As of today there are 27 days until the presidential election. Last weekend, I spent my time getting out the vote in Philly for Hillary. An eye opening experience, we registered voters despite their political affiliation. I’m writing because I want to express what I experienced.
“Get Out the Vote” is an age-old tactic for civic engagement, but it first gained widespread success for electing Obama in 2008. I do not want to disguise the fact that Democratic GOTV targets minorities and people who live in low-income areas. These are often people who are concerned with more immediate needs, like making ends meet, rather than exiting work to head to the polls. These are also people that society tends to turn a blind eye to and ignore.
Today—Tuesday Oct 11—marks the last day that people can register to vote in Pennsylvania. According to an email from organizers, over the weekend volunteers had knocked on over 20,000 doors and registered nearly 500 voters for the first time. We felt a sense of urgency. And this, mind you, was before we knew about the release of the Donald’s “lewd tape.”
After carpooling from Washington to Philly, I was accustomed to my GOTV squad: a healthcare lawyer, environmentalist, and international economist who speaks Russian. I spent most my day with the economist, an enthusiastic woman named Karrye (with a K and a “y-e”). Here we were, privilege in box. Out to do what we thought, at least, was work for the greater good.
Karrye was meticulous and determined to knock on every door. I’m not sure if I would have learned so much without her. Karrye is also a woman of color and older than I; her “older sister” presence inoculated my anxieties of banging on people’s doors, asking if they were registered to vote, and sometimes entering their homes. She was essential.
Overall people were incredibly receptive. We came to find that this wasn’t the first time Philadelphians were asked to register (studies show that correspondence of 3 times ensures that people will go to the polls). They were patient with us nonetheless.
Our GOTV “turf” began on East Chelten Avenue. Home to a Jamaican restaurant, many people had outdoor meat smokers on their front porches. As BBQ smoke billowed from a smokestack and rain drizzled on damp fall leaves, we approached our first household.
A woman answered. She had a bright smile, bedazzled nails, and many tattoos. Although she was not registered to vote she said with urgency, “This is a very important election.” Power of attorney for her husband who was bedridden upstairs, she filled out his paperwork too. Seemingly the support center of her entire household, she pointed to the toddler on the floor and said, “That’s my granddaughter.” Her daughter, who was not yet able to vote at age 17, walked in shortly after. As we left with two voter registration envelopes in our hands, I was in awe of this woman’s obvious strength…what she must mean to her children, grandchild, husband, and community.
We kept walking. Some denizens refused to open the door, peaked through blinds, ignored our presence, or just plain opted out. As we turned a corner I saw shoes hanging from a power line.
Karrye said, “You know what that means don’t you?”
“Someone’s died?” I said.
“That there’s drug dealing.” said Karrye swiftly. In retrospect, I think Karrye and I were both right.
Row houses in Philly are often tight knit and have 45 degree angled porches, each with at least 10 steps. As we hiked up our next household and knocked, a woman came to the door.
“Hello there, we’re from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and we’re here to register voters. Are you registered to vote?” asked Karrye.
The matron said, “Yes, of course.”
Karrye went through a list of 5 people who lived there. “How about Joseph, is he registered?” she asked.
“That’s my son.” She said solemnly. “He died. He was 25.” Karrye quickly–and insensitively–wrote “D-E-C” for deceased on the canvass, in plain sight of the mother. I could see that the reality of this wound was incredibly recent. Her eyes welled with tears. We said sorry for her loss, but I experienced a brief surge of her pain. The ache.
“Are you per chance voting along the Democratic ticket?” asked Karrye. This jolted the mother from her mournful trance.
“Yes! We’re all voting for Hillary!” she gave a deep belly laugh and a sigh. In a few moments we were spiraling from the darkness of her past and jettisoned to the future election. We asked if she would sign a commit to vote card and walked down the porch steps.
Butterfly personality Karrye hummed, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar…tomorrow!” from the musical Annie. All the while we noticed a woman reacting to a young boy cradling his baby brother in diapers over a balcony with nothing beneath but a 12 foot drop.
Sensory overload. Man, it takes a village.
We kept walking and Karrye spoke to the child and told him to “Stay safe, watch after your brother!” And kept singing the little orphan Annie song.
“I know that song,” The boy bashfully said with his arms on the ledge, half moon smile, tongue out, feet dangling over.”
“You doo??” Chimed Karrye. “Tomorrow! Tomorrow! What’s next?!” she shouted from across the street.
“Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow…” he sang timidly.
“There’ll be sun!” Karrye echoed, hand outstretched.
The complexity of this moment brings tears to my eyes. Karrye’s peculiar but endearing enthusiasm. Poverty. The stress of life. Loss. Pain. Struggle. My point of privilege. But also identifying deeply with such loss. Tomorrow, tomorrow. The sun’ll come out tomorrow. This is what we must tell ourselves. For how else can we shake despair without hope for change? Often in blind optimism, we put one foot in front of the other.
That day I realized that this election is more than media mash. It is brightness, a source of hope for many, and the idea that the way history is being written, is changing. This new history—it is for everyone.
Tomorrow. There will be sun.