Teaching At The Grass Roots: Registering Voters in North Carolina

September 26, 2012, 3:40 pm

Our southern correspondent, who some of you may know from my comments section as Urban Exile, (and others may know better as my sister) has volunteered to register voters in the state of North Carolina. We hear a lot from the national campaigns, but what’s happening on the ground, as campaign workers try to persuade citizens to act on their Constitutional right to choose a President in 2012? I set myself to finding out in an e-interview.

I want to start with a few questions that will help my readers know more about you. What do you do for a living?

I am a former professional musician, but I’ve worked for many years as a Spanish language coach and translator which is what I do now full-time. I have a husband and a dog, and I live in Durham North Carolina. I had lived in New York City for my entire adult life until a year ago.

Do you have a background in politics or organizing? Do you have any special skills?

I have never been involved in political organizing before except for a bit of phone banking in the President’s first campaign. I registered to vote as soon as I turned 18, and have voted straight Democratic tickets ever since, including for Jimmy Carter’s second term, which he lost badly and about which I was deeply disappointed. I grew up in a politically progressive family in a well-heeled Republican enclave in suburban PA.

As far as special skills: well, I ran a Latin American community center in New York City for 11 years, which was serious grassroots community work. So I’m an effective administrator and outreach person, Spanish-English bilingual, a translator, and an effective teacher and communicator. I’m fairly tech-savvy, too, and I love chatting people up because I’m actually interested in their stories.

Why did you decide to get involved with voter registration in North Carolina?

Great question. I’ve actually had to think about this one! Why now? Why me? I mean, for the first time in 52 years of life, I’m “all in” in a political campaign.

For one, my personal life is stable enough to allow me to do this work now. Secondly, North Carolina is a swing state with a lot of traditional right wing conservatives, so I’m inspired by the knowledge that what we do here will count on a national level. And finally I think that we’re really at a tipping point in this country where we are going to see massive damage done to our democracy if fair-minded progressives don’t put their time and talents where their Facebook posts are.

Here in North Carolina we are feeling a particular urgency. The vote was close in NC for the President last time, and now we have word that hoards of voter harassment squads from True the Vote are going to show up here in our state to intimidate voters. I mean, I live in the South now! So, even in this digital age, what we need most is boots on the ground and I’m just mad enough and scared enough to sign on for the job.

I’m interested in your observation that “my personal life is stable enough to allow me to do this work now.” That makes me want to ask whether a portion of Mitt Romney’s 47% in North Carolina might find it difficult to act on behalf of their own political interests for practical reasons that are not well understood by those of us outside the region. What do people say to you about why they are not registered and/or planning to vote, and what strategies do you use to get them to decide otherwise?

It should be clear to anyone that working out in the field is a key part of understanding what’s really going on politically, but you have no idea how key it is until you actually do it.

For me, “the field” has been a sloping asphalt parking lot in front of a typical low-income market called Los Primos Supermercado on East Main St. in Durham. From the riot bars on the windows, to the long lottery lines and the obvious physical struggles of the people going in and out of the place, you get plenty of clues as to why these people might find daily life challenging. But through conversations with them, I learned some surprising things.

Let me give you an idea: I have registered homeless veterans who thought they couldn’t register to vote because they believe the shelter where they’re living isn’t a “permanent address.” I’ve registered newly naturalized Latinos who thought they had to live here for two years before being able to register to vote. I’ve registered former felons who weren’t sure when they could vote again, if ever. The Jehovah’s Witnesses say it’s “against their religion” to vote, and then there’s the men who are so hopeless and embittered by life in general that they “don’t see the point.” The majority of these people face enormous and enduring material, emotional and intellectual challenges in their day-to-day lives. More women, I find, are registered than men. (Note:  According to a study done at the Center for American Women and Politics, among registered voters, women are more likely to vote than men.)

To register people, I’ve used my Spanish language skills and my knowledge of voting law. I offer facts, personal encouragement, and a quick course in civics. I explain why this election in particular is important, and sometimes I even carry groceries to the car or watch someone’s dog while they go in to shop. Often a person will agree to register if I will fill the form out for them because they find it intimidating. I’ve had to quickly evaluate their beliefs and challenges and talk with them in as direct a way as possible. And I have to teach, because if they don’t get why they’re registering, they will not return to cast a ballot!

When we were talking offline, you mentioned how young the Obama organizers are, and that it’s important to act on good ideas about how to get voters mobilized without waiting for someone to tell you what to do. You’ve just given some good examples of how that works on a personal basis (like helping people with their groceries). Are there other ideas you have had that may not be in the playbook?

Honestly, the playbook is pretty hard to find! I am told that training will get more detailed as early voting and Election Day get closer. At this point the main tasks are registering voters and finding places where we can set up staging areas. In general, Democratic Party organizers are often just feeling their way. Many of the “fellows” and the paid organizers are very young and from up North, or at least not from here. Their energy and dedication is fantastic, but sometimes they talk too fast and push too hard for Southern people, and they have to be gently reminded to slow down and listen more to the older African-American women who’ve been organizing here since the 60s.

Here’s an example of an inspiration I had on my own: I kept hearing that we were lacking in volunteers who were confident enough in Spanish to greet and register Hispanic citizens. So I created a bilingual script in Spanish and an accompanying YouTube lesson so that English-speaking volunteers across the state can practice basic phrases for this job. I’ve received positive feedback and folks are using it. By the way, the YouTube is available online for anyone who wants it. (It is embedded at the bottom of this post as well.)

Another thing I did was to create a cheat sheet of the Democratic and Republican platforms and the President’s main accomplishments so that I can quote them verbatim if asked. Having facts on hand to talk about is really important, because many potential voters have been deadened by the storm of conflicting “facts” on TV, and they need to hear about the President’s real accomplishments in an authoritative way from someone who’s not a talking head. I also created and copied cards for myself of all early voting locations and dates so that I can just hand them out to folks we’re registering to maximize chances they’ll show up. These are working people, and if they can’t get Election Day off, they may not vote at all.

It matters what you wear too. I sussed out for myself is that it’s best not to wear Obama-gear when registering people. I dress in slacks and a button down shirt so as to look respectful and I think I’m more effective that way. People without political experience can be confused by appearances. For example, I’ve been asked if registering Democratic means you can only vote for Democrats!

So I think that every political volunteer has to think of herself as a teacher and of the streets as her classroom. Be respectful, authoritative, helpful and knowledgeable. I think that we’ll do best if everybody ponders what special talents she possesses, what communities she is a part of, and how she can apply those things to the campaign.

Awesome – we’ll check in with you in a couple of weeks to see how you’re doing, ok?

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