Christopher Beam discusses what helps and doesn't help when volunteering for a campaign.

Christopher Beam discusses what helps and doesn't help when volunteering for a campaign.

Christopher Beam discusses what helps and doesn't help when volunteering for a campaign.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Oct. 9 2008 1:56 PM

Knock, Knock!

It's Christopher Beam, taking readers' questions about the most effective kinds of political volunteering.

Slate political reporter Christopher Beam was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about the most effective kinds of political activism. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Christopher Beam: Hey everyone. We've got 26 (!) days left till Election Day, and if there was ever a time to maximize the time and money you give to your favorite campaign, it's now. Looking forward to your questions!

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kwheless: Does knocking on doors work? I was called by one of the campaigns, asking me if I would "knock on doors" for candidate X. My first thought was "gee, I hope they don't knock on my door, that's really annoying." I asked many of my friends, and they said the same thing: "Ugh, I hate when people knock on my door. It's so intrusive and annoying. It just makes me want to vote for the other candidate!" This was true of the Democrats and the Republicans—all of them thought a door-knocker would turn them off, rather than attract them. Who wants some annoying stranger at their door?

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Maybe I'm in the minority on this, or maybe it's generational. After all, there are people who like being called by telemarketers, people who think spam is great, and people who love getting a visit from a Jehovah's Witness. But I find a stranger at my door about as appealing as a root canal. And I wonder if it really helps the candidates.

Christopher Beam: This was my initial reaction—who wants to answer the door EVER, let alone twice a day? But the campaigns insist it's the best way to win over voters. "Personalize, personalize, personalize." If you already know who you're voting for, it's useless. (In that case, put up a "Do Not Knock" sign or something.) But if you don't—which is still a big chunk of the population—it's a rare chance to get actual information about the candidates from a real, live person.

Plus, it helps campaigns keep tabs on how voters are leaning. If voters in a particular neighborhood used to be for McCain, but are now reconsidering, the campaign knows there's a problem.

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Gulfport, Miss.: Hi, I really enjoyed your "busy person's guide." On the subject of getting voters to the polls ... I heard that sometimes misinformation is spread about polling places being closed or changed, in order to prevent some sections of the community from voting. What do campaigns do to combat this, and how do we help?

Christopher Beam: The only solution is to combat bad information with good information. Tons of voting rights groups are out there monitoring neighborhoods—particularly low-income areas—for misleading fliers with inaccurate polling locations, etc. Rumors also circulate about voter ID laws (in some states, you need to show a driver's license, in others you don't). This happens every year. The real threat this year, I think, is cyber-dirty tricks—emails and robocalls designed to confuse voters.

The best place I've seen to find your polling location is maps.google.com/vote. Type in your address and you can see where you're supposed to vote.

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Philadelphia: Someone is going around Philadelphia posting a notice that anyone with an outstanding warrant or unpaid bill, such as an electric bill or student loan, will be arrested by a plain-clothes police officer when they go to vote. What is my civic duty to counteract this?

Christopher Beam: Classic dirty trick. Some fliers also say you'll be arrested if you have overdue rent. Or if you don't have the proper ID. Or if you or a family member has ever been in prison.

These kind of rumors are ALWAYS untrue. The problem is, correcting them is tricky. Sometimes, by denying the rumors, you end up reinforcing them. (Lots of good articles about this phenomenon this election.) The trick is to spread the good info without repeating the bad.

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Middle America: Aren't the campaigns worried about donor fatigue, especially in this very uncertain financial climate? I gave $500 to Obama in the primaries and had planned to give more for the general, but I won't because of the economy and because signs all say he will win anyway.

Christopher Beam: Donor fatigue is only a problem if most of your donors have maxed out. In the Obama campaign's case, that hasn't happened. Last time I checked, the vast majority of donors were still giving in small increments and were nowhere near approaching the $2,300 limit. The flagging economy could dampen donations, but I think the race is tight enough and the stakes high enough that people will continue to give through Election Day.

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ellamenta: The most important thing to do is to try to make certain that voting takes place without improper restrictions. See today's article in the New York Times. The Republicans have been making their own arrangements to ensure that the system is gamed by widespread voter disenfranchisement. I am predicting chaos on Nov. 4 unless this issue is addressed quickly and very publicly.

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washingtonpost.com: States' Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal(New York Times, Oct. 8)

Christopher Beam: That article is a good example of how restrictions on voters can be non-partisan in theory, but partisan in practice. It's a systematic problem: election officials are using the Social Security database to confirm voter registration—a process that often results in invalidation—as a first resort instead of a last resort. They're not partisans. But because Democrats have much higher registration levels this year, it ends up hurting them more. The Obama camp has an army of lawyers across the country dealing with this kind of thing. But your "chaos" prediction may come true if one of the swing states is especially close.

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Houston: I think that knocking on doors might be good in some cases. I once had the candidate herself come to my door, and needless to say, I did vote for her. Also, I am going to volunteer for my candidate at a call center on the weekend before the election. Do you think that calling closer to the election is better than doing it earlier?

Christopher Beam: I don't. By the week of the election, most people have already decided who they're voting for. That doesn't mean you can't make a difference. But you're more likely to change someone's mind now. Plus, close to election day, they'll be getting inundated with calls. So you'll have more competition.

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Biloxi, Miss.: What are the requirements for being an election observer? Do you have to be a lawyer? I've heard the campaigns are seeking people to volunteer as observers and would prefer lawyers. What does the observer do, how much does it help to be a lawyer, and what do they do when something shady goes on at a polling place?

Christopher Beam: Each campaign is allowed to have an election observer at every polling place. (Independent observers from voting rights organizations, oddly, are not allowed.) The campaigns prefer lawyers because they 1) probably know state election law better, and 2) have more authority to challenge ballot tampering. Each state's election law is different, so it can be confusing to discuss them all at once. But one by one, they're pretty easy to understand. I'm afraid it's too late to get a law degree between now and Election Day, but you should still volunteer.

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Knocking on Doors: I live in New Hampshire. During primary season, we are inundated with volunteers calling, knocking on doors, stopping us on the street, etc. This past year, Sen. Clinton's campaign arranged for busloads of volunteers to come to New Hampshire from New York to knock on doors. It was cold, and more than a few of them were bundled up in their New York Yankees hats and sweatshirts, prompting the average New Hampshire voter to wonder—do they want us to vote for her or not? This is Red Sox Nation!

Christopher Beam: Fools! This is door-knocking 101. Try and establish a connection with the resident, whether it's you both live in the same neighborhood, both have kids, both work at a union, whatever. The corollary: Don't say or wear anything that's going to tick them off. Clinton should have known better—after all, she was the one who hedged and said that in a Yankees-Cubs match-up, she'd have to "alternate sides."

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Hi. I was wondering what we know about the origins and uses of the names in the Obama campaign's "neighbor-to-neighbor" database. After spending hours knocking on doors with these lists, I don't think I've persuaded one person—all I've done is cleaned up the list of people who have died, moved or are already firm McCain supporters. And then of course, I found the pre-existing Obama supporters. I live in a tony suburb; turnout is high. So why is it really worth my time to identify these voters? I guess that's what I want to know.

Christopher Beam: Hate to say it, but updating the database is a big part of door-knocking. It's the best way for campaigns to keep tabs on who's leaning which way.

But in a tony neighborhood like yours, it's probably pointless. People are already well-informed, and, I'm guessing, opinionated. Your time would be better spent in less-decided areas of the state. You might think about phone banking instead, or calling up people you know and getting them to volunteer with you in neighborhoods more likely to swing the election—ie, not Grand Rapids.

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Columbia, Md.: Another option for voters in red or blue states is to commute to nearby purple states to knock on doors (obviously this is more practical in small states!). There are regular carpools and convoys of Maryland Democrats driving up to Pennsylvania to knock on doors for Obama (and I assume Maryland Republicans have similar groups), or individuals can contact campaign offices in nearby undecided states to volunteer.

Christopher Beam: Make the exodus! Face-to-face campaigning is much more effective than over-the-phone, not to mention a lot more fun. The only danger—make sure you don't look like a carpetbagger. (See above example about Red Sox/Yankees.) People respond best to their peers. If you're a NYC liberal trying to persuade rural PA voters that Obama's gun control record really isn't so bad, you might do more harm than good.

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Evanston, Ill.: What should one do, given that the election is now a forgone conclusion? Will the media ever admit the race is over?

Christopher Beam: David Plouffe, is that you?

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Australian in America: I'm an Australian living in America, and when I first moved here I was surprised to find out how many people don't vote, and how much money is spent trying to "get out the vote." Back home, voting is compulsory. The election is held on a Saturday and you get fined if you don't show up and cast a ballot. My question: As much as I long to, I can't vote here. It makes me crazy to think of people wasting their voice by forgetting or not bothering to vote. What's the best way I can motivate/remind eligible voters to vote, without annoying them? (For what it's worth, my efforts the past couple of months have been directed at reminding my friends to register and to apply for their absentee ballots. I have a new baby, so spending Election Day holding a sign probably is not an option.) And, um, has voting always been noncompulsory here?

Christopher Beam: Dear Aussie in America—I hate to say it, but ... stay away. Depending where exactly you were planning to volunteer, you might actually dissuade voters. Probably not in Massachusetts or California, but swing counties of swing states like nothing less than to be told what to do by someone they probably think is British. Case in point, in 2004 the Guardian (the British paper) asked its readers to write to Ohio residents and tell them to vote for Kerry. It was a disaster. Many Ohioans wrote back in words unpublishable in a family newspaper.

So, I know you mean well, and it must be frustrating to see people wasting their votes. (As they say, not voting makes everyone else's vote count more.) What you can do, though, is give a lot of money. Better yet, give Australian dollars. Leverage that exchange rate!

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Volunteering long-distance?: I have a friend from a swing state who temporarily lives in Mississippi. She is volunteering for the Obama campaign here despite the redness of this state, and I applaud her for that. But would she be better off making telephone calls for the campaign in her home state and reaching swing voters there? Her cell phone still has the old area code. Just wondering...

Christopher Beam: The Obama campaign says they're contesting every state, but frankly Mississippi is still far from a toss-up. If she's a tragic hero kind of person, let her stay there. But if she wants to maximize her time, she's much better off calling people in her home swing state. Especially with that area code—looks less suspicious on the caller ID.

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Washington: More about poll monitoring: I was considering taking the day off and becoming a poll monitor in Virginia. I imagine there may be long stretches of time with nothing to do. Do you know if poll monitors can bring books? Laptops? If not, I might fall asleep and embarrass myself and my candidate.

Christopher Beam: If you want to be responsible for mass disenfranchisement in a key Virginia swing district, be my guest! Just don't bring a copy of How to Rig an Election.

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Hampton, Va.: There are new revelations of a huge, multistate scandal with ACORN's registration of poor voters (read: Democrats). The feds raided offices in Nevada and subpoened voters in Ohio who have registered up to 90 times(!) There are reports that the Dallas Cowboys starting lineup all registered to vote in Nevada. Are we seeing the nationalization of Chicago politics? Will graveyards be voting in November? Does all this lead back to Obama?

washingtonpost.com: ACORN accused of submitting false voter registration forms again(Kansas City Star, Oct. 9)

Christopher Beam: It's an ugly situation, but it seems to be partly the result of giving volunteers registration quotas. If there's incentive to register a certain number of people every day—or a punishment for failing to—you get this kind of fraud. Again, registration this year is disproportionately Democratic, so it's tempting to see it as a partisan issue. But I think it's more an institutional problem than a partisan one.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I know it's a perennial, but I think yard signs (you call them lawn signs) really are more important than you say. They boost morale for me as a volunteer about 1,000 percent. I also like the way the signs tell my neighbors who I stand for; when I do the neighbor-to-neighbor canvassing, people actually say (happily), oh, you live in the house on the corner with the signs. Plus, all this annoying talk about Obama needing "validators" is certainly served by all of us having visible signs in our yards. It's also an arms race in our neighborhood. I would hate to have the McCain signs up, and no Obama signs. People look for signs and they assume it's like reading a local poll result. We don't want a false bandwagon effect for the person with more signs.

Christopher Beam: Agreed that in neighborhoods where Obama might have some skeptics, it helps to "validate" him publicly. But in general, I think yard signs and sign-waving are more for the people doing the planting and waving than for the people who see them.

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Northern Virginia: Is it legal for an Australian to donate to an American campaign, as you just advised?

Christopher Beam: Good point—you have to be a U.S. citizen [or permanent resident, i.e., a green card holder] to give money to a campaign. If our Australian friend is not, then he's out of luck.

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Southern Maryland: Personal contact works. In my experience, the people who claim it made them vote against a candidate would have done that anyway—they just wanted an excuse. In any event, those numbers are minuscule. I've knocked on thousands of doors in campaigns and it is an overwhelmingly positive experience. I've spent six hours phone-banking this week already and will spend the weekend door-knocking in Northern Virginia.

Christopher Beam: That's what most people say. It's rare that someone will change their mind about a candidate based on something a supporter says. It's like with music—every band has some terrible, embarrassing fans. You can't let that cloud your judgment of the tunes.

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Christopher Beam: Thanks, all, for the great questions. Now get out there and knock on doors! Except mine.