How Many Activists Does It Take to Find a Clipboard?September 4th, 2008
by Gina Frangello
Last weekend, I went down to the Chicago jazz festival to help register voters. I know, I know: Obama already has Illinois in the bag–but still, I loved the idea of helping as many people be a part of that vote as possible, especially African-American voters who haven’t always had stunning turn-outs in other election years, and Latino voters, who the media keeps saying aren’t really “decided” yet. I turned up at Grant Park at the designated time, and was pleased to see there were quite a few volunteers congregating around, excited to help get out the vote.
That was when things started to go astray . . .
Like a parody of the disorganization that often plagues not only the Democratic party, but progressive activists of all stripes, it turned out that about a dozen people had turned up . . . but there were no clipboards, no voter registration forms, nothing for us to work with. One fiftysomething woman in a cowboy hat seemed to be the leader of the group, but she had no idea what had gone wrong. Her first phone call yielded the message that the clipboards were “on their way over.” But an hour and a half later, nothing had arrived. Finally, it was revealed that whoever was dropping off material hadn’t really known we were going to be at Grant Park, and now had to drive the material over, which would take at least half an hour. By this point, more than half the people who had shown up to volunteer had left (which was somewhat curious, since we had all volunteered for a 3 hour block, so it’s not like they had something else they had to do.) I decided to take my kids over to Millennium Park (yes, I was stupid enough to have brought my kids), and come back in half an hour to see whether everything had arrived.
Cut to 45 minutes later. My kids are wet from the wading pool at Millennium Park; it’s 90 degrees outside and we’re all getting a little too much sun. I keep trying to call the cowboy-hatted leader of the volunteers, but she’s not picking up her phone. Finally, she sees my number on her phone and calls back: Come on over–the stuff just arrived. So off I go.
For the next hour, I walked around Millennium Park asking people if they were registered to vote. If they weren’t, I had forms right there that they could fill out on the spot, and we would mail the form for them. I walked around the wading pool, the park, the cafe, and stood on the corner of Michigan Avenue. I talked to almost every single person who passed me.
I spoke to at least 100 people. I did not register a single voter.
There were a number of reasons for this shoddy outcome. For starters, while it is common for those of us who live in Chicago to refer to the downtown area as “full of tourists,” even I–a Chicago native–had no idea how true that really is. About 75% of the people I spoke to were not from Illinois, which meant they were ineligible to be registered by me. (Side note to self: I knew I had been avoiding Millennium Park for a reason.)
Of the remaining 25%, most people said they were already registered. I am happy to report that every single African-American I approached but one was already registered and seemed quite pleased about it–they were by far the friendliest and most receptive of the people I spoke to that day. The one African-American woman I talked to who had not yet registered said that she wanted to register and planned to do it; she was working security at the Park and couldn’t fill out the form on duty, but she took one to fill out later.
All the white people were registered. I did not ask them who they were voting for. I would have, had most of them not been tourists (white people are reasonably sane in Chicago, at least outside the Gold Coast), but since they were from God Knows Where, I was afraid one of them would start spouting off about McCain and the NRA and the evils of gay marriage and how much they love the Iraq war, just like my (blue collar, I should specify) suburban cousins do at family gatherings, and then I would be even more depressed than I already was due to the tardy clipboards, and would feel shell-shocked like I always do after a family gathering. So I just said I was glad to hear they planned on voting and went on my way.
But thus far, none of these developments were shocking. White people (especially those at a big urban tourist destination, usually with their spouse and kids) are registered to vote. Check. African-Americans, whether tourists or local, seem enthusiastic to vote and are reporting a higher incidence of registration than would have been found in a year when John Kerry was their best bet. Check. Progressive volunteers are disorganized and the amount of time spent actually volunteering, rather than sitting around yapping about how badly the world sucks, was reduced by two-thirds. Check.
I did, however, get one big shock. While there were not a huge number of Latinos in Millennium Park that afternoon, of the ones I approached, not a single one planned to vote in the upcoming election! Several (men, usually) said they were registered, but did not intend to actually vote. Others (mainly women) claimed not to be registered, and when I asked if they wanted to register, insisted that they did not. No amount of argument on my part could sway them. They said (almost every single one) that they did not “care.”
Okay, so before anyone jumps to the conclusion that maybe these people weren’t citizens or something, I should specify that the very first thing I asked everyone I approached, after saying I was registering people to vote, is whether they were citizens of the United States. I asked everybody this question, and quite a few people (of all ethnicities) said no, they were not. It was a tourist destination, after all. Indian, Mexican and Russian families were all out at Millennium Park that day. But among the Latinos who said they were citizens (and these all spoke fluent English, and seemed as linguistically capable of following politics as I myself am), the most common response I got to asking if they would like to register so that they could vote was derisive laughter, a wave of the hand, and a sarcastic, “Oh, no way.”
I kid you not.
What the hell is going on? My sample was small, and not statistically significant, clearly. But not one Black or White person I spoke to responded in quite this manner, so something still seems fishy. Does anyone have any idea what is happening? Is something particular going on in this election season to turn off Latino voters? Did I just run into a bunch of apathetic exceptions on this particular Sunday, or is the second largest ethnic group in the entire country planning, in some large number, to sit back mockingly and abstain from involvement while the rest of us duke this one out?