Dr. John, our local political scientist, has been telling me for months that, while it's difficult to get disenfranchised people to register, it's practically impossible to get them to the polls. His comments have infuriated me, and I've thought him defeatist. But after Nov. 2, I see he's correct.
I had put in a couple of days registering voters, first in a nearby housing project and then at a newly unionized workplace, and I thought the work was at least half finished. Then, I volunteered for a day to get out the vote in Mexico, Mo. A former industrial powerhouse, it's now a hard-hit community where the school system is the major employer and, in second place is a warehouse that ships out fancy Chinese-made tools for mail-order Brookstone.
In this peeling-paint and boarded-up community, the Democrats should be having a field day. Instead, it's a Republican stronghold. As you enter the burg, you pass the estate of four-term Sen. Kit Bond. It's a large, park-like acreage with iron gates.
The Democratic office was open only four hours a day, three days a week, and volunteers felt rebuffed rather than welcomed. Several of them ended up, like me, working with a 3-year-old nonpartisan organization called GRO, for Grass Roots Organizing, which works mostly in low-income housing.
GRO had registered 3,000 voters in three mid-Missouri towns, and our challenge for the day was to find them, see if they'd voted and give them rides. At our office in Mexico, there were 800 names in six precincts, and probably 45 volunteers. It was a blustery day. Under the guidance of organizer Daniel and team leader Tammy, my team worked the phones, walked the streets, hung reminders on door knobs in precincts one and two. We learned a lot.
First of all, we learned that people move. Frequently. Especially in this depressed economy, it was hard to find the people who had registered just a few months before.
Second of all, people have jobs or they're out looking for jobs. Exhausted when they come home, who can blame them for wanting to cook dinner, feed the kids, and go to bed.
Fourth of all, their basic needs aren't being met. Barbara Ehrenreich [author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America] was correct. They're ill, sleep-deprived, and, all too often, hungry. As the weather had just changed, they also were without warm clothing.
Third of all, people are afraid. If they've grown up with indifference, apathy, fear, it takes huge amounts of courage and independence to break the pattern.
This last lesson was the hardest for me. While registering voters, I met people with palpable fear. One young woman named Elaine, dragged to the table by her mother, was surprised at how easy the form was. She thought I was going to give her a test.
Then, on voting day, there were houses where people refused to come to the door. There were people who came to the door but refused to go to the polls even when we offered a ride. There were people who had transportation and were just about to go -- but never found the right moment.
It was very discouraging, but some wonderful things happened. For example, on the last call we made, we found that a first-time voter named Ashley had just gotten home from work when we arrived at the door. She had her card in hand and her dad was explaining how to get to the church where they voted. It was about a mile away, and she was going to walk. It was dark. She gratefully accepted a ride.
There were four in the car. Besides me and my friend, DeLisa, at the GRO office we had picked up 15-year-old Heather. When we arrived at the church and Ashley went in to vote, Heather chattered about how much she was looking forward to her first vote in four years. That car ride, and those moments, made the day worthwhile.
Now that the election is over, we need to think about the future. And I'm ready to concede that getting new voters to the polls is really hard. I talked to organizers in other Missouri communities and in Ohio. They've all said the same thing.
The successes come when the culture supports the experience. Elaine and Ashley had parents who believed that their votes mattered and who were willing to drag them to the registration table and direct them to the polls.
We need to be sure that, especially for the newly-registered, voting is more than a once-every-four-years experience. That means that we need to take local elections seriously. Need reinforcement for that? Take a look at the careers of the big four -- GW, Rummie, Ashcroft and Cheney. The next generation of thugs is winning elections in your state right now.
After we took Ashley home and dropped off Heather, we hooked up with Linda, a fourth-grade teacher. Linda had spent the day teaching her class about the electoral system. "They're like sponges," she said. Maybe by the time they vote -- eight years from now -- they'll be informed voters.
Linda's enthusiasm gave us courage and energy as we went door-to-door in apartment houses, then to the grocery store and filling stations asking people if they had voted. She was indefatigable. When the door to one apartment opened and the resident said, "Honey, I'm a felon," Linda looked past her and yelled at a man sleeping on the sofa, "Have you voted yet? Your vote counts!" He bolted past us, grabbed a bicycle, and pedaled off across the yard, yelling, "I'm going."
Call her crazy, but Linda's courage is what we need to get this system fixed.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.