Supporters wait for Barack Obama to speak at a rally in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 2, 2008. Photo by Jauretsi.
Although that pesky thing known as “the law” kept non-citizens from voting in Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election, it turns out that there was nothing to stop enthusiastic foreigners from showing up at a local campaign office and asking to volunteer. More than a few Torontonians did just that, including Alex Weinberger (a staffer in the Toronto office of New Democrat Leader Jack Layton) and me (a former speechwriter to a Liberal Member of Parliament) who took the Greyhound to Cleveland, Ohio, to spend the final days of the campaign working to turn that swingiest of swing states Obama blue.
In Glenville, the low-income, predominantly African-American east-side neighbourhood in which we were based, the challenge was never convincing residents to vote for Barack Obama: out of ballots cast at one local school, only three went to John McCain, compared to five hundred for Obama. Rather, the task was to ensure that enough people in the historically disenfranchised neighbourhood voted at all.
From all indications, that goal was met, but only due to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers—many or most of whom were from out of state—and a whole lot of cash. In the days leading up to November 4, houses of local Democrats and other Obama supporters—which in eastern Cleveland amounts to just about everyone—were bombarded with phone calls, literature, and knocks on their doors telling them for the dozenth time when, where, and how to vote. And although that kind of persistence might lead to irritation and anger in some locales, in Obama country it was met with warmth, enthusiasm, and, most importantly, ballots cast.
Said Weinberger on her election day experience in Glenville:
What shocked me the most was how engaged everyone was, and how excited everyone was. I mean, I’ve worked in enough elections [in Canada] and I’ve never seen anyone come out of a polling station that ecstatic to have just voted. I’ve never walked down a street on election day and had people yelling at each other like, ‘Have you voted? Make sure you get out to vote!’ I’ve never gone to pull the vote from a house and had someone say, ‘You know what, they’re not here. But let me just call them up,’ right in front of you and find out if they’d voted. And people were doing that, and people were so excited. People were stopping me on the street and asking me if I’d voted. And I had never experienced that before.
There is no way to know the extent to which our individual contributions made a difference on election day. But whatever the reason, Ohio turned a surprisingly convincing shade of blue on Tuesday, confounding sceptics who expected yet another bout of overwhelmingly long lines and crippling voting irregularities.
After watching the joy of the Clevelanders who cast their ballots for the first time and the volunteers from Texas to California to Connecticut who helped them do it, Canadians finally have reason to end their years of smug superiority and be envious of our southern friends’ approach to democracy. It’s an odd feeling, but at a time when interest in our own elections is at at a historic low, maybe what we need to turn things around is a little taste of the American Dream.
Photo of Barack Obama volunteers in Cleveland by Jerad Gallinger/Torontoist.