Canvassing in the COVID times: Reasons for hope | Diganta Das

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What came next is personally satisfying, but with time it became way more than that. The system is built on trust, trust in the volunteers spread around the country by the campaigns, the mutual trust of volunteers on each other, and the voters’ trust that we reach on the volunteers like us. First, a bit about how we are campaigning: while I am disconnected from how the campaigns are run in South Asia, I feel fairly confident that we are doing it differently. We do not have party cadres, processions chanting through streets, or loudspeakers bringing the leaders’ voice home.

 

Anybody consuming the news from the United States gets to know the depth of partisan divide, misinformation campaigns, separate facts cherished by different parts of the country, and the level of distrust that has grown between the citizenry and the institutions, and among the segments of the population. We had grown to be a global leader by being a global magnet for people and ideas, and people came here and let us handle and manage global ideas because people trusted our system. Today, the country’s ascendant political philosophy appears to challenge that international order in a suicidal manner. It wants to cut off the source of the nutrition that has made us a mighty tree. We can give up on the nation and its aspirations to remain a global leader if we let that disaffection and zero-sum mindset dictate our national policy. One can imagine or hope for a national leader or movement to bring the country back together on the same page and take America to Greatness. However, in the past such “reconstruction” of the society came only after severe and often following violent streaks. We do not want a repeat of those events before we reach such reconciliation, and it is hard to feel any optimism even if we can change the government based on what we see on the campaign trail and in the news.

I find my inspiration and some semblance of optimism with how the campaign is happening today. I love being a ground (or maybe even lower if that is possible) level volunteer during the elections. In the last mid-term election of 2018, I developed a rhythm of door knocking every weekend, getting a lot of fresh air and exercise in the process and getting to see new neighbourhood every week. It was fun and became more so as we won big and got the US House of Representatives back with Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House for the second time. I was so looking forward to doing the same this year. But, COVID-19 changed it all. We are stuck at home since March. For a period, it appeared that I might have to sit out the election in front of the TV and get angrier by the hour with a feeling of helplessness.

What came next is personally satisfying, but with time it became way more than that. The system is built on trust, trust in the volunteers spread around the country by the campaigns, the mutual trust of volunteers on each other, and the voters’ trust that we reach on the volunteers like us. First, a bit about how we are campaigning: while I am disconnected from how the campaigns are run in South Asia, I feel fairly confident that we are doing it differently. We do not have party cadres, processions chanting through streets, or loudspeakers bringing the leaders’ voice home.

So, what do we do? We write to people, we text them, and we call them. To be able to do so effectively, somebody needs to identify the potential targets. In our daily activities or by lack of it, we leave digital trails all around the place, and others pick them up and build a personal profile for us every day to serve us up with offers and advertisements. The same is right about our political inclinations and voting patterns. Political parties scoop them up, prioritize them, and make plans for reaching them. Some of the outreach is by mass media advertisement, some more targeted in social media platforms. Still, the most intimate ones need human intervention, and there comes the issue of shared trust. To make contact effective, the holders of the data need to share them with that person providing that human intervention, people like me, “the volunteer.”

To write a letter, the volunteer needs the home address of the voter. To call a person, talk, and provide useful information, one needs a lot more — age, gender, party identification, family member list, voting history, voting locations, whether or not they have a mail-in ballot, responses to prior surveys by campaigns and others.

In the past election cycles, we made the calls from campaign offices where you are in the same room with organizers and other volunteers. This year, all individuals work on their own with all that information in front of them. The organizers need to assume that they are acting in good faith and not trying to harm your campaign. They need to assume that they are ethical and honest and will not obtain the data for other purposes and misuse them. If they do, it is your campaign or party that will be held responsible for such actions.

So, there we go, we already have this in-group trust — if we have an opportunity to expand it by making the groups larger. That is my hope for a Biden presidency (if that happens): we extend this feeling of trust beyond our cohort and make it broader. We go in cycles, but this time, the hope is that the horrors of the last few years will take the pendulum to civility since it was in short supply. Let us end the year on a positive note with this possible wishful thinking.

 

 

Diganta Das is a private citizen living in the Washington DC Metro area in Maryland. He came to the US in 1990 from India as a graduate student.

 

 

 

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