There was still no sound and no movement from inside the doorway. And now for the first time in all my volunteering with the campaign, a slight fear crept over me. What am I doing returning to a house that is boldly displaying a Confederate battle flag, while wearing a shirt that boldly displays “Obama '08?”
In a flash, I imagined a newspaper story, “Obama Volunteer Shot in Virginia,” somewhere deep inside tomorrow's Washington Post.
With a weird mix of resignation to fate and hope of winning another vote for change, I stepped up to the porch. The door pulled open, revealing a frail, elderly woman standing there in her housecoat and socks. Relieved, I launched into my normal script.
“Hello, ma'am. I'm a volunteer with the Barack Obama campaign, and I'm just going around making sure everyone who wants to is voting today. Have you had a chance to vote yet?”
“No, I haven't,” she said quietly. Her wide eyes were looking past me, over my right shoulder, fixed somewhere out in the yard.
“OK, well, do you know where you are supposed to vote?” I asked.
She sighed and leaned on the door. “Yeah, just right down here at the elementary school.”
“Great. Well polls close at 7 pm. Do you need a ride to the precinct?” I asked.
“Well, I would, but I don't know if I can make it. See, I'm very ill. I have cancer, and I can't get around very well. I get out of breath just walking from room to room.”
She seemed out of breath already, and I felt uneasy disturbing her.
“I understand,” I started.
“But I do want to vote,” she interrupted. “I've never voted before, not once, if you believe that. And I do want to vote this time. I want to vote because I don't think I'll be alive to vote in another election.”
It was one of those moments where reality, sharp and poignant, grabs you by the throat.
“I certainly hope that's not true,” I offered.
“Well, it probably is,” she said, very matter of fact.
She had lots of questions. She wanted to know about absentee voting. I explained how absentee voting worked but that it was too late to do it in this election. She said her son, who lived with her but wasn't home, had “gotten into some trouble” in the past and had his voting rights taken away. She wanted to know how he could vote in the future. I told her I didn't know the specific laws in Virginia, but in most states you can have your voting rights restored. Finally, she asked about the walking and the standing in line that would be involved.
“I understand that it's difficult to get around,” I said, “but if this something that you want to do, we can absolutely make it happen. I can make a phone call and a ride can be here for you shortly. We can help you along, if you like. And I'm sure at the school they can make an exception about waiting in line.”
“Also, I wouldn't be able to read the ballot. I'm legally blind. Someone would have to read it for me,” she said.
“I don't think that will be a problem. I don't know the specifics, but I do know that they have accommodations for people with disabilities. Getting in and out of the precinct and reading the ballot, I don't think either of those is going to be a problem.”
I told her I could call someone with the campaign who would have more information about accommodations for people with disabilities, someone whom she could speak with directly. As I pulled out my phone, Shirley told me to step inside out of the rain. The house was dark and cramped, and you could tell Shirley was pretty much confined to her couch. I dialed the Woodbridge campaign field office, and a woman name Stacy answered on the first ring.
“Hello, Stacy. My name is David. I'm out canvassing today, and I'm with a woman named Shirley who is interested in voting today. She has some problems walking and is legally blind, so she has some questions about getting to the precinct and reading the ballot.”
Stacy was like the cavalry coming to the rescue. “OK. Tell Shirley I can come pick her up. I have a handicap decal in my car and a service dog, so we should be all set.”
I put Shirley on the phone, and she gave Stacy her address. Stacy said she could come right away, but Shirley asked for a half hour, so she could get properly dressed. I told Shirley I would be back in thirty minutes to make sure Stacy found the house and everything went as planned.
I hurried through the rain to finish the last four or five houses on my walk list. No one was home at any of the remaining houses. I hoped that meant they were all at the elementary school voting. Returning to Shirley's house, I waited out front in my car for Stacy to show up.
When Stacy arrived, right on time, we walked up to Shirley's door and knocked. We stood waiting for maybe 10 minutes. I figured Shirley might still be getting dressed and that it would take her a while to walk to the door. Stacy and I made small talk about the campaign and about Virginia.
Shirley finally opened the door and stood fully dressed, in a fleece jacket, but without shoes. She said she couldn't find them. We offered to help her look, but Shirley said she would prefer to just go vote in her socks. Again, it was cold and wet. I went and rustled through my car to see if any of my wife's shoes were laying on the floorboard. No luck. We decided to drive to the nearby K-Mart and pick up some cheap shoes for her to wear to the precinct.
After helping Shirley down the steps and into the passenger seat of Stacy's car, I followed them on the short drive to K-Mart. Stacy ran in to get the shoes, and I knelt in the parking lot, talking to Shirley through her open car door.
She told me that before moving to Woodbridge she lived in Arlington for 50 years. She described how much the area had changed, how the farms and open areas had been pushed farther and farther out from town. Shirley said that once, several years ago, she rode with a friend into downtown Arlington, where Shirley wanted to find a particular intersection that she remembered. They drove around for nearly an hour and never found it.
Night was falling. A flock of seagulls flew over the parking lot, making a lot of noise. Shirley looked up through the open car door into the darkening gray sky. She said, “Wow, there's a bunch of 'em. You think they're on their way to vote?”
We talked about the campaign, about what each candidate was offering. I told her that I was excited about all of the new people engaged in politics because of Senator Obama's candidacy.
She had more questions about what would happen at the precinct and how she would read the ballot. I didn't know all the answers, but I told her we would figure it out and the poll workers would help us.
I said, “They can't turn you away. If you show up, you get to vote. That's your right.”
“Now, if I don't pick the same one as you, is that a problem?” she asked.
I paused. “No, not at all. That's democracy.”
“I don't know nothin' about democracy,” she said, with a chuckle.
“Well, it just means that we each make our own choice. Nobody decides for us.”
We talked again about the campaign. I told her that I thought nearly everybody in the country agreed that the Bush Administration was a disaster. Shirley nodded her head. I said that President Bush's failures didn't result just from incompetence, not just from mistakes. His failures were the result of a tired old philosophy, a mixed up view of the world. I told her I thought the government's priorities no longer reflected the people's priorities and that Senator Obama's candidacy gave us all a chance to change course, to reclaim our government.
She nodded and said, “We do need a drastic change.”
Stacy returned and helped the new plain, white tennis shoes onto Shirley's feet. We started driving toward the precinct. It was dark now, and the rain was still falling.
Following the tail lights of Stacy's car through the neighborhood streets, I realized I had no idea who Shirley was going to vote for. And I was comfortable with that. I felt like we were sharing in a victory just by helping Shirley vote for the first time in her life. All the old platitudes I had heard all my life about voting and empowerment were suddenly powerful and personal. Shirley was overcoming real obstacles to vote. She was leaving her house, with people she did not know, on a physically exhausting trip to a place where she thought she might be confused and intimidated. And she was willing to do it with no shoes on her feet, in the cold and wet.
There was one final obstacle. As we passed Shirley's house on the way to the precinct, I watched Stacy's car pull to a stop. I pulled up behind her, wondering what was going on. Shirley said she had left her purse, with her identification, in the house. We helped her up through the yard, to the door, only to discover that it was locked and the key was inside. The knob had locked behind Shirley when we left for K-Mart. Even if we had gone to the polls right then without her ID, she would still be locked out of her house when she got home. So we stood in the misting rain, thinking of our options. Were there any doors or windows unlocked? No. Was there anyone we could call who would have a key? No. She said her son wouldn't be home until very late, and she didn't know how to get a hold of him.
Stacy said, “I could probably pick this lock with a credit card.”
I pulled out my wallet and handed her my United Airlines frequent flyer card. The short training they gave us before canvassing did not include picking locks, but nothing was going to stop us at this point.
Stacy had no luck with the front door, but the back door opened on her first attempt.
“Wow. And I thought Republicans were the break-in experts,” I said.
Shirley found her purse. We also found a wheelchair that Shirley hadn't known was there, folded up against a wall. I loaded it into the trunk of Stacy's car. After one more trek down the slippery porch steps and across the soggy yard, we took off for the polls.
The elementary school was less than a mile down the road. The parking lot was nearly full, and the line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. I helped Shirley into the wheelchair and put an umbrella in her hand. I knew I couldn't follow them inside the precinct, because I was wearing an Obama shirt and that would violate Virginia law. After making sure they would be okay getting Shirley back home, I said goodbye to both Shirley and Stacy on the sidewalk. I thanked them both, and they both thanked me. I headed toward my car, to drive home and watch election results. They headed toward the school, to make democracy work. One more first-time voter from Woodbridge, Virginia.