Knock On More Doors

New York City does frustratingly little to politically inform its citizens.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Before this summer, I detested the phone calls I received from political campaigns. Since I cannot vote, I did not see the point in responding to these messages. My family constantly talks about politics, so I never considered these calls informative. Thus, when I began my internship for a New York area congressional campaign this August, excited to learn how a political campaign is run, I was surprised to learn that my job on the first day was to phone bank for four hours. Since I had never seen anyone interact with campaign calls (except to ask to be taken off the calling list), I doubted I would actually get to talk to someone.

At times, calling felt meaningless because most people refused to answer my questions. After the first time someone yelled at me, the girl sitting next to me offered some advice: “Don’t worry, they don’t really seem like people after a while.” But I quickly learned that every vote counts in a way I had never understood. To my surprise, those who picked up often didn’t know an election was taking place. Since it was the first August primary in New York, I was met with countless comments like “I just voted in June! What am I supposed to be voting for now?” New York City was recently redistricted, so many citizens I talked to were confused about which district they lived in and should vote in. During the tens of thousands of phone calls we made, most of our discussions helped voters learn where to research candidates, explained how to find their districts and polling locations, and assisted them with making plans to vote. We encouraged voting early and by absentee ballots so that everyone who could not make it to a polling site on election day would be able to vote.

New York City does frustratingly little to politically inform its citizens. There was plenty of information about the election online, but it was not well advertised. There are many ways that the city could get a higher voter turnout. For example, the LinkNYC screens on sidewalks and in the subways could feature information about elections, as could the ads in subway cars and stations. Such little awareness impacts voter turnout: according to counts on primary day, in the 16 Democratic congressional primaries in New York State, about 13.4 percent of the over four million registered Democrats voted, a disappointingly small percentage.

To bring as much attention to the election as we could, interns walked through every neighborhood in the district our candidate was running to represent and asked small businesses if we could place posters with information about the election. As we taped posters to storefronts, passersby would stop to ask us questions about the candidate. It seemed as if people only noticed the posters because they saw others putting them up. Every “Thank you for doing this,” “We really appreciate your work,” and “I did this too when I was younger” kept us energized and reminded us that face-to-face interaction was effective. Once, my postering partner and I even got cold water from a kind deli owner at the end of a very hot day. Another time, two interns and I were at a farmers’ market early in the morning handing out flyers about the election, and one vendor gave us fresh peaches at the end of a four-hour shift. Every person we talked to mattered. For me, it was no longer about voting for the candidate I was working for: it was about getting people to vote.

I knocked on hundreds of doors and discussed policies, which I assumed was uncommon in New York City. Many people slammed their doors in my face, and even more didn’t answer in the first place. But the few who did often had questions about my candidate or needed help voting. As I walked nearly 15 miles every day, I helped people choose their representative. Interns positioned themselves in high-traffic areas, especially train stations and parks, and talked to potential voters, sometimes canvassing with the candidate. Citizens were much more willing to have conversations and ask me policy questions on the street than on the phone. People wanted to know why the interns, most of us not even old enough to vote, cared about a campaign. All of us responded that despite our age, we recognized how crucial it is to vote. From what I gathered, most of us follow politics pretty closely, which studies show is linked to how politically aware one’s parents are. After working on this campaign, I feel as if I truly understand why my parents make a point never to miss an election, no matter how small it is.

In school, I have always been taught that our democracy is important and we need to vote, and I grew up around people who follow politics very closely. I had no idea that our city, which prides itself on democracy, barely helps citizens be an active part. I joined the campaign to learn about the inner workings of an election, but my biggest job was ensuring everyone knew when, how, and where to vote. Every phone call, even if unsuccessful, mattered. I encourage every Stuyvesant student to work on a campaign if the chance arises and to appreciate what goes into getting democracy to work.