Galvanized by national politics, Oakland gets out the vote

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At 6 a.m. on Election Day, volunteers at the East Bay for Everyone headquarters on Franklin Street in downtown Oakland began calling voters in swing districts across the country. They’ll work until the polls close at 8 p.m. in California, talking to people about the issues that matter to them and where the nearest polling station is.

Leaders handed out water, candy and snacks to volunteers intent on making as many phone calls as possible. Oftentimes, no one picked up, but every few minutes a volunteer rang a bell, signaling that they made contact with a voter. More than 300 people have rotated through phone bank shifts since Saturday, a number almost unheard-of for a midterm election cycle, organizers said.

“In an off year, we hardly get any volunteers,” said Sam Burd, a longtime volunteer with Commit to Flip Blue and Democracy Action, two local groups helping run the phone bank Tuesday.

It was a sentiment echoed by many local organizers: Volunteers are turning out in droves to encourage people to vote. Many have never been politically active before.

“This year everyone is eager to get out. We haven’t had to ask for volunteers. People have come to us,” Burd said. Many who have come out of the political woodwork are millennials and people who normally only pay attention during presidential elections. In a majority-blue state like California, many of these new activists have been spurred to act by the turmoil of the national political machine, said Jacqueline Collins, lead phone banker and volunteer with Democracy Action.

“I think a lot of people woke up the day after the presidential election were like, ‘Whoa, I wish I had done something to help during the election,'” Collins said.

Josh Geyer, 36, felt so strongly about the midterm elections that he took time off of work to volunteer with East Bay for Everyone. At 1 p.m. he had already been making calls for four hours. As a Democrat living in a district where they are the majority, Geyer said he felt he could have more influence calling voters in swing districts.

“In areas where it could go either way, any small contribution could flip it,” Geyer said.

Down the street on Broadway, staffers from the Kapor Center for Social Impact, a non-profit focused on increasing diversity in the tech industry, had set up a booth offering churros and lemonade for people who voted. Two employees manned the station all day, taking shifts and helping passersby find their polling station. The center has never done something like this before, but one of their goals is empowering people and voting is an important part of that, media relations director Kim Bardakian said.

“About 80 percent of people walking by have already sent in a ballot,” Bardakian said. “There’s a phenomenal sense that people are getting out. It feels like a general election.”

The Kapor Center isn’t alone in its first-time efforts to encourage voter turnout. Even people who are too young to vote have volunteered to phone bank or canvass Oakland neighborhoods. Yzmine Lopez, 17, and her cousins Isaac Vilanova, 16, and Israel Vilanova, 14, spent three days knocking on doors with Oakland Rising. They’re among about 10 other underaged residents who have gone door-knocking with the group in the past few days.

“This is important to our community,” Lopez said. “We need improvement.”

Volunteers have completed nearly 200 five-hour shifts with Oakland Rising over the past weekend, knocking on doors and asking people if they voted. About one-third of the volunteers have never canvassed before, said Reverend Damita Davis-Howard, the political director for the group.

In past years, data has shown that the people Oakland Rising contacts vote at a rate about 17 percent higher than the county average, Davis-Howard said. Making that personal contact is important, she believes.

“There are quite a few people who are on the fence,” said Rose Mendelsohn, a volunteer for Oakland Rising. “All it takes is that extra push.”

Mendelsohn began knocking on doors in Oakland at noon on Election Day, and at 5 p.m. she was still hard at work, crossing out the names of people who answered the door and leaving flyers for those who didn’t. Mendelsohn and her volunteering partner, Jose Luis Pavon, took opposite sides of East 16th Street in East Oakland, each equipped with a stack of papers bearing the names and addresses of people who had previously said they supported certain local propositions.

At the first house, no one answered. Not unusual, Mendelsohn said. At the second home, a woman carrying a small child said she intended to vote but hadn’t had time. At the third home, a man said he was waiting for his brother to get home before heading to the polling station down the street.

“We’re getting a better response than usual,” Mendelsohn said.

Pavon, who has been a local activist for 25 years, agreed. “Other years it feels like you’re pulling teeth,” he said. “There’s definitely a higher morale to vote, and considering it’s not a presidential election, it’s unusual.”

It’s encouraging for local activists to see such fervent engagement, said phone banker Burd.

“The people that get out the vote best are the ones that are going to win,” he said.

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