Freshmen Anna Casey, Erin Duff, Emma Swanson, and Brenna DeGan, and sophomores Helen Hapner and Chloe Bohm rarely spoke a word on the way home. Maybe after a full Election Day of working, they were all talked out. But the silence spoke volumes, an obvious hint that the same emotion swept through our white, 14-passenger Chevrolet van.
In all honesty, I’m glad the entire hour-long car ride home Tuesday night was dark. I’m glad the sun had gone down seven hours before. I’m glad none of the six girls with whom I shared the van had homework to do, so the lights in the van could remain off. I’m glad that the voices of National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel and Michelle Norris prevented any possible conversation we might have had about the events that had taken place.
Mostly because they could not notice how emotional I was; that they couldn’t see the tears welling in my eyes, couldn’t hear my voice give out when the news came over that Senator Barack Obama, my home Senator, and the candidate for whom the seven of us had traveled to spend our entire day making sure would win, had won.
Ann Dailey, the Deputy Field Director for the Obama campaign’s operations in Iowa, had planned for us to head to Davenport, Iowa, for Election Day. Iowa, a state whose seven electoral votes had gone to President Bush by less than one percentage point in 2004, was in-play for the Democrats this year, and Obama held a solid lead according to final pre-election polls.
“Your mission is simple,” Dailey told me in a phone conversation. “We think we have a good support base in Iowa, so it’s your job to mobilize them and make sure they get to the polls.”
We loaded up at 9 a.m. Tuesday and by 10 were at the Third Missionary Baptist Church in a less-than-affluent section of the city. Forty to 50 volunteers at a time hustled about the basement like ants at a picnic. Some made phone calls to remind confirmed Obama supporters where their polling places were. Others looked up voters’ polling information on laptops with wireless broadband cards supplied by the campaign. Still others prepared food and drinks for the volunteers in the church’s kitchen.
We, like most of the other volunteers, walked the streets of Davenport, knocking on every door of an Obama supporter we could reach. Although I had some personal experience with the campaign in Davenport (I was an intern for the campaign for the primary season and months prior and oversaw several caucuses in Davenport’s Fourth Ward), some of the girls did not know what to expect, but they performed brilliantly. In pairs, we talked to complete strangers, many of whom we shared merely one common bond: our support for the Senator from Illinois.
Rarely were the people on our lists actually home when we knocked on their doors. But when they were, a typical conversation was simple.
“Hello, are you Sue?” one of us would ask.
“Yes I am,” Sue would respond.
“Well, my name is Colin, and I’m here from Illinois on behalf of Senator Obama. I just wanted to make sure you had gotten out to vote today.”
“Yes I have. I voted early this morning!”
“Alright, thank you so much for getting out and voting, and we appreciate your support!”
And we’d walk on, ready to pound on the next of the 60 doors one list held.
Between all of us, we completed 13 lists before returning to Knox. We knocked on nearly 700 doors, talking to over 200 people.
“It was really rewarding when someone came up to me, asking where they could vote for Obama [and I was able to tell them],” Casey said. “It made me feel like I was empowering people, and like I had a small part in the change that swept the country on Election Day.”
Many of us came away feeling similarly; some because of the general nature of the work; some because of a specific incident that occurred. For me, it was the latter.
One of the people on my list was a 27 year-old African American woman on 13th Avenue.
“I want to vote for Obama, and I’m registered,” she told me. “But I don’t know where I need to go, and I don’t have a ride.”
I was able to tell her that her polling place was at St. Ambrose University and arrange a ride for her to vote. But it wasn’t until later, when Jo, our boss for the day, called, that what happened sunk in.
“It was so cute,” Jo said. “When we were going over to Ambrose, she was so excited. She had never voted before.”
But because of campaign staff like Jo, and volunteers like the seven of us, she voted Tuesday. That’s what the Obama campaign was all about – respecting, empowering, and including people all across the country, like the unnamed voter, so that their voices could be heard.
It was just one of the many reasons I couldn’t hold back those tears on the ride home.