Okay democracy, I did my bit. Now it's your turn.

posted 05 February 2008

Let me tell you what it's like being an Obama "Precinct Captain", as I've been since early January.

You arrive for precinct captain training, which involves being told what things work and what things don't when talking to voters: essentially, saying how you feel and what inspires you works well; policy issues generally do not, since you can't know every policy and it's seldom that your personal areas of policy will overlap with those whom you talk to.

You're then given responsibility for a "precinct", essentially a group of 200-400 voters living in a single area. You're given the names and phone numbers -- via a pretty nifty web-based application -- of all the democratic or undecided voters in that area. Your job is then to call them all, one by one, and do "voter ID": simply asking if they intend to vote, and if so who for.

This turns out to be a lot of work. Of 400 registered voters, a good half will be numbers out of service, and of the remainder another half will have moved or refuse to take your call. However, you have to call all 400 numbers to find out which is which. Of the live voters you have left, there will be some (generally older folk) who refuse to say who they intend to vote for (although I don't understand why). Then there will be Hillary supporters, and at least to start with, Edwards supporters. At this stage you're not supposed to try to persuade anybody; just find the Obama supporters and move on quickly.

My own precinct was in the upper Mission district, close to downtown: there are a lot of by-the-week hotels and cheap apartment buildings around there, so the percentage of wrong numbers was way, way higher than usual. Of the remainder there were a lot of elderly people, who tend to lean towards Hillary, elderly Hispanic people in particular. Having a Trinidadian/British accent and calling elderly hispanic people on the phone is a trip, let me tell you. There was a lot of mutual incomprehension, eventually followed by loud cries of "CITIZEN!", "DEMOCRAT!" and almost inevitably "HILÁRE!". But other parts of town were solidly for Obama; it depended what precinct you got.

With my meagre supply of Obama supporters I then moved on to other things: turning up at the Obama HQ and volunteering. The Obama HQ in SF is hilarious. The main state HQ is in Oakland, just across the bridge, so the SF office was something of an afterthought, when it became obvious that there were a significantly above-average number of volunteers in SF itself. It's a hole-in-the wall on Market at Guerrero, and formerly the site of West Coast Growers, a medical marijuana co-operative. I'm not sure exactly what effect the residual THC might have had on the tenor of the Obama campaign and the calls made to voters from that office: "Hi, I'm calling from Obama for President and WHOA my hands are HUGE. It certainly smelled nice.

At HQ was Nick. Originally an Edwards supporter, I had won him over to Obama by appealing to his geeky side and listing out Obama's excellent technology policies. Once won over, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the campaign and completely outpaced me, working every evening and weekend, 14-hour days of making constant phonecalls, finding himself in charge of the front desk and generally being useful. He gave me spare lists of voters from other precincts to call.

Calling around SF is a bit of a minefield. Some areas people only speak Spanish, others only Mandarin or Cantonese. The Obama campaign has staffers who speak these languages, so if you get these people you mark them as such and somebody calls them in the right language. But finding out is a painful process of speaking very slowly and clearly until you get them to say what language it is they prefer (Spanish is easy to recognize, obviously, but can you tell the difference between a Mandarin and a Cantonese accent when the speaker is using English?).

On Saturday we stepped up from phonecalls to in-person canvassing, door to door. First there was a big rally at a school hall in the Mission, where I happened to meet a fellow Yahoo who had only just got involved, having been inspired by various speeches she'd caught on YouTube. We listened to John Kerry drone -- seriously, that man is dull -- in favour of Obama. He got caught up on the fact that people think Obama is too young, and his counter-point was apparently "hey, actually, Obama's pretty old! Older than JFK was! Older than Bill Clinton was!" This was a pretty weird point to make, since most of the crowd were pretty okay with him being young. But whatever.

Then it was off to a random block in San Francisco to knock on 100 doors and ask them to vote for Obama. This was much like phone banking -- mostly not home, and some Hillary supporters. However, it seems like people are much more receptive to supporting Obama when you ask them to do it in person. Or at least more polite about putting you down when they're for Hillary. Of course, it being San Francisco, it also meant climbing 45-degree hills for two hours, and literally hundreds of stairs up to each person's front door. I skipped my regular walk up Twin Peaks the next day, reasoning that I had easily climbed that much mountain already.

Instead on Sunday we did "visibility": literally, showing the public that there is support for a candidate. For us this meant grabbing some signs and a bowlful of Obama badges and heading to the nearest BART station, handing out flyers and talking to people. Opposite us was our first taste of the competition: a CRAZY enthusiastic Hillary supporter who had a roll of lapel stickers that she was literally slapping on to everyone and everything in sight, whether they wanted her to or not. We disapproved of her strategy, although we did have a very cordial chat with the woman herself. All the Hillary supporters I've met have said the same thing: they would be fine if the other guy won. I feel the same way. While I would prefer Obama to be in charge, and I think he has a better chance of winning over Republicans, Hillary would not be a disaster (and I would still really like to see them on a joint ticket, unlikely as that now is). We wrapped up Sunday evening by going all the way to San Jose to catch Michelle Obama speaking, and discovered another reason to like Obama: his impressively intelligent and forceful wife.

Finally last night we switched from Voter ID to GOTV, or Get Out The Vote. Now we call all the people who identified themselves as for Obama or leaning Obama and remind them where to vote, and where their polling place is. I woke up at 5am this morning to head out to the less-than-salubrious 6th street area around Market, putting door-hangers on people's apartment buildings telling them it was election day, with labels carefully applied indicating where their particular polling place was. 6th street has different polling places depending which side of the street you're on, which is a bit confusing especially if, since you live on 6th and Market, you are probably high on crack. I hope my crackheads stayed sober long enough to vote, although as somebody pointed out to me, allowing people to vote while high is why Dennis Kucinich still has a political career.

I wrapped up my morning's democracy-o-rama by heading to the busy intersection of Market and Castro and joining a crowd of 20 or so Obama supporters (and another 10 Hillary people) doing yet more visibility work. This time passers-by were a lot more actively involved, and it became a competition to see whose candidate could get more enthusiastic honking (although, since a car horn is something of a blunt instrument and the opposing supporters were often standing quite close together, the winnner was frequently unclear).

And that was my experience of American democracy. Hopefully all of my investment in time and energy has swung a few votes Obama's way, to make up for my own disenfranchisement (taxation without representation! oy!). So if you live in a Super Tuesday state: go vote now!