Official election returns start coming in within a few hours. Whatever happens, I have learned some things about the power and potential of American democracy by investing three to four hours daily for three weeks in being part of a phone bank for the Beto O’Rourke Senate campaign — the first time I have done this for anyone.
The first lessons came from people in the office where there was a “texting team central” on one side of the room and phone-bank tables on the other. Nothing fancy. Classic folding tables, folding chairs for the most part, some old donated couches and, one day while I was there, a “new” old rug brought in to cover the area under the phone-banking tables. Also, refrigerator, coffee pot, microwave and snack table, always with food on it, nicely managed by a hospitality team.
The Beto people were impressive. The room was mostly young people — millennials and people in their 30s. There was also a fair number of we retired folks doing the phone-banking, along with students, moms, dads, Spanish speakers and a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
The tone in the room was always positive. No one spent time grouching about the latest in the headlines. No one fretted out loud about some swing in a poll one direction or another. No one spent time bad-mouthing Republicans. Rather, it was: “We have work to do. Thank you for coming. Let me give you a short tutorial on how the system works. Practice a role play. Then get to work. If you have a question or a problem, just ask.”
Because the texting team was mostly staring quietly into their computers and working away, we could all hear one another’s phone calls, at least what the volunteers were saying. So you quickly got an idea of what we were all learning. I was humbled by a couple of people in the texting team who came up to me over three weeks and said, “I love listening to your calls!”
The first real lesson involved the remarkable number of people who answered the phone, somewhat suspiciously at first, a habit learned from wondering why they were even being asked and just who was calling. Sometimes, there was no one there by name, but once I identified myself as a Beto volunteer, the tone changed one of two ways. “Oh, yes!” “We are supporting Beto” or “We have already voted.” The other was mostly a polite: “No, we are not interested. We vote straight Republican.” Or, “We are voting for Ted Cruz.”
Some would offer more. Some genuine back-and-forth conversations ensued.
And, yes, about a third of the time, people could see on their phones who was calling and immediately hung up. “Was it me?” No, more likely someone sick of being called by anyone or someone who was not a Beto supporter. Probably to their chagrin, we had to mark down “Call back” because we really did not know.
Sometimes the responses were pretty angry. Sometimes Cruz supporters used the call to rattle off a list of faults about Democrats. Sometimes it was because they had simply gotten too many calls, either from the Beto campaign or political campaigns in general. “Take me off the list!” “I am sorry, but I cannot take you off the list we got from the state government of registered voters, but I can indicate that you are requesting not to be called.”
When they were Beto supporters, the tone often became one of appreciation. “Thank you for your work.” “Don’t worry, my whole family is voting for Beto.” The latter were often people with last names that sounded Latino, though not always. Or, “It’s kind of hard to be a Beto supporter in my family or in my town, but I am.” Probably the funniest calls were when I ended up talking with another phone banker or, on Election Day, someone running a Beto pop-up office in Houston.
Our calls went out all over the state. I talked with students in their teens and with one woman who was 102. We talked with early-voting proponents but also others who said, “I am waiting till Election Day because that is when I get to see my friends.” Sometimes we had to apologize for not speaking Spanish, then noted in the program that a Spanish-speaking caller was needed. I only talked with two people who said, “I try to stay away from dirty politics as much as possible. I don’t vote.” (Still, they were registered). And when we could provide help, such as the address of the polling place nearest them or a possible way to get a ride, you felt like you were putting democracy into action.
Granted, this wasn’t knocking on doors but it was talking with real people, not just a stream of Facebook memes. It was also a lesson in the diversity of Texas as well as in the capacity of people from many diverse backgrounds to come together in a common cause. People felt compelled and even “called” to be involved. You could sense it.
I assume some people who made calls for Sen. Cruz felt some of the same and perhaps have similar observations. Thus whatever happens this Election Day, this lesson in democracy gives me hope. If we could ignore the negative ads, lower the voices of the extremes and dilute the corporate pockets that think corporations are also individual citizens, then we’d be back to responsible use of our freedom to speak in the public square — and back to a more deeply unified commitment to making the right to vote, and the right to be involved, a true cornerstone of American democracy.
I went in today for a shift. Left after an hour. Everyone I talked to had already voted. I wonder what is going to happen tonight.