A few weeks ago, I stood outside a small house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, inhaling the smell of freshly cut grass and straining to hear the sound of footsteps inside the house. I glanced down one more time at my canvassing list — Mary, registered Democrat, 87 years old — and thought for a split second about the candidate I was there to talk about, Maria Collett, who is running for Pennsylvania’s State Senate this year.
When the door opened, the person standing in front of me was not the little old lady I expected, but a young dad trailed by a dog and two curious kids. After we each introduced ourselves, Jeff told me that his family had just moved, and they didn’t know much about their local or state politics.
Perfect, I thought, because I’m here to tell you. I told him about, Maria, who has spent most of her career advocating for children as both a lawyer and a nurse, and her platform which is centered on affordable healthcare and investment in public education. When I started my spiel, Jeff seemed to be waiting for me to finish talking so he could get on with his day. But when I mentioned education, Jeff lit up. His wife was a teacher, and he’d seen her pay out of pocket for school supplies that her schools wouldn’t cover. And having recently moved to the state, he was shocked by how much the Pennsylvania government had slashed funding for his own kids’ schools — instead relying on ever-increasing property taxes to fund them.
I smiled, relieved. We’d made a connection, and he was on board with Maria’s proposals — so now it was time to move on to the nitty gritty of the voting process.
“First things first: is your registration up to date?” Since this man had moved here in the past two years, and someone else was registered at his address, there was a good chance that he would need to re-register.
He hadn’t changed it since he had moved, so I handed him a registration form and helped him navigate the questions. The next step: making a plan. Studies have shown that the process of making a plan to vote — visualizing when you’re going to go to your polling place, how you’ll get there, and what you’ll do before or afterward — is an effective way to make sure people actually follow through with their intention.
After we’d made a plan together, I handed him a voter registration form to give to his wife, and a few leaflets, thanked him for taking the time to speak with me, and headed to the next house.
Before I started working on political campaigns, most canvassing stories I heard sounded like the plots of Lifetime movies. Those stories aren’t fake — every once in a while you do stumble upon a magically inspiring voter. The immigrant-turned-citizen who went on to fight for our country in the armed forces. The young woman whose life was saved by CHIP, and then by Obamacare, who is now voting for the first time for the party that implemented these programs.
But what I’ve learned over time is that for every inspiring story, there are dozens more interactions like I had with Jeff. Most of those who come to the door are just ordinary people, like Jeff, who are fitting participating in a democracy into their busy lives. They know that an election is coming up, but they may not have had the time to learn about the candidates or register to vote. When you give them information, it's helpful in a straightforward way. You're not magically educating or empowering them. You're just helping them figure out the logistics of voting. I could have used a canvasser the election year I’d forgotten to change my registration — or the year I had a last-minute trip planned for primary day and couldn’t get an absentee ballot in time to vote.
So if these conversations are so mundane, why is everyone and their mother telling you to go out and knock on doors? Why is canvassing the most important thing you can do to save our democracy right now?
The dirty little secret is that our election system is designed to keep people from voting. Think about how many steps I had to go through to make sure that Jeff could exercise his right to vote. Because his state doesn’t automatically register folks to vote, he needed to register every time he moved. Because his state doesn’t have early voting, and because our country puts Election Day on a Tuesday and doesn’t make it a national holiday, he had to make a special plan to fit voting around getting his kids ready for school and going to work.
These challenges are often compounded for people of color. Dozens of states have implemented voter ID laws, with the full knowledge that Black and brown people are 2 to 3 times less likely to have a government-issued ID. And since the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, states have shut down over 800 polling places across the country — nearly all concentrated in counties that are heavily populated by people of color .
It’s no wonder that the U.S. ranks 31st out of 34 democracies in voter turnout — with 40% of eligible voters sitting out each presidential election and up to 70% sitting out the midterms. We brag about being the birthplace of modern democracy, but the reality is that we make it really hard to vote.
The problem of our undemocratic democracy is why my teammates and I started Flippable. Flippable’s mission is to flip state legislatures from red to blue. This means we support Democrats, but the reason we support them over Republicans is because Democratic candidates support voting rights and fair elections.
And we’re focused on state governments because your state legislators are the ones who largely make these decisions. The stakes of our work could not be higher — and the timing could not be more important. Not only do state legislators make critical decisions about nearly every issue that affects our lives, from reproductive healthcare to concealed carry in schools — but they determine who gets to vote, and when, and how.
With just two years left until 2020, the state legislators we elect this year will have enormous influence on the fairness — and, thus, the outcome — of our next Presidential elections. The candidates we’re backing support pro-democracy reforms like automatic voter registration, early voting, and felon voting rights restoration. They pledge to vote for fair district maps that give each person an equal voice and vote. They plan to strike down policies that require photo ID or purge voters from the rolls if they haven’t voted recently.
But to pass these laws, they first need to win, often in districts that have been drawn to give Democrats a disadvantage. So our candidates have to work extra hard to beat the odds, getting out the vote among busy working people, one door at a time.
Running at the state level, our candidates understand the power of a strong ground game better than anyone. Without the benefit of national name recognition or the budget to run hours of TV ads, Flippable’s state candidates, and our army of volunteers, spend every weekday afternoon and all weekend knocking on their neighbor’s doors. They explain why they’ve chosen to run or why they’re supporting our candidates, they discuss the policies they plan to change in Harrisburg and Raleigh and Tallahassee, and they give voters the tools they need to exercise their most fundamental right.
One day, we’ll have a chance to change the rules of our democracy — making voting easy, free, and equal. Until then, the best way to make a difference is one door at a time.