We never quite know when that last bit of effort will make the difference. On the eve of the 2000 election, I distributed door-hangers for a closely fought US Senate race in Washington State. I walked four precincts, and by the four hundredth house, was cold, tired, and thought of quitting. Climbing stair after stair on block after block, I kept hearing the classic Nirvana line, "Grandma take me home." But there were more houses to visit, more materials to give out, more people to talk with, when they were in. So I continued till the end, though my voice was already raw from spending every night the previous week calling endless phone lists to recruit more volunteers. On Election Day, there were 15,000-20,000 of us statewide, holding up signs during morning rush hour, calling and recalling voters who hadn't cast their ballots, watching the polls to check off who had voted. As a result of everything we did, and all our previous efforts, not only did Al Gore carry the state by an ample margin, but after a recount, Democrat Maria Cantwell defeated hard-right Republican Senator Slade Gorton by 2,229 votes out of more than 2.5 million cast. If each volunteer accounted for just a fraction of a vote, our actions changed the outcome.
It's easy to think of our individual efforts as so insignificant and inconsequential that they're hardly worth the effort. But when enough of us act in small ways, our combined impact can change history. That's true even when our actions seem mundane and prosaic, yielding minuscule fruits for the labor we put in. We can spend an entire day calling voters, distributing literature, knocking on doors, and signing people up for rides to the polls-and produce only a handful of additional votes. Yet if 15,000 others do the same, or 50,000, or several million, working all across America, our impact can be literally world changing. That was true last election, where a hundred additional volunteers could have swung Florida even with all the Republican machinations. It's never been more true than in this neck-and-neck race.
We've done part of the key work already. Grassroots canvassers have registered record-breaking numbers of likely Democratic voters, particularly in key battleground states. Americans Coming Together (ACT), which has coordinated many of the progressive efforts, together with MoveOn, expects to end up with 2.5 million new voters. Rock the Vote, less partisan, has registered close to a million young voters. The League of Independent Voters has been registering young voters at bars and clubs-then going back again with guides to an entire slate of progressive local and national candidates. A Cleveland professor had her students register voters at a jail where people were awaiting trial, working with a local prisoner's rights group that registered 700 new voters. In Miami, the League of Independent Voters put out a CD with songs about the issues by local hip-hop artists and placed their local and national endorsements inside. It's been decades since so many people involved themselves in progressive electoral activism.
But the Republicans are also registering voters, particularly through fundamentalist churches. They're organized, well-funded, and have skillfully cultivated a politics of backlash and fear. Combining both parties, a million new voters have registered in Florida alone. Since new registrants traditionally turn out far less often than those for whom voting is routine, how many and which voters show up will depend on what the rest of us do, from now through the election.
We can never predict the precise impact of these actions. A few years ago, a young environmental activist registered 300 voters at her Connecticut college, then saw her congressman win by 27 votes. Before she began, she so doubted her efforts would make a difference that she almost didn't try. My model for an engaged volunteer effort comes from 1992, the last time we ended the reign of a Bush. On that Election Day, I joined five other volunteers helping get out the vote in a precinct 25 miles south of my Seattle home, in a suburban swing district that also affected a key congressional race. Thanks to roughly 50,000 volunteers, we had a similar presence in nearly every remotely Democratic area of the state. Our efforts turned out enough supporters that we not only helped carry Washington for Clinton and Gore, but also elected our first woman senator, captured eight out of nine House seats for the Democrats, and elected a strong populist governor.
Yet two years later, 1994, Washington state's volunteers stayed home, as did their counterparts nationwide. There weren't enough to canvass even the most liberal precincts in the heart of Seattle. Dismal voter turnout allowed Republicans to recapture all but two of nine Congressional seats, elect a regressive Republican to the Senate, and make Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House. The same thing happened in 2002. Grassroots support melted away in the face of anger at Democratic capitulation on Iraq, and Republicans won race after race by the narrowest of margins. Had those voters who'd turned out the previous election just participated, surveys in both cases suggested the results would have been reversed.
For the moment, enough of us are united enough against Bush's destructive arrogance that we'll have decent numbers of volunteers. And most of us will recognize that just as when French voters united behind conservative Jacques Chirac to reject the threat of the ulra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, this is no time for above-it-all purism, like voting for Ralph Nader. But do we recognize how much our individual electoral actions can matter when they're sufficiently multiplied? What would happen if every environmentalist or union member, every MoveOn member, everyone who feels that Bush has led this country down destructive paths, worked in some way to get out the vote? Or worked with groups like the Election Protection Coalition to ensure that every eligible voter gets the chance to vote and that every vote is counted. It's easier if we live in a swing state, or can travel to one-we simply sign up with ACT or the local Democratic Party and plug in wherever most useful. But even if we don't, we can still contribute money for critical field efforts, and once we've done that, and then join phone banks being run by MoveOnPAC and ACT, calling swing state voters to help convince them to turn out.
Most of us reading this essay will vote. And maybe our friends will as well. But in a politically divided nation, victory will go to the side that turns out the greatest numbers of their most marginal supporters, including those who doubt their vote will matter. Particularly when reaching out to those poorer and more transient constituencies that traditionally vote half as often or less than the wealthier ones, getting people to polls isn't something that can't be done by just running more ads. We have to make the phone calls, knock on the doors, and keep track of who has voted so we can remind people as many times as necessary that their vote could make the key difference. This election will be won with presence and persistence.
Though we know this abstractly, what would happen if we recognized that our actions matter precisely because we're joined by so many others? Our efforts could make that recognition a reality. We've anguished for four years over this administration's destructive actions. Now it's time to act.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, just published by Basic Books. See www.theimpossible.org
© 2004 Working For Change