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Inside the Wisconsin Recall's Massive Get-Out-the-Vote Machine

Tuesday's recall elections will determine whether Democrats can take back the state Senate and block GOP Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union agenda. GOTV will determine who wins.

| Tue Aug. 9, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Crumpled campaign flyers and potato chip bags litter the lawns on West Glenbrook Road, a quiet street in what locals call Milwaukee's "Far North Side." Austin Thompson, a lanky 24-year-old with a scruffy beard and hip eyeglasses, knows the area well. An organizer for Wisconsin Jobs Now, a nonpartisan coalition of unions and faith and community groups, Thompson has spent months here knocking on doors—talking jobs, health care, and the impact of Gov. Scott Walker's policies while urging the residents of this overwhelmingly black neighborhood to vote in Tuesday's recall election.

On a cool Sunday afternoon, Thompson sits in the living room of a woman on his contact list named Macy. Except Macy's not dressed, she yells from the kitchen, and so Thompson strikes up a conversation with Macy's daughter Dana, who admits she hasn't followed the recall elections. Thompson's pitch takes a local flavor, mentioning cuts to the city's bus service and the $800 million Walker slashed in school funding. "What do you think about that?" he asks.

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"It's horrible. But what am I supposed to do about it?"

"What are you willing to do about it?"

Dana thinks about it, then says she's not registered to vote. Thompson grabs a form from the stack he carries and explains the ins and outs of registering on election day—what to bring, where to go. He never mentions either of the recall candidates in Dana's district, GOP Sen. Alberta Darling and Democratic Rep. Sandy Pasch, stressing only the importance of voting and urging friends to do the same. "This election could come down to five votes," he tells her. "That could be you."

Thompson is just one man in an army of volunteers and organizers here in Wisconsin banging on doors, handing out campaign flyers, calling potential voters, and drumming up support in one of the biggest get-out-the-vote drives in recent memory. Officials with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW), labor unions, and other left-leaning groups say they never anticipated such an outpouring of energy in an off-year election, in the dead of summer, and in mostly Republican-leaning districts. "We haven't hit our volunteer numbers like this since the Obama campaign in 2008," says Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

The numbers tell the story. This past weekend, 8,234 people volunteered for the state Democratic Party to support the Democratic challengers in Tuesday's recalls. Volunteers made contact with nearly 785,000 voters last weekend alone, according to the Dems' estimates. All told, the party says total voter contacts have surpassed 2 million. We Are Wisconsin, the coalition of labor unions that's been a powerful force in the recalls, said it knocked on nearly 200,000 doors over the weekend—40 doors a minute statewide—and deployed hundreds of volunteers. "To have mobilized so many ordinary citizens, many of whom have never been involved in politics, to stand up and take their government back from Scott Walker and his enablers in attacking Wisconsin's working families is nothing short of astounding," says Kelly Steele, a We Are Wisconsin spokesman.

"Scott Walker Doesn't Want You to Be Doing This"

On Monday evening, the Laborers' 464 union hall, tucked behind a Chinese buffet on the outskirts of Madison, buzzes with the sound of two-dozen volunteers calling prospective voters, a din punctuated by the ding of a bell announcing another vote for a Democratic candidate.

The state Democratic Party moved its phone bank operation to the union hall over the weekend after outgrowing the party's downtown offices. But even the hall proved not quite big enough: Over the weekend, volunteer training was moved to the parking lot, Dem officials say, after indoor space ran out. The hall is awash in color, with phone bank volunteers huddling behind bright pink slices of foam board that have been folded into personal dividers to dampen the noise. "We Are Wisconsin" and anti-Walker signs are taped inside the dividers like stickers on a school locker, and a handwritten message scrawled inside one foam board reads, "Scott Walker Doesn't Want You to Be Doing This."

From here, volunteers call voters in most districts at stake in Tuesday's election. They man the phones in three-hour shifts, though some opt to stay for six hours or more, says John Magnino, a DPW volunteer who was training newcomers. "Some people just want to be here for as long as they can," he says.

Volunteer Kathy Fullin, 62, is making calls on behalf of Democrat Nancy Nusbaum, who is challenging GOP Sen. Robert Cowles in the Green Bay area. Fullin says she was surprised to hear pundits predict an easy win for Cowles given the positive feedback she'd gotten from potential voters in Cowles' district.

Looking around the room, Fullin says her reason for volunteering three hours on a rainy weekday night isn't all that different from the other volunteers'. It grew, she insists, out of concern that the state that pioneered unemployment insurance, public-sector unions, and workers' compensation was veering in the wrong direction. "We were always a state with a strong tradition of trying to help everyday workers, and of good government that's open to the people," she says. "And now the people are coming here to do this because of this attack on middle-class workers and, really, on the middle class in Wisconsin."

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