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October 21, 2004

The Hundredth Phone Call

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Seattle-based writer Paul Rogat Loeb has a fantastic email list where he publishes original articles about citizen activism.

He recently published "The Hundredth Phone Call." It's a passionate affirmation of the importance of every individual's grassroots action, and a great kick in the pants as we head into the closing days of the most important election... probably ever.

The entire article is well worth a read, but here are a few of the best bits:

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.

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 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.

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?

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.

If you're interested in getting Paul's occasional articles directly, please email sympa@onenw.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles

Posted by Jon Stahl on October 21, 2004 at 12:39 PM in Miscellany | Permalink

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