During my first election as a voter, I thought voting was enough.
I was proud of myself for little things: finding a notary, having a pen on hand, mailing my absentee ballot in on time. These things involved advance planning: phone calls, journeys across campus, freaking acquisition of stamps. Scrawling my signature on the back felt like I personally had just planted a small forest, ensuring hundreds of future generations a world of clean air and plentiful shade. “There!” I declared. “I have done my civic duty. Clearly this country is not going to be completely stupid, so we should be all set.”
Huddled in the campus center of our small liberal arts college, we watched in horror as the results came in.
When I was in junior high, I was terrified of the telephone. I would practice conversations out loud to myself before dialing any numbers. I drew web diagrams, with “hello” circled at the top and their potential responses branching out below, with written-out and rehearsed replies branching from these. “How’s it going?” they might ask. “Oh, I’m fine,” I wrote. “Oh, I’m fine,” I said aloud, at least three times.
In short, I was insane: but you could also say that I was cognizant of my weaknesses. And at least back then, I was making an effort to work around them.
We had driven to New Hampshire, picked up our packet full of names, political leanings, ages, genders, and instruction (“ask to volunteer!” “persuade!!”), and we’d chosen our first house, we were walking up to the door. I had the t-shirt. I had a pen. I was going to save this damn country from itself. I looked down at our list: Gloria Smith. Female, 46, undecided. I looked up at Gloria’s door and blinked.
“Uhhhhh . . . you want to go first?” I asked.
“You don’t want to start?”
“I’m just . . . nervous, at first,” I said. “I’ll get over it.”
What I meant was, I have always hated it when strangers knocked on our door. I have always hated feeling trespassed upon, barged into, and I have always hated surprise social interactions in which favors, money or opinions are being asked of me. And here I was, about to inflict all of these elements upon everyone involved. Aaaaand . . . go!
“Excuse me,” Jurvis said to a large, older woman leaning against a car in front of Gloria’s home. “Do you know where we could find a Gloria Smith?”
“She just went in the house,” she grunted, nodding at the side door. “Just wait a few minutes, she’ll be back.” She eyed us wearily. “You people were here last week, too, weren’t you?”
“Maybe,” I said.
A long, grey dashund drooped in her passenger front seat, drooling a nose across the windshield, his ears falling in folds at his sides. He opened a gigantic, sad mouth and began rasping: Bwof, bwof, bwof. We stood, awkwardly poised in Gloria’s front yard like strangers in an elevator, and stared at the door. Bwof, bwof, bwof.
“He has trouble with his voice,” the woman finally said. She looked at Jurvis. “And he hates men. Let me see what Gloria’s up to.”
She disappeared into the garage for a few minutes, then peaked her head out from the darkness, two wrinkled eyes squinting at us under a flimsy mop of white hair. “Gloria’s not coming out,” she screeched victoriously. “And they’re all republicans!”
Cue door slam.
“All right then,” Jurvis said, making marks in the proper columns. “Your turn.”
I looked down at the suggested script from our packet, and repeated it several times in my head. The majority of the script was in overly polished, rambling Home Shopping Network lingo and I vowed not to use it. I could just, um, improvise.
Aaaand . . . go!
“Hello, my name is Adrianne, and I’m volunteering today with the democratic campaign. Is X available?”
Somehow, I would mangle this sentence every time, telling people I was with the democratic committee, then throwing last names at them in a machine gun blast of options without context — and always, always pronouncing her name Janean Shaheeny. (In my defense, what the heck do I know of this woman? Vote Franken.)
I stammered, hemmed and hawed. I thought “why can’t I just write these people an email?”
The stats: 4 hours. 31 homes. 8 doors opened. 1 elderly couple who claimed to still be undecided: but they were more interested in small talk than the election. The woman was a retired school teacher, the man a WWII vet. He’d answered the door somewhat flummoxed by our appearance.
“We’re here with the Obama campaign, and we’re wondering if we can count on your vote next week.”
“I . . . oh I don’t . . . why don’t you come in,” he said. “I’ll show you to my wife. Doris can answer your questions.”
Doris sat quietly in the living room with excellent posture, gazing so unblinkingly into the distance that at first, I thought she was blind. We positioned ourselves across from her and she smiled. Soon we were talking about Cabot cheese and maple syrup, World War II, various neighborhoods in Connecticut and what the weather got like here in the winter. Her husband sat down in a rocking chair and kept his peace until Jurvis mentioned something about this being a major election.
“Ohhh!” he suddenly grumbled, “but that’s what they always say, you see. Every election, every time: some guy thinks he can make changes, and he’s full of promises, he’s going to do wonderful things: end the war, redistribute the wealth, fix our health care, lower taxes, on and on and on. Hah! Does it ever happen?” His wife shook her head, sadly. “No. They can never do what they say they will. They’re all full of promises, and then they don’t do any of it. What difference does it even make.”
I looked into his eyes. Now was the moment, my cue to begin a diatribe of why I’m voting who I’m voting for, why I’ve donated meager funds to this particular campaign and none other, why I will arrive home tonight and sign up to call volunteers in swing states from my cell phone, hanging up before the answering machine beep, leaving bewildering evidence on their caller IDs. But I don’t dare say anything to this man, because I am afraid history will prove him right.
Why I Am a Terrible Canvasser: If you answered the door, I did not want to take up more of your time than was absolutely necessary. I shrunk back from your screen and waited at the second step to your home, and then I asked you if you minded, if you had the time, to answer a few questions about your voting plans this election, or maybe if you were interested in volunteering with us later on. I felt terrible to be there. I’m sorry I was on your lawn. I’m sorry I stepped over your pumpkins. I’m sorry I rang your doorbell. I’m sorry I left four pamphlets bundled up jammed into your door frame like some kind of over-zealous take-out restaurant.
One woman said, “he’s home, but he doesn’t want to answer the door.”
I sighed in relief. “That’s okay!” I said. “I wouldn’t either.”
And then I felt treacherous and sorry for saying that, for being that canvasser who hates canvassers. I was on the wrong side, like a misogynist female or butcher cow. I realized that my anxious dread, my desire to leave people alone and get off their property, wasn’t convincing anyone. We turned and walked down the steps.
“Bless you,” she called, “for doing this.”
There are many things I’m doing this year that I’ve never done before. Watching the debates and generally following the election, for one. Donating time and money to the campaign I support, for another. Driving across states, knocking on strangers’ doors, calling strangers’ phones, wearing t-shirts and buttons and generally declaring to the world: this is what I’m doing. I think you should be doing it, too.
It’s the most I’ve ever done, and none of it ever seems like enough. Each time, I think “there, now I’ve done it: I can sleep well tonight.” Right now I could be driving back to New Hampshire, a wiser, more aggressive woman. I could leave tomorrow morning, fighting to the finish.
But I have convinced myself it is too late, that I have tried but am not good at this; and instead tonight I am hiding under the covers, waiting.