Before this election season I didn't consider myself very political. I always vote for president, but I rarely noticed those little elections. Now my minivan carries card tables, chairs and clipboards of voter registration forms at all times. I think my desire to volunteer was bolstered by MoveOn.org and Fahrenheit 9/11.
One Saturday, I volunteered with a local nonprofit to spend all day driving around, knocking on doors where no one was home, and then leaving lame flyers on doorsteps of already registered voters. It seemed like a colossal waste of time, but the great thing they taught me was how to register voters correctly. I decided that until the Oct. 8 deadline, any time I could spare would go to helping people register.
First I tried going door to door in my own neighborhood. Most people were happy I called on them and several did need to register. Then I began volunteering with the Democrats by setting up a table at Food Lions or Kmarts. It was exciting to sign up first time voters. I made signs to go with each table and then I printed up some T-shirts that read, "Are You Registered to Vote?" I live in those shirts.
As Oct. 8 approached, I found myself going solo asking people everywhere if they were registered. I stopped at a convenience store where a bunch of men were hanging out. They had never voted before, but were glad to sign up if it meant they could help get rid of George Bush.
I saw everything through new eyes, asking myself, "How many potential Kerry voters are in this crowd? Should I speak up?" Sometimes I would be non-partisan, sometimes openly pro-Kerry, depending on whether I thought some manager might ask me to leave. At fast-food restaurants I would hang a sign at my table, "Register to Vote Here."
For the final day I thought a post office would be the best spot. I had heard that the manager at the post office on Estes Street in Chapel Hill had denied permission to the Democrats to set up there. They were covering the other post offices, so I decided to go there anyway. I set up my card table and signs at 2:30 p.m. without asking. I had forgotten my chairs, but some angel sent another self-made guerrilla voter registrar to my side. He approached me with clipboard in arm, wearing a black baseball cap topped with a goofy yellow handwritten sign saying "Register to Vote Here." He said, "I guess we're here for the same reason. Wanna work together?" I said, "Sure, but I don't have any chairs." No problem, he had four chairs in his car but no table. He also pulled out a huge homemade sign saying "LAST DAY to Register to Vote!"
Three or four people immediately flocked to our table, and then the postal manager came out. "It's against our policy for you to set up here, you will have to leave immediately." I made my best case for staying, pointing out that voter registration was allowed at other post offices, including Franklin Street; I was doing my non-partisan American duty and it was the last three hours of voter registration. He brought another employee to back him up, and she said we could move way across the parking lot right by the street, off the post office's private property. I shook my head--no, I don't think so.
By now, a woman who was registering got quite angry and said to the postal worker, "That's ridiculous! What's your name? I'm going to write a letter to the newspaper about this."
With all these supportive witnesses, I pulled out my trump card. "I'm not leaving here until 5:30 p.m. Call the police to drag me away if you don't like it." Baseball cap angel said, "Whew! Sounds like we should call the media right now!" He whipped out a cell phone and began talking to the news desk at The N&O to see if they wanted to send out a reporter. The postal employee blustered, "It's not me, my supervisor has this policy, I just have to enforce my boss' rules." I repeated, "I'm not leaving." Everyone was agitated. Baseball cap suggested he call that boss. So they retreated inside the post office and he came back five minutes later saying we could stay.
We were all elated with the Victory for the People! Baseball cap called off the media and we continued with our brisk registration service, helping 50-60 people register in the next three hours. Several people donated whole sheets of stamps. The postal teller smiled as she hand-stamped the crucial postmark on every form we ran in.
It was a good day to be assertive. I have never been arrested or stood up to authority like that before, but getting out the vote this year is worth it.