In the days leading up to this year’s midterms, I was increasingly anxious — like so many other Americans. Already worried about the electoral prospects for 2024, I needed to stay hopeful about 2022.
I decided to sign up as a volunteer through Swing Left. I spent the final Saturday before Election Day canvassing with Warren County Democrats in Pennsylvania. The scenic, two-hour drive across the New York-Pennsylvania border was a welcome change of pace. The bright colors of the fall foliage were a calming contrast to the in-your-face political signs in people’s yards and along the roads.
I arrived in tiny downtown Warren about twenty minutes before the scheduled start time. Following the directions of the most recent text message, I parked in the far end of a small lot right next to the Allegheny River. I walked toward the the side of the store closest to the river, as instructed, but couldn’t find anyone. I was about to turn around when a small car began making its way down the narrow stretch between the building and the river‘s edge. Behind the wheel was Jane, the canvassing manager. She explained that we would be meeting in the second loading bay, thanks to the support of the storeowner. Within minutes, the other volunteers began arriving.
Except for a Black female college student, an elderly white man, and me, the canvassers were all white women in their seventies. They looked like the kind of women who would sweetly help you out if you were shopping in their neighborhood grocery store for the first time.
These women also still remember protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for women’s rights. They’re hardcore when it comes to civic engagement; they recognize what’s at stake. Along with the clipboards and lawn signs was a small box of campaign buttons from past elections, including 1968 and 1992.
Jane requested we all take a seat so we could go through the data sheets. I asked about the app that Swing Left had instructed me to download, and she smiled, “If you can figure it out, feel free to use it. I like pen and paper.” I was relieved to have one fewer app on my overworked phone.
The purpose of the canvassing activity was to visit the homes of people who had been inconsistent over the years about voting for Democrats and to ask them if they planned to vote. Jane stressed that we needn’t spend a lot of time probing for information; this was a straightforward get-out-the-vote effort.
I was paired with Rita, and we were assigned voters in Russell, a rural town in Pine Grove Township. According to the most recent census, its population is 97.5% white, and the median household income is $52,000.
Rita is a 70-something stroke survivor who uses a cane. She can go up steps but needs someone’s arm to hold on to when coming back down. “My brain tricks me into thinking there are more steps.” She proudly told me how her letter to the local newspaper had been published; she’d made the case for why John Fetterman’s stroke should not disqualify him as a candidate for the US Senate. In her mind, he was the better choice.
With Rita at the wheel (yes, she can drive) and me in the passenger seat using my phone’s GPS, we set off on our canvassing adventure. At our first stop, a man became angry and started yelling at us to get off his property. We explained that a female resident’s name was on our list; he said the person had moved away, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We weren’t wearing campaign buttons, so maybe the clipboard gave us away. Once we were back in Rita’s car and about to leave, the man reappeared next to the rolled-down driver’s-side window. He had come to apologize for being rude. Rita thanked him for apologizing, and then we had a cordial but brief conversation. A fervent Trump supporter, the man said he was retired from the Army. I proudly told him my brother had served in the Navy.
Another stop was a house located at the end of a winding driveway near the edge of Conewango Creek. The wife’s name was on our sheet, but she was out. Her husband came to the door. Admittedly, I was worried that we were about to encounter another fan of the former president. Instead, the man, who identified himself as an Independent, said he was fed up and voting blue in the midterms.
At another home, we spoke with a nurse who was furious about Roe v. Wade being overturned and couldn’t wait to vote on Tuesday. Through her work, she’s seen her fair share of complicated pregnancies. As a mother, she’s concerned that her 20-year-old daughter won’t have agency over her own body.
At one point during our canvassing, we spoke with a man in his thirties or forties who had voted for Democrats in the past two general elections but was sitting this one out. Disillusioned, he doesn’t like to talk politics. His view: All politicians let you down, so what’s the point? Rita tried her best to dissuade him from having a defeatist attitude. I offered a point about elected officials being human and therefore flawed — we’re not voting for gods or superheroes. I even invoked writer Rebecca Solnit’s analogy that voting is, in the end, a chess move. But the man remained skeptical. Back in the car, Rita started muttering, “I bet he doesn’t write letters to the editor. I bet he doesn’t even try to contact his local official.”
Disillusioned, he doesn’t like to talk politics. His view: All politicians let you down, so what’s the point?
During our drive along the back roads of Russell, we also saw a huge banner hanging from the side of a barn.
Save America Again
When the midterm results started rolling in late Tuesday, I felt both elated and anxious. Sometimes my mind even leaped ahead to November 5, 2024, causing me to revisit the shock of November 9, 2016.
In the moments and days since this year’s Election Day, I have thought a lot about Rita, Jane, and the other intrepid volunteers I met in Pennsylvania. I remain amazed, and inspired, by how they have sustained their love of country, commitment to community, and belief in democracy for decades.
Maybe this is who we are, too.
Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.