“I will be at the polls bright and early tomorrow!” said the young man who answered his door to a volunteer from Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) this afternoon. Paula Hawthorn, a retired computer scientist who had spent the last two hours knocking on doors in North Oakland’s District 1 area, brightened. Voting is today, she told him. His polling station wouldn’t be open tomorrow. So the young man said he would talk to his girlfriend and find time to vote before 8 p.m.
“That’s what it’s about,” Hawthorn said, walking down Lusk Street. “I’m a happy person now.” If she could get just two people to the polls who otherwise wouldn’t have voted—or would have forgotten to vote—she says she’d count herself “extraordinarily successful.”
In a general election that Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Depuis forecasts will have an unprecedentedly low turnout—perhaps only 40 to 45 percent of registered voters—every vote is crucial to those working on “get out the vote” campaigns. OCO is an alliance of congregations, schools and community organizations that works to improve Oakland through education reform, violence prevention and civic engagement. It is affiliated with congregations of many different denominations and faiths. Today, OCO staff and volunteers spent the day phoning residents and knocking on doors to make sure that the 8,200 voters they have engaged with since mid-August, encouraging them to vote, actually cast their ballots.
OCO works with churches and schools across Oakland to engage their constituents on issues such as gun violence and immigration reform. It has many programs, including Ceasefire, the violence prevention strategy based on collaboration between community leaders and the police. The group has been urging people to vote yes on Measures N and Z which would, respectively, expand college readiness programs in high schools, and fund extra police officers, and Proposition 47, which would decriminalize non-violent drug offenses, through phone banking, distributing literature and, today, “ballot chasing”—making sure that eligible voters get to the polls.
OCO focuses on encouraging voting among new voters and people of color, director Amy Fitzgerald said. She said that of the roughly 8,000 voters they have called, only about 1,500 are Caucasian. “We believe in a fundamental need to change voter demographics across Oakland and across the USA,” Fitzgerald said.
One of the youngest campaigners was Maya Nuñez-Adler, 12, whose mother Katy works for OCO. When asked how long she’s worked on voter engagement, Maya said, “Like, my entire life.” It’s really important to volunteer, Maya said, and she plans to do it in the future as well, if she can reconcile it with her ambition to be a singer. One of her classmates from the Oakland School For the Arts, who like Maya had taken a day off from school to canvas, suggested that they sing at the doors of potential voters.
Father Aidan McAleenan, of St. Columba Catholic Church in North Oakland, said that he had told his congregation that it would be a sin not to vote Yes on Proposition 47, a state ballot initiative which would reclassify a half dozen felonies as misdemeanors, which supporters say would ease the burden on California’s criminal justice system and reduce penalties for low-level offenders. McAleenan, who came to California from Belfast 29 years ago, was also out with OCO today, and was busy planning the party for volunteers this evening as they watch the results come in. He said he had told churchgoers, “I expect everybody to vote, and vote right, and to vote like Jesus would.”
But getting out the vote can be a tough job. In over two hours of canvassing, one man spoke to Hawthorn through a closed door; another smiled toothlessly at her and tried to hug her; one woman said she would be voting as soon as she finished work. Many more were not home, but Hawthorn left door hangers with the address of the resident’s nearest polling place filled in by hand. “It’s incredibly important,” she said of knocking on doors. “And it’s also an extraordinary waste of time.” Hawthorn has been campaigning for Measure Z this election cycle with her church, and joined up with OCO after finding out that her regular community would not be going door-to-door today.
Once the 42 precincts in districts 1, 3, 5 and 7 have all been canvassed on foot, OCO volunteers will continue calling voters until shortly before the polls close. It’s an emotional day for many of the volunteers. “I almost started crying on my way to work this morning,” said Fitzgerald, who had been at OCO headquarters in East Oakland until near-midnight the night before preparing for Tuesday’s efforts. “It’s like Christmas, Fourth of July and my birthday all rolled into one.”