Imported activists help get out the vote in Reno
A sign on the door says, “Don’t ring the doorbell.” Hellan Dowden, a volunteer from Sacramento, knocks. Her husband, Brad, stands behind her with a Palm Pilot and the names of registered Democrats and other Kerry supporters in northwest Reno.
A shorthaired woman answers.
“Hi, I’m Hellan, and we’re here today to help defeat Bush,” Dowden says.
“Let’s get rid of that sucker!” the woman replies.
Judy Plank, 48, is a Democrat who “used to be a Republican until the Christian Coalition got in there.” She steps out into the sunlight in her socks. “Shh. Gotta be careful, the Nazi’s sleeping. He’s a Republican.”
“He calls me ‘Commie'” Plank says, smiling. The three talk. Plank’s close friend’s son is fighting in Iraq. She considers him her “nephew” and says it’s frustrating to think he’s risking his life in a misdirected war. The U.S. military should be going after Osama bin Laden, she says.
“Tell me why we can’t find a 6-foot-2 Arab with a dialysis machine,” Plank says. “How many can there be? He’s probably in the south of France, drinking wine. Bush can just call his family, since they’ve been doing business together. Call his brother.”
After securing Plank’s promise to vote early, the Dowdens head to the next apartment on their list.
“It was fascinating talking to her,” says Brad, a philosophy professor at CSU, Sacramento.
“I don’t understand why some people don’t like doing this,” says Hellan, who works as a lobbyist.
“They must have TV shows to watch or something,” Brad replies.
The Dowdens are a sample of a remarkable feature of this year’s election—people from “safe” states traveling to supposed swing states to work for presidential candidates.
On Sunday, the Washington Post gave the practice a name—"democracy-to-go.”
“With the presidential election likely to be decided in a handful of closely contested states, thousands of Americans are now practicing democracy-to-go, leaving home for days, weeks and even months to try to sway votes in the few battlegrounds where they feel they still can make a difference,” the Post reported.
The practice is aided by a Web site, http://drivingvotes.org. The Post found one item posted on the Web page reading, “This is the end game. Join us and hundreds of other activists massing in Las Vegas for the final push. Door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, rallies—we’ll do everything it takes to turn Nevada blue and send Bush packing!”
On the first Saturday of early voting in Northern Nevada, the Dowdens joined about 250 volunteers from a group called America Coming Together (ACT)—most driving over from California—to help get out the anti-Bush vote in Reno.
“California’s already made its decision,” Hellan says. “So we came to Nevada because it’s a battleground state, and it’s the closest. I can make a difference here.”
Brad, who teaches university classes such as “Einstein’s Views on Space and Time,” has a simple goal.
“I want to stop [Bush’s] reckless, go-it-alone foreign policy,” he says.
Laboring for Kerry
The Reno air is thick with smoke from California fires burning in the El Dorado National Forest. Volunteers with the Sierra Club and ACT gather at the Steam and Pipe Fitters Union Hall in an industrial section of the Truckee Meadows.
Veronica Perez, 24, of Sacramento, is dressed comfortably—and warmly—for walking precincts. It’s her first time knocking on doors to defeat Bush in Reno.
“I think it’s my duty to be out here,” she says.
Jim Shoch, assistant professor of government at CSU, Sacramento calls himself “a lifelong confirmed liberal Democrat.”
“This is the most important election in my lifetime, comparable to ‘68,” Shoch says. “In the 10 remaining battleground states, it’s running close. This could absolutely swing the election.”
From over the hill
Clark Williams is a gay rights activist in San Jose and a member of the Silicon Valley LGBT Democratic Club. In July, realizing that California was all but certain to go for John Kerry, he got an idea for sending a busload of volunteers to Nevada to walk precincts. A fund-raiser was held in San Francisco to pay for the bus, motel rooms and other expenses, and 70 people ended up traveling to Reno and Sparks. Some of the volunteers wanted to go to Las Vegas, but Williams pushed for Reno.
“We actually loved Reno. I mean, I completely understand why people would live there. It was beautiful, for one thing. … Even though it was raining a bit earlier today, it was terrific weather to get out and knock on the doors. But what we really enjoyed was how friendly and welcoming people were. Several times I was invited into people’s homes.”
Williams says one woman invited him in to see her newborn baby, and he found that she and her husband had been filling out applications for absentee ballots when he knocked on their door.
“I think, like a lot of voters in battleground states, [Nevadans have] been inundated with, not just the actual candidates’ campaigns, but all the other organizations that are going out and working on behalf of their candidate, whether it be for President Bush or for Senator Kerry. So I felt badly for some of them when we were knocking on doors, for example. Oftentimes, there may have been someone just a couple of hours ahead of us who had knocked on the same door.”
Williams said he did advise people that if they voted early, it would knock them off some lists and reduce the number of people coming to their doors.
Narrowing the focus
Though ACT volunteers carry fact sheets about education, health care and the proposed storage of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, they’re no longer trying to convince people to vote for Kerry. Instead, ACT volunteers focus on getting out the Kerry vote. Debate isn’t recommended.
“At this point, persuading is out,” Fitzgerald reminds everyone. “To put it bluntly, you’re wasting your time—and theirs.”
Brad Dowden, snowy hair pushed back under a ball cap, practices with his Palm Pilot. The couple arrived in Reno Friday and checked into a hotel-casino, where Brad won $40 playing keno. He’d considered playing some Texas Hold ’em, as well, but chose instead to get a good night’s sleep.
A car with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers drives into the parking area, then slowly drives away.
“It’s the enemy, everyone,” says ACT volunteer coordinator Ed Cobbs, 28. “Everybody convert, convert.”
Cobbs says he’s seen a significant shift in Nevada’s political climate since 2000. When he tried to volunteer for the Gore campaign, he couldn’t get Democrats to return calls.
“Now they call 50 times a day,” he says.
Democrats tend to enjoy talking about their democracy-to-go experiences, while GOP volunteers often say they’ve been instructed not to talk about them. The Post reported, “The pro-Bush effort is far more centralized, run out of the Republican National Committee, which refuses to release details and has instructed volunteers through a Web site to ‘have NO contact with the media.’ The Bush campaign Web site recruits volunteers, and the RNC is deploying them through its 72 Hour Task Force, assigning each person a state and district and paying plane fare, hotels and $25 a day in expenses.”
People behind the doors
Hellan Dowden says she enjoys walking neighborhoods to see how people live in the United States. She once met a young family with a hospital bed for an elderly family member in the middle of their small living room.
“It makes issues so much more real when you see this first-hand, not filtered through TV or newspapers,” she says. “That’s what democracy’s about.”
No one answers the first door the Dowdens knock on. The northwest Reno apartment complex is quiet.
“Let’s go see if we can find a live person,” Hellan Dowden says, placing a “Sorry we missed you” ACT door hanger on the knob.
The Dowdens have better luck at the next several houses.
“We’re here to help defeat Bush,” Hellan repeats at each door.
One senior citizen replies, “He’s already defeated here.”
“This is so nice," she says. "What a great system."