lessons from America

Halloween weekend

Photos are coming shortly.  But in the meantime, a quick update my weekend; which was slightly more calmly paced after the mad Friday dashing around Cincinnati, doing different activities: an electoral reform (issue 8 on the local ballot) debate at the University; a Hillary rally with the labour unions; and Trick or Vote with the Swing Semester crew, followed by some after parties and dancing.

Saturday afternoon was our Kentucky road trip.  Together with an electoral reform colleague (and with Meghan as driver), we zipped an hour south west of Cincinnati – through northern Kentucky – to see how the election was playing in a non swing state.  Much more quietly is the quick answer.  We went through some small towns and rural areas; and a couple of interesting encounters along the route.  How normal is it to knock on someone’s door in a little backwater and congratulate them on their Obama signs and start up a conversation that way?  Well, I did it!

Saturday evening was another night on the town.  Meghan and I had got chatting to a really cool local couple – Jodie and Randy – on Friday night and Jodie had offered to be our guide. Impressively, she knew where there was a bar which stayed open that extra hour for drinking, as the clocks went back for winter time here only on Sat night.  It was the quality of the conversation though that was the best part, and the insight into the life of a liberal, intellectual, questioning, social justice-minded person in a culture and an area which doesn’t really celebrate any of those. 

Jodie and Randy invited us for a pancake breakfast on Sunday morning, en route to a canvassing session in West Chester – about 20min drive north of the city – near to where they lived.  So Sunday daytime considered of eating lots of food, interspersed with time in the local Obama office there and 3 hours pounding the pavements of a well-to-do neighbourhood.  The houses weren’t just far apart; they had an infuriating number-system which made the canvassing harder.  Still, we spoke to a few undecideds; got an Obama supporter committing to volunteer on Monday or Tuesday; and generally provided campaign visibility in an area that wouldn’t normally see it. 

Sunday evening was Obama rally time.  Yup, twice in 8 days have I seen him.  This was an event in the university’s american football stadium, with maybe 20-25,000 people.  Obama was on fire – he was on a great form with his speech; better and more powerful than in Denver last week.  I loved his response to booing on the occasions he mentioned McCain’s name: Obama said: “Don’t boo; go out and vote”.  

An interesting contrast with Denver was that there seemed to be far fewer campaign volunteers there (proportionally).  Although there was some mention of early voting and encouraging attendees to help GOTV efforts at their local Obama office, it wasn’t as co-ordinated or pushy a message as in Denver.  And there certainly wasnt the focus on getting people to volunteer and not just be passive spectators and voters.  I did my bit, even talking to some Belgian students in the crowd asking them to volunteer. 

Now, after a chunk of blogging, it’s time to get a few hours kip before the final full day of the election campaign.


November 3, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A day with the Minneapolis Obama office

Last Wednesday, I spent a full day with the wonderful folks in the main Obama campaign office in Minneapolis.  Two sessions of phone canvassing and one round of door-knocking were squeezed into a productive and fascinating day.


There was a steady stream of volunteers all day, coming in to help phone bank and also door-knock.  Here are some of the amazing people who were working the call sheets with me and who all had their individual and successful style and patter.


and then of course me:

In the late afternoon, I went on a door-knocking run in a neraby neighbourhood.  A middle-class suburb, but one with a lot of houses split into rented flats.  It was mainly Democratic in terms of yard signs and support, but there were some McCain and even a couple of Nader signs too.


On the way back, I stopped off in a fine cheese and wine store to pick up some gifts for the friends I was staying with.  I got chatting to the guy who was helping me choose a good wine.  He was a Europhile and had studied in England … and even maintained an interest in British politics and news sites. 

I got back in time to the office for some dinner.  This woman took on the all-important and much appreciated task of organising a food rota each day, so that every dinner there would be a fresh home-cooked meal for the Obama staff and volunteers.  To enable us to keep on working!  She is holding up a t-shirt which has is a print of a original Obama painting done by a local artist.

I stayed in the office to watch Obama’s 30min TV advert, and also to take a few fun photos.  I even managed another 30mins phone canvassing, before it was time to go.  One of the staffers, Mary, offered me a lift back to where I was staying; eventhough it was about a 45min roundtrip detour for her.  What a wonderful person.  She was raving about Cincinnati and had relatives there, so I hope I am doing her proud by enjoying both of her cities.


November 3, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I spy a Nader office

In downtown Minneapolis I was curious to see a few Nader stickers on lampposts.  Then I walked round the corner and came across the main Minnesota Nader campaign office.  That kind of rare sighting is worth many bonus points in my book!  I couldn’t resist the temptation to go in, and also to chat the lonely-looking (but welcoming) solo volunteer in there.  So in I went, still wearing my Obama buttons. 

It was quite an insight into the world of small parties and no-hope candidates, who vainly struggle on; pushing some good ideas and values but virtually ignored by the mainstream media or political process.  To be fair, Nader does not help himself either.

One leaflet I was very pleased to see displayed with the Nader material, was information about Instant Run-off Voting and the benefits of electoral reform.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A snapshot of Minneapolis

Rewinding a few days now in my trip as catching up with my blog now the partying of Halloween is over 

Minneapolis was a more beautiful, clean and calmer city than I’d expected.  European in origin – its inhabitants and its design.  But cold … and it wasn’t even yet winter.  They do have ‘skyways’ (fully enclosed walkways between buildings) though, so it is possible to avoid going outside in downtown when the weather really turns nasty.  The Missisippi River flows through downtown and the historic mills and warehouses dot the banks, only a short walk from the (not very) bustle of the main streets.  Here’s a quick snapshot of the city, complete – as to be expected – with a few other images from the “political safari” that my friend Alex dubbed our long walk one afternoon.  Look out for my brilliant find of the political pumpkin art. 

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

The early voting quandry

Minnesota doesn’t allo early voting.  Its citizens seem to take pride in having huge turnouts on election day.  The state usually tops the list in terms of turnout.  You can get an absentee ballot though, and you can vote early at the City Hall, though not many people do.  When phonebanking at the Obama office I did speak to some concerned elderly and frail people, or those with young children, who the thought of spending hours in line to vote was not a happy, or possible one. 

One solution, at least for a few people in one location in Minneapolis, is the advent of ‘kerbside voting’.  Its a variation on the US tradition of ‘kerbside check-in’ at airports, but here the ballot box – along with two election officials – come to your car outside the polling station if someone is physically not able to deal with getting into the polling station and waiting in line.  Neat idea.  Though it does require greater numbers of trained pollworkers to be on site to fulfill that service and keep the rest of the lines moving.

Early voting is better for the parties: it means activists can spend their time doing GOTV rather than standing in line on election day; it is votes in the bag which can’t be lost through an October / November surprise; and it means the parties can focus their efforts more effectively on the day itself.

However, early voting isn’t necessarily an easy option for voters.  It may still mean standing in long lines, for hours, especially when so many other people are doing the same.  In Denver a week ago early voting was running at 20% of eligible voters.  In figures quoted on, “in North Carolina, 42% of all Democrats, 35% of all Republicans, and 30% of all independents have already voted. In Florida the numbers are 22%, 15%, and 20%, respectively.”  The TV has been showing scenes of massive queues of people waiting to vote at some polling stations.  In many (urban) places in Florida, the wait is 5-6 hours on average.

How many people can afford to take that time – to be at the polls and thus not be at work or looking after their children? Or what happens if they are too frail to wait in line for that long?  There is plenty of scope for these arrangements to disenfranchise people – a “new poll tax” as Rachel Maddow called it on her MSNBC show tonight.  And it really is an issue here in Ohio.  Reports from Columbus talk about the problems experienced around that area  And in Ohio as a whole, it is estimated that 10,000 more people have given up queuing for casting an early vote than was the Bush victory margin over Kerry in this state in 2004.

I believe in the value of early voting.  But just as Rachel Maddow and others point out, the elections infrastructure needs to be fixed and modernised – and overseen in a non-partisan way – in order for the full democratic benefits of early voting to be felt.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, lessons from America | 1 Comment