The Difference Door-Knocking Can Make

A dispatch from the get-out-the-vote trail in Reno, Nevada.


Taking shelter from the crisp wind blowing down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a steady stream of volunteers headed straight for the free coffee in the union hall at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525 building in Reno, Nev. last Saturday. It was 8:30 a.m., and we had eight hours of pavement pounding and door knocking ahead of us. Our goal: to get people out to the polls for early voting.

By 10 o’clock, nearly 400 volunteers had filled the union hall. We represented the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the National Association of Social Workers, the Service Employees International Union, America Votes, and America Coming Together. Some of us were young, working on our first presidential election campaign. Others were grizzled political veterans, with cars bedecked with bumper stickers from elections past, each with his or her pet issues and political passions. We’d come together, as thousands are doing across the country, to get out the vote.

As we found out four years ago, every vote really does count. That’s why I felt so empowered after realizing that I’d really made a difference to one particular voter.

Saturday and Sunday I went door to door, reminding folks that the polls were already open (in Nevada, early voting runs between Oct. 16 and 29) and that they could avoid long election-day lines and cast their ballot early. Many of the people I talked with had Kerry-Edwards signs in their lawns or bumper stickers on their cars. Most said of course they were going to vote this year.

With a list of registered voters in hand, I walked from house to house with a partner, knocking on doors. Late in the morning, we stepped up to a door hoping to talk with a 30-something Latina woman. A young boy answered the door and said his mom wasn’t home. Then a man came and stood behind the boy, looking at us with a kind, but blank look. My partner told the boy we were volunteers encouraging people to vote. He said he knew his mom was planning to vote early, before Nov. 2, at the library. The man asked the boy something in Spanish.

“Can my dad vote?” the boy asked us.
Employing ten years of Spanish study, I jumped in. I asked the boy’s father if he was a citizen.
“Yes.”
I asked him if he was registered to vote.
He’d registered before, but hadn’t re-registered this year.
Well, did you move? I asked.
“No,” he said, pulling out his wallet. He showed me his voter registration card.
There it was, valid.
“Si,” I said. Of course you can vote.
He was excited. I told him the polls were already open and would remain open until Nov. 2. I showed him the schedule and he said he’d go Monday.
With effort, my partner said, “Partido Democratico?”
“Si,” he answered. “Yes, for what’s his name—John Kerry.”

For another four hours, I knocked on doors. I talked with at least 60 people, most of them enthusiastically telling me they were going to vote for John Kerry. But when we pulled into the Plumbers and Pipefitters’ parking lot at the end of the day, it was that one Latino man that I remembered.

One of the Reno organizers, Morgan Gay, said several volunteers have told him similar stories. Gay, who works as an organizer with SEIU when it’s not election season, said of this election, “Many of them felt for the first time really invested.”

And by the looks of Nevada’s early voting numbers, it seems that investment is paying off. Although most national polls say Bush is likely to easily carry the state’s five electoral votes, the numbers in so far show a tighter race. In Reno’s Washoe County, 43 percent of the registered voters identify as Republicans and just 35 percent as Democrats. But of the 17,635 Washoe residents who had voted as of Tuesday night, Republicans outvoted Democrats by a mere 63 votes. By the end of the day Monday, Democrats had outvoted Republicans statewide by nearly 3,000 votes. So far, 230,360 people have cast their ballots in Nevada’s early voting.

After last weekend, I know door-knocking makes a difference. I know that at least one person in Washoe County, Nevada, who otherwise wouldn’t have was now going to cast a vote.