Sunday, September 21, 2008

Canvassing my neighbors for peace

Yesterday I spent a few hours canvassing my neighborhood for the Million Doors for Peace. The project aimed to marry electoral technology and practices with peace activism to keep the issue of the ongoing war in Iraq on our easily distracted officeholders' minds.

One of the novel features of this electoral season is that cheap, easy manipulation of reasonably accurate lists of voters has finally come. For years, those of us who worked on field campaigns struggled with "those damn lists." The materials we got from voter registrars and vendors were inaccurate, expensive and difficult to print in forms that we could use. Volunteers spent endless hours inputting or correcting data that might, or might not, be used to turn out supporters in the election. It was all painfully cumbersome.

Nowadays, campaigns put voter lists online in easy-to-use database software. The Million Voices project aimed to recruit 25,000 volunteers who would each be assigned 40 new or infrequent voters who were their near neighbors to visit on Saturday. We could easily download our individual lists (based on our addresses) and print them. The instructions were online as well. All we had to do was go door and door and ask folks to sign a petition to our Congresspeople urging them to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq within one year. The rationale was simple and sensible:

Most Americans oppose the war in Iraq, but have never been directly invited to participate in an anti-war action. By engaging people where they live, neighbor-on-neighbor, Million Doors for Peace will elevate the debate over the war and its costs.

I can testify that online technology worked perfectly. I got my list with no problem and I uploaded my results with no problem. I don't know yet how many peace activists actually worked on this project, but I am willing to believe the Million Doors organizers that this was "the year's largest anti-war mobilization." I'll post an update when I get a report on how we did.
So what was it like going door to door for peace? I've separated my report from the foregoing as I think my experience was profoundly idiosyncratic, a product of the wonderful but difficult San Francisco Mission neighborhood where I live.

It didn't take me long to hit every address I was assigned. Every one of them was within a long block of my house. You see, I live in a very dense, very transient pocket of the Mission. As many as six of these "new or infrequent" voters were behind the same door. Or rather, as I quickly discovered, may have lived there at some time.

"Daisy? ... oh yes, I think she lived here a couple of years ago.

Maria? Well we get mail in that name sometimes...but we have no idea who she is..

A large chunk of my voters were long gone.

The neighborhood was already well draped with candidate literature. We have a hot contest for who will be the next supervisor for District 9. I assured everyone I talked with that I wasn't representing any candidate.

But mostly, the doors near my house look like this: fenced off by a metal gate with three broken doorbells and no name plates. I was unable to reach 6 theoretical "voters" there.

Though this is described as a Latino neighborhood, and it is, most of the people on my list were probably young whites who had moved on, judging by the people I did meet at those addresses.

So my results were pretty puny. Two folks agreed to sign the petition; I verified that about 10 were no longer here; and the rest were unreachable by me in one days work. That would be terrible results in an electoral canvass. It is a rule of thumb that a canvasser in a suburb can reach about 14 people an hour and it has been true in my experience. But not here, not in the Mission.

My most interesting encounter was probably with the woman who wouldn't sign the petition because she unapologetically approves of the war. We sure don't have a lot of those around here. I guess gentrification is coming ...


Naomi said...

Thank you for doing this for all of us, Jan. Surprised not to have encounterd any one in my neighborhood doing likewise since there are so many connected with United for Peace and Justice in New York.

Many Obama supporters have bussed to Pennsylvania to knock on doors, promote voter registration, so think that's where much of the energy has gone. However, it does seem too easy for forgetfulness about the war in Iraq.

Border Explorer said...

Hi Jan, I'm a new reader and I can't remember how I found you. This post particularly drew me because I live in an inner urban neighborhood, too. I was unable to help with the Million Door effort, but I've decided to try to register homeless voters.

I really like your blog for it's social consciousness. I noticed the WMG ring on your sidebar and joined the group. Thanks for your work here & I look forward to regular visits.

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