In the more than 80 houses we hit in those two days (Mindy walked up to most, especially when it rained hard that first day and I drove), we never encountered a nasty soul. The worst I got was some smallish older man waving me off his porch through the window.
When we did find someone home (or at least on the other side of the Ring), they were mostly enthusiastic voters for the Reverend. We had one extended discussion with a woman (and after stopping at her house again, her husband) who had not yet voted in the runoff because they both were disappointed that the senator had not embraced their concerns for the political situation back in their homeland of Ethiopia. They probably would vote, they said, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t vote “for that other guy.” Mindy took notes about their reservations, entered them in the app, and we walked on.
Some people actually thanked us for our work. Some couldn’t wait to get us off their porches. But everyone we met was civil. Totally, sadly unexpected.
Warnock won the state by more than 96,000 votes, a roughly 2-point margin in what traditionally has been deep-red Georgia. In Gwinnett, where I naively had braced myself to face all sorts of “Get Off My Porch” villains, he won by a whopping 24 points. Gwinnett is within the Atlanta metro area which, like many big metro areas around the country, remains solidly for Democrats. Fulton County, where the city of Atlanta is located, went for Warnock by 53 points. DeKalb, east of Atlanta and Gwinnett’s neighbor to the south, went Warnock +73. The four most populous counties in the state voted for Warnock overwhelmingly.
But … back in November, a week or so after the general election once it was clear there would be a runoff, Mary Jo and I drove about 15 miles west of our home to the charming burg of Woodstock, with its burgeoning town center complete with trendy restaurants and bars, all surrounded by tons of new apartments and townhomes. Woodstock is in Cherokee County, the fifth most-populous among Georgia’s 159 counties.
We were in Woodstock to attend a Warnock rally (^, top of post), our first, just to check it out. Maybe 200 people showed up on that cold weekend afternoon. It was a rowdy crowd, it being a rally, spurred on by campaigners passing out signs and buttons, and speakers urging supporters to get loud in front of the TV cameras. Still, Warnock knew, better than anyone, that he was in the lion’s den there. And he was dead right. Cherokee County — again, a metro Atlanta county — swung to Walker by 38 points.
After Woodstock, the mere threat that Warnock — by all but the most slanted accounts a good man and, in only two years in the Senate, an effective legislator — might lose his seat to a woefully unqualified opponent (I am being exceedingly kind here) who never has served his country and really didn’t want to was appalling. That’s what knocked me off my political passivity, I think; the idea that something that terrible, that wrong, might happen with me sitting on my hands.
Once our two days of canvassing were done, Mindy, who had worked for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in Iowa — something that didn’t turn out OK but, remarkably, didn’t hurt candidate Biden in the end — thanked me for my help. I thanked her for showing me the way. And that night, sitting at home after Warnock’s win was assured, I experienced that too-rare feeling that maybe, in some previously unconsidered way, I made a difference. For the better. All it took was a few hours over a couple days in a little rain talking to some mostly friendly people.
Knocking on doors. It really isn’t that hard after all.