They were so right. I put in a couple decades working on elections when organizing a canvass meant dividing up reams of paper, training people to mark their paper lists carefully, recapturing all that paper from volunteers, and setting up the grubby, smeared returns for attempted bar code scanning if not manual transcription. Today's VAN (Voter Action Network) database coupled with the MiniVAN canvassing app for phones and tablets has completely changed the door knocking experience, entirely for the better.
And yet, and yet -- the dirty secret of the volunteer operation I worked in last fall was that fully one third of the results that came back with earnest, eager canvassers were so tangled or incomplete that they did not provide useful information about interactions with voters.
Volunteers had to learn three operations to use the MiniVAN.
- 1) They had to sign into the program and download the list (turf) they were assigned to work on. This was a purely rote activity: there was only one right sequence of necessary actions and once we learned how to limit volunteers' access to any byways that would get them off course, they could usually accomplish this, at least once. (They had to learn the sequence just in case the app tossed them out once they were in the field -- a rare but not unheard of glitch.)
- 2) They had to record each actual attempt to reach a targeted voter at a door by marking "not home" (the most frequent result), "deceased," "moved," etc.
- 3) If they actually contacted the targeted (listed) voter, they had to mark whether the person supported our candidate strongly, less strongly, was undecided, or was for her opponent. This was the core information the canvass was seeking; the campaign aimed make sure supporters voted.
The most common reason that volunteers' data came back as gibberish was that they failed to perform either step 2) above (not recording attempted door knocks including failed ones) or step 3) above (having conversations but not recording the preference the voter revealed.) Day after day, a considerable fraction of well meaning volunteers would come back, try to tally up their results, and either give up or realize something was very wrong and try to reconstruct what had happened, not very accurately.
I believe the prime responsibility of a volunteer program on a campaign is not to waste volunteer's time. And after all, we did actually want the informative data that volunteers might be able to develop through all this walking about. You can win elections by using good data. We tore our hair, tweaked the training, tried different ways to emphasize what operations were involved -- and never really overcame whatever was keeping so many of our folks from succeeding with the MiniVAN. They were endlessly willing and not at all dumb, but we couldn't make the system work better for them or for the campaign.
This rings so true to me based on my experience with getting volunteers up to speed on the MiniVAN. We were trying to make a pretty simple technology work in tandem with what are complex human interactions when door knocking results in conversations that persuade. Maybe (some) people have great difficulty switching back and forth between the necessarily routinized task of recording a limited range of information and the demanding art of talking with human beings. Those people would be the ones who we never seemed to be able to help get the technology to work.
And soon enough, perhaps both the apps and the humans will be changed enough by our ongoing interplay in all of contemporary life so that the particular difficulties of 2018 will become quaint. Like Gawande, I don't know if that evolution will make us zombies or superhumans. Guess we'll have to wait and see to find out.