Why we do what we do

Below are some first-hand accounts from ACT NOW members and volunteers of their experiences activating voters and advocating at street level with the organization. Send us your stories at info@actnowny.org.

Betsy Malcolm

Right before the polls closed in Virginia on Tuesday, my friend Beth and I got a call to pick someone up from a polling place and give him a ride home. All we had was a phone number and it didn’t answer. I left a message and we started driving in his direction, worried that we wouldn’t find him and that it was getting cold. I was very happy when I got a call back. The man had started walking home along a highway, the only way back. He would wait for us at the 7-Eleven nearby.

I called him back 15 minutes later. We had gotten lost and hit traffic, and it was cold out. Instead of being annoyed he kept saying, “Thank you, ma’am. I’m so grateful you’re giving me a ride home.”

When we finally arrived, we saw him immediately: a nice-looking man standing outside in a jacket that couldn’t have kept him warm enough in the cold. “Thank you so much, ma’am, I really appreciate the ride.”

His address was a homeless shelter several miles down the highway.

He had walked to one polling place that morning only to be told that he was in the wrong place. No matter. He walked several miles away to the right one. In the cold. When we said that we applauded his determination all he said was, “Of course.” He would have moved heaven and earth to vote.

When we got to the homeless shelter he apologized that the rules wouldn’t permit him to invite us in, or even bring him to the front door. We said we understood and watched him walk off in the cold.

Andrew Solomon

On Election Day, I found myself in a line that would have been impressed a Soviet planner: two and a half hours to exercise my right to vote. I hadn’t voted early, as planned, and ended up stuck in a line when I needed to be helping to manage a phone bank in Brooklyn!

While in line, I struck up a conversation with Alicia, an avid supporter of President Obama who had been getting text messages from the campaign asking her to call voters. But she was stuck in line. Lo, I reached into my bag and, like some electoral Santa Claus, pulled out nearly limitless lists of Virginia Democratic voter phone numbers. Truly, we were the ones we had been waiting for.

So, we stood there, on a bright, cold November day, using our cell phones to call through lists of Virginia voters. Alicia, it turned out, was not only a lovely person, but had also been trained as a phone marketer. You could tell. She was superb.

I will never forget one call she made: it was to a man named Frederick in Fairfax, just outside of DC. Frederick was that rare creature sometimes observed in the wild — an undecided voter! Really. On Election Day. In fact, he was so ambivalent that he had decided not to vote at all. I had spoken with Frederick three days earlier, and he seemed completely unmoved. “Hopeless,” I thought. Not so. I listened to Alicia work a magic that was two parts empathy, one part determination, one part brazenness.

“I can see how you feel, Frederick. Yes, that’s how I felt, too.”

“I don’t believe you, Frederick. You say that you haven’t decided, but I think you have.”

“Are you going to throw away your voice? I know you are better than that, Frederick.”

Wow. Gutsy.

Within 10 minutes, Alicia had Frederick promising that he would vote, though it was unclear whom he would vote for. “Whatever you do,” Alicia said, “just vote. I don’t even care who you vote for.” When she hung up at 10 AM, she had a smile on her face. But I was unconvinced.

Later, with less than an hour before the polls closed in Virginia, I called him again. It rang three times, and then he answered. “Frederick, you spoke with Alicia earlier today. So, what happened?” “I voted,” he exclaimed. The pleasure of it was clear in his tone. “I did it. I really did. Thank you so much for calling me again. Thank you! Good luck to us.”

Thank you, Frederick.

Chris Asta

I spent the days just before the election with 42 other NYU Law students who had pushed through the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to get to Columbus, Ohio, to work a voter protection hotline. Fifty cell phones sat in a small room at a union hall in Columbus. Our job was to answer the phones and help the voters who called. Often voters simply wanted to know if they were registered, where they should go to vote, what time the polls were open. But others needed more help. Some had recently moved and because of Ohio’s antiquated election laws, this set into motion a labyrinthine process of how and where they could vote and with what sort of ballot they could use. When there was trouble at the polls – lines that were longer than they should have been, poll workers who were giving out misleading or incorrect information, voters who were being told they weren’t registered when in fact they were – we were the front line, making sure that each of these voters was given the opportunity to exercise their right to vote and ensuring that no one who reached out to us would be disenfranchised if we could help it.

The experience reinforced why I am a Democrat — and why I am excited for the day when I will be a Democrat with a law degree. This voter protection hotline was under the auspices of the Obama campaign. But our job wasn’t to make sure that only those Ohioans who wanted to vote for the President could vote and those who instead supported Governor Romney couldn’t. Our job was to enfranchise every voter who called in. We didn’t turn anyone away.

We did it under the Obama banner because the Democratic Party wants every American to vote. The Democratic Party understands that America is stronger when a diverse and comprehensive swath of the population makes their preferences known and helps define who our leaders will be and how they should lead us. We don’t cancel early voting days, we expand them. We don’t scare away voters with harsh ID laws, we give them rides to the polls. We don’t purge voters off the voting rolls, we do all we can to expand the number of individuals who can exercise their constitutional voting rights. The voter protection work we did during our time in Ohio was an integral part of that enfranchisement.

Ultimately, NYU Law students managed the brunt of the 50 voter protection phone lines that ultimately fielded over 25,000 phone calls during our four days in Ohio — 16,000 on Election Day alone. Each person we spoke with was someone we helped vote. Some surely would have managed without our help, but others would not have. We take great pride in the work we accomplished.

(An extended version of Chris’s thoughts was originally published in the NYU Law Blog)

Paul Weidner

On Friday, as planned, I went down to Chapel Hill. But we decided to bag Carolina (lost cause) and drove up to Virginia every day. If you check out a map of VA’s voting results, in the midst of a sea of baneful red all over downstate west, you’ll see a tiny dot of sweet, vibrant, throbbing blue: that is the town (I use the term loosely) of Danville, which we now know like the back of our hand – and which went for O! Most of it was good turf, lots of enthusiasm for our guy. And when Virginia went blue around midnight, there was a major shout of cheer from our gang.

Rebecca Schrag

Andrew W. and I walked across the lawn of the apartment complex in Easton, PA, wondering how we’d get in the locked front door in order to knock on the doors we had listed on our canvass sheets. Suddenly, two young children carrying laundry came into our view, and appeared to be headed exactly in our direction. “Hey guys!” I said cheerfully. “Awesome that you’re being so super helpful with the laundry! Do you know whether you’re parents have voted yet today?” The face of the boy – who was probably about 10 years old or so – visibly lit up.

“My mom really wants to vote,” he said enthusiastically. “But she doesn’t know where to go.” I looked at Andrew; was this kid a plant? People, let alone children, rarely voice their voting needs in such a clear way.

“Well, in that case,” I responded, “It’s a good thing we’re here. We can help out your mom if you take us to her.”

“Hooray!” The girl (presumably his little sister) exclaimed, jumping up and down, her long blond hair and laundry bag bouncing along with her. Andrew and I looked at each other again. Could this really be happening? Was a little girl who couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old really jumping for joy that we could help her mother vote? Had we died and gone to some land in which children are as passionate about their civic duty as they are about Disney princesses and video games?

The two kids (laundry in tow) led us up two flights of stairs, where their mother stood leaning in the open doorway. Inside, the TV was on, half-eaten breakfast was on the table, and there was the wreckage of at least 2 or 3 couch cushion forts strewn across the floor. Another small boy was clearly eagerly waiting for the return of his older companions.

“Mommy, Mommy!” Our guides shouted as we reached the top of the stairs. “These people can tell you where to VOTE!” The little boy, clearly excited about visitors, looked at us with wide eyes, then ran over to the table and held up a pack of mini-donuts: “Want one?” He asked.

“No, thanks,” I smiled, as Andrew began introducing us and our purpose. He had barely gotten through the words “Obama campaign,” when the older boy began cheering: “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” The little boy chimed in: “You know who I would vote for if I could vote?” He asked us.

“No, Sweetie – who?” We replied.

“Obama!!!” And with this, all three children began clapping and dancing (I repeat: CLAPPING and DANCING), that is, until the girl’s face adopted a somber expression.

“Do you know that Romney wants to end food stamps?” She asked, incredulously. “I mean,” she continued, “We really, really, really need our food stamps.”

At this point, the children’s mother quieted them down, and explained their situation. She and her children had been living on the New Jersey Coast; Sandy had destroyed their home just a little over a week earlier. She explained that their house had “moved a whole block inland – it’s now wedged between two other houses.” Her sister had offered to host them in her small apartment in Easton, and so this was their new temporary home, until things in their hometown were cleaned up a bit. “But,” this clearly exhausted mother concluded her tale, “Today is Election Day, and I really want to vote; I just don’t know where or how.”

Andrew and I got to work. We knew that Governor Cuomo had issued an edict in New York, saying that anyone could complete a provisional ballot at any polling site, given the havoc wreaked by Sandy. We didn’t know if Governor Christie had opted to do the same. We did some recon on our smartphones, then ultimately called my boyfriend – home working at his computer – who was able to pull up the front page of a New Jersey paper and see that, indeed, this mother would be able to vote at any polling site.

“Oh, that’s such good news!” She exhaled. “That means I can just drive over the bridge right here and vote there this afternoon. Thank you so much for your help.”

“Yes, thank you!” The kids – now in all different parts of the room – exclaimed.

Andrew and I walked down the stairs to ongoing chants of “O-ba-ma!”

“They were so nice,” Andrew said as we walked back across the lawn. “I mean, here they are, under so much stress, their lives basically in shambles, and yet they were still just so. . . nice.”

I nodded. “And she’s going to vote,” I added. “Because of us. That was definitely worth the price of admission.”