I did an hour or so of phone banking for a local candidate the other night.
The technology is great: you have a script in front of you on the screen, various options to choose from depending on the response (or lack of response) and when you are through with each person on your list of likely voters it automatically moves to the next one.
You feel good, at least as you get started, because you’re kind of like a political Santa Claus: your bag is full of gifts for all the good boys and girls.
You can tell them their polling place, the date of the election, how to get a mail-in ballot and, if you’re up to it, you can engage in a polite conversation about why your candidate is the ‘obvious choice.’
Trouble is there’s nobody home.
To a large degree that’s just a fact of life: the same technology that lets you reach out to each of the people on your list has given them the right – and the ability – to shut you down before you’re started.
The line may be busy, often it has been disconnected, or they just don’t answer, letting their automated system ‘take a message.’
Afterall, there are only three types of calls: a family call (rare, but possible), a sales call (all too frequent and, all too frequently a recording disguised as a ‘real’ person), or – at this time of year – a political call.
Why would you answer?
After using this system for close to an hour and dialing several dozen numbers I spoke at length (meaning more than 5 seconds) to just one voter.
He was nice, was actually who I thought I was calling, was correctly identified in terms of his political affiliation and had absolutely no idea that there was an election this Tuesday.
And that, again, was the highlight of the evening’s calls.
A close second was a woman who, it turned out, was the mother of the voter I was trying to reach: her daughter however, had long ago moved out.
Third prize went to the woman who gruffly told me that she had already voted, and hung up before I could get another word in.
Fourth prize to the woman who did not speak English, didn’t live where I thought I was calling, and whose son politely dismissed me.
Yes, I know, it’s been like this, to a degree, for quite a time.
There are fewer Democrats out there, fewer Republicans, more un-enrolled and the majority of voting-age residents out there belong to the ‘don’t care – can’t be bothered – I’ve got better things to do’ party.
Want a sure-fire way to win a local election? Convince those folks that, if elected, no one will bother them again.
Plymouth regularly turns out a paltry 10% or so of its 40,000 registered voters for local elections.
Heck, even those who express their public dissatisfaction with the present system and have publicly proclaimed their desire to to see Plymouth adopt a Mayoral or City Council form of government, arguing it would be more efficient, couldn’t muster up enough signatures to move it forward.
Apparently even the angry are apathetic.
I remain, however, committed to our legacy form of government, our representative Town Meeting, and see in the growing apathy of the electorate an even stronger argument for its retention.
We are in danger, by our indifference and our over-reliance on the administrative end of local government, of losing our ability to govern ourselves entirely.
I see little difference, in terms of its effects on self-governance, between the pandemics of indifference and Covid-19.
The virus is a great excuse not to exercise self-rule. Anger at government that is largely seen as bloated and non-responsive is a great excuse for not to exercise self-rule. But both are just that, excuses.
If a child came to you and said, my teachers are mean, my classmates are bullies, I’m not going to school anymore would you say, ‘yes dear, you’re right. Stay home and play video games for the rest of your life?’
That is what we are doing by allowing flimsy excuses to keep us from taking hold of our own fate. And to do so in a community that practically invented this uniquely American form of government is inexcusable.
So… what I want you to do is, well, answer your phone when I call! (Just kidding).
I could say, out of self-interest, that I want you to go out at vote at this (May 19) and then the next (the one where I am on the ballot, June 20) election.
But all I really want you to do is to take another, perhaps closer look at how our local government operates, to see how it allows (actually needs) your participation, and to understand that there is satisfaction to be obtained by that participation.
Is the ‘normal’ that you are hoping to return to just a night out at a local restaurant? Don’t you want more?
Isn’t this a moment in history when participation in local government is, in the fullest sense of the word, “essential?”