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What I Learned from Working 13 Hours on Election Day at the Democratic Party Headquarters

There was a moment when I was on the phone with the League for the Blind and Disabled, one of the many calls I made trying to find a ride to the polls for a disabled voter after learning that the van we thought had a power-wheelchair lift did not in fact have a power-wheelchair lift. I was waiting on the phone line, and I remembered the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which is of course a parable about sinners but in that moment for me was a parable about diligence.

And I laughed, because I thought how a hater could see the work to get every voter to the polls as self-interested—like hucksterism rather the diligence of that shepherd. And it’s true—anyone who calls the Democratic Party headquarters to ask for a ride to the polls is likely to vote for Democratic candidates . .  . but that was the farthest thing from my mind.

We had a team of seven people off and on throughout the day organizing rides for voters and answering questions from voters who called in. The amazing volunteer drivers—including the strong and steady guy who was able to help that incredibly motivated voter to make it from his home to the car to the polling place and back without his wheelchair, with his arm in a sling, using only his walker and the driver’s arm—were always ready, and some went into the phone-bank room to call people while waiting for the chance to give a ride to a voter.

The weird thing is that I wasn’t thinking about the outcome at all. At the end of the day, when I was bidding farewell to the 75-year-old powerhouse in charge of assigning Democratic poll workers—who had been up calling people until 11 pm the night before, was already at headquarters when I arrived at 5 am, and left at 6 pm, only a few minutes before I did—I saluted him and said, “It was a pleasure working with you today . . . like in Titanic, where the musicians play while the boat is sinking and then salute each other . . . but I hope this has a better outcome!” (5:13 in this video)

For Indiana, there wasn’t a better outcome. True, it would be worse to literally be at the bottom of the actual ocean, but as election nights go, it was pretty awful for Indiana Democrats. At the results watch party, the party chair mentioned the people who will become disillusioned because of last night’s losses and will stop participating in the Democratic Party. That will happen—she’s right. After she went to talk to someone else, I continued the conversation with the group by saying “The Democrats need to be more like Cubs fans!”

But I don’t think that’s quite it, because what we need, not just for the Democratic Party, but for the future of democracy in America, is less spectating and more involvement. I wrote about Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone in one of my first blog posts in 2016, back when I was one of the horrified liberals who showed up in droves to Democratic Party meetings all across the country, before I became one of the disillusioned ones who dropped out of Democratic Party activities in the summer of 2017, and before I returned in summer 2018, motivated primarily by a desire not to wake up this morning feeling as shitty as I did the morning of November 9, 2016. It’s still true—to the extent that fewer people now participate in our democracy, our democracy is weaker. In 2016, about 55 percent of eligible voters in Allen County, Indiana, cast a ballot (~150,000 out of ~275,000). Yesterday, it was about 45 percent (~125,000), and four years ago, it was about 27 percent (~75,000 votes cast). These aren’t the numbers of a thriving democracy; the percentage of the voting-age population who voted hasn’t been above 60 percent since 1968.

Yesterday, we gave rides to the polls to a little over one hundred voters, and we answered questions for some uncounted number of other voters who called needing help. None of the races that Democrats lost yesterday was lost by one hundred or fewer votes. In terms of outcomes, then, none of those votes “made a difference.” In terms of process, though, it was important—it was what Buddhists would call “practice,” meaning not practicing to get better at something or practice to prepare for something more important in the future—rather, practice as a process and way of being. The practice of democracy means that we behave as though every vote is important, because we believe that every vote is important.

Declining participation in the activities of democracy indicates declining faith in the ideals of democracy, and the Republicans who want to suppress as many votes as possible in, say, North Dakota and Georgia; who want to dilute as many votes as possible by gerrymandering; and who actually want to legislate Democratic power out of existence in North Carolina are not practicing any form of democracy that I learned about in school.

As with any faith tradition, though, the way to grow in faith is to practice—“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV)—and the ability to participate as a Democrat in Indiana, which last night was a redder state even than my home state of Kansas, stems from faith in the goodness and rightness of democracy.

How can we strengthen the faith that democracy is the most just form of government? Only through practice. How can we get more people to practice democracy before November 3, 2020? I don’t know. For myself, I’m going to work on turning the paper forms people submitted this year asking for a ride into a spreadsheet, so that in 2020, we can be more proactive in calling potential ride-needers and more organized in bundling riders to the same polling place with a single driver. I’d like to also think about dividing the city up into areas and dispatching drivers from their homes instead of headquarters. What are you going to do?

 

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