In 2004, I worked for the North Carolina Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign. With then-sitting U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) on the national ticket as John Kerry’s running mate, North Carolina was thought to be in play for the fall.
So for the first time in years (if not ever), the various Democratic campaigns in N.C. reached an agreement to fund voter registration efforts. In the past, this work had been left to non-profits and other, non-party groups. This time around, the state party was determined to go the extra mile to try and turn North Carolina blue for Kerry-Edwards, not to mention holding onto Edwards’ Senate seat by helping former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles beat Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
A team of voter registration organizers were brought on board, and dispersed throughout the state in areas with historically high levels of Democratic turnout. As one of the few organizers with past voter registration experience, I was placed in charge of Durham and Orange counties, the state’s Democratic strongholds. Although they account for only 2% of the 100 counties in North Carolina, Durham and Orange typically produce 25% of the statewide Democratic vote.
Our voter registration goal for the cycle was 42,000. As it turned out, the party fell short of its goal, and only registered about 34,000 new voters in all.
In Durham and Orange, however, we blew past our goals and signed up 9,200 voters, approximately 27% of the total number registered statewide. Even better, nearly two-thirds of them were Democrats, versus a very low number of Republicans, maybe 10-15 percent.
We were far from the only group in town doing voter registration. Everywhere you turned, it seemed, someone was registering voters that year. Non-profit advocacy groups like Democracy North Carolina and NC NARAL, grassroots alliances like Durham for Kerry and the local MoveOn chapter, they all launched their own voter registration drives before the Democrats even got started. The student governments at UNC-CH, NCCU and Duke registered students to vote, in official drives that were separate from the voter registration efforts we and other groups helped coordinate on the three campuses.
But even with lots of competition, we were able to produce such high numbers for several reasons. The pool of potentially unregistered, Democratic-leaning voters in both counties was deep by definition, in the state’s two most liberal counties. Even folks normally detached from politics were energized by the unfolding disaster of George W. Bush’s first term in the White House, and the mess he’d gotten us into by invading Iraq. And although North Carolina hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, people thought this year, with John Edwards, a sitting U.S. Senator from our own state on the national ticket, North Carolina might just go blue.
The most important factor was that we mobilized a ridiculous number of local volunteers into a grassroots voter registration army. Traditionally, volunteering for a political campaign means signing up for one of three basic activities – phonebanking, canvassing voters door-to-door, or databasing. Some people are willing to do any of the three, and some prefer one activity over the others. But when we started running two training sessions a day for volunteers to learn how to register voters, people got interested fast. Soon, we had to find more and more sites to send the avalanche of volunteers who decided they liked going out into the community and registering new voters.
By the voter registration deadline in early October, more than 400 volunteers were working with us to register voters in both counties, with teams on the ground three shifts a day. From the Durham Democratic party headquarters, we deployed volunteer voter registrars to high-traffic sites all over Durham and Orange – grocery stores, bus stations, college campuses, libraries, concerts, festivals, and anywhere else where we could get permission to register voters.
Our voter registration volunteers were an amazing bunch. They were willing to go wherever we sent them, whether it was registering liberal yuppies on the lawn of Weaver Street Market in Carrboro or low-income residents of East Durham outside the Lowe’s Foods on Holloway Street. They set up shop for hours at a time to snare new voters, braving rain and cold, sometimes not returning to the office until late at night with their stacks of completed voter registration forms.
Although we were Democrats, our voter registration was non-partisan – we registered anyone who wanted to, including Republicans. During 2004, Republican parties in several battleground states hired companies to conduct shady voter registration drives. Democrats were registered, but their forms were thrown out instead of being properly delivered to local elections boards. The N.C. Democratic Party made it clear to everyone involved with its voter registration efforts that failure to turn in filled-out voter registration forms was a firing offense, or cause for a volunteer’s dismissal.
Still, there were plenty of places that wouldn’t allow even non-partisan voter registration on their premises. We couldn’t register voters, and neither could any non-profit organization that wasn’t a political party. These included places like the major malls in Durham, Wal-Mart locations, and surprisingly, all the area post offices, except the Franklin Street branch in downtown Chapel Hill, which has a long-standing tradition of allowing citizens to petition outside on its plaza.
As our volunteer ranks exploded, and the number of voters we were adding to the rolls reached into the thousands, everyone started getting giddy. We thought maybe we could drum up enough new voters in Durham and Orange alone to tip the statewide balance and win North Carolina for the Democrats.
On the last day of voter registration for the November elections, I encouraged several of my most hardcore, committed volunteers to go directly to some of these same high-traffic places where we’d been forbidden to register voters. We discussed strategies to use when they’d inevitably be asked to leave, and what might play out. It was up to them whether they wanted to commit civil disobedience for the cause of voter registration, but several folks were willing that day, and they did. One courageous volunteer, Susan Baylies, later wrote an account of her experience that appeared in the Independent Weekly’s Front Porch:
by SUSAN BAYLIES
Before this election season I didn't consider myself very political. I always vote for president, but I rarely noticed those little elections. Now my minivan carries card tables, chairs and clipboards of voter registration forms at all times. I think my desire to volunteer was bolstered by MoveOn.org and Fahrenheit 9/11.
One Saturday, I volunteered with a local nonprofit to spend all day driving around, knocking on doors where no one was home, and then leaving lame flyers on doorsteps of already registered voters. It seemed like a colossal waste of time, but the great thing they taught me was how to register voters correctly. I decided that until the Oct. 8 deadline, any time I could spare would go to helping people register.
First I tried going door to door in my own neighborhood. Most people were happy I called on them and several did need to register. Then I began volunteering with the Democrats by setting up a table at Food Lions or Kmarts. It was exciting to sign up first time voters. I made signs to go with each table and then I printed up some T-shirts that read, "Are You Registered to Vote?" I live in those shirts.
As Oct. 8 approached, I found myself going solo asking people everywhere if they were registered. I stopped at a convenience store where a bunch of men were hanging out. They had never voted before, but were glad to sign up if it meant they could help get rid of George Bush.
I saw everything through new eyes, asking myself, "How many potential Kerry voters are in this crowd? Should I speak up?" Sometimes I would be non-partisan, sometimes openly pro-Kerry, depending on whether I thought some manager might ask me to leave. At fast-food restaurants I would hang a sign at my table, "Register to Vote Here."
For the final day I thought a post office would be the best spot. I had heard that the manager at the post office on Estes Street in Chapel Hill had denied permission to the Democrats to set up there. They were covering the other post offices, so I decided to go there anyway. I set up my card table and signs at 2:30 p.m. without asking. I had forgotten my chairs, but some angel sent another self-made guerrilla voter registrar to my side. He approached me with clipboard in arm, wearing a black baseball cap topped with a goofy yellow handwritten sign saying "Register to Vote Here." He said, "I guess we're here for the same reason. Wanna work together?" I said, "Sure, but I don't have any chairs." No problem, he had four chairs in his car but no table. He also pulled out a huge homemade sign saying "LAST DAY to Register to Vote!"
Three or four people immediately flocked to our table, and then the postal manager came out. "It's against our policy for you to set up here, you will have to leave immediately." I made my best case for staying, pointing out that voter registration was allowed at other post offices, including Franklin Street; I was doing my non-partisan American duty and it was the last three hours of voter registration. He brought another employee to back him up, and she said we could move way across the parking lot right by the street, off the post office's private property. I shook my head--no, I don't think so.
By now, a woman who was registering got quite angry and said to the postal worker, "That's ridiculous! What's your name? I'm going to write a letter to the newspaper about this."
With all these supportive witnesses, I pulled out my trump card. "I'm not leaving here until 5:30 p.m. Call the police to drag me away if you don't like it." Baseball cap angel said, "Whew! Sounds like we should call the media right now!" He whipped out a cell phone and began talking to the news desk at The N&O to see if they wanted to send out a reporter. The postal employee blustered, "It's not me, my supervisor has this policy, I just have to enforce my boss' rules." I repeated, "I'm not leaving." Everyone was agitated. Baseball cap suggested he call that boss. So they retreated inside the post office and he came back five minutes later saying we could stay.
We were all elated with the Victory for the People! Baseball cap called off the media and we continued with our brisk registration service, helping 50-60 people register in the next three hours. Several people donated whole sheets of stamps. The postal teller smiled as she hand-stamped the crucial postmark on every form we ran in.
It was a good day to be assertive. I have never been arrested or stood up to authority like that before, but getting out the vote this year is worth it.
The volunteers who mobilized to register voters in Durham and Orange then became the backbone of a highly successful early vote campaign and election day GOTV operations. During two weeks of early voting, 46,000 votes were cast in Durham versus 10,600 in 2000; and 33,000 people voted in Orange compared with 9,000 in 2000.
The two biggest blue dots on this map are Orange and Durham counties.
The weekend before the elections, Rep. David Price was on hand to watch the crowd of election day volunteers streaming into our headquarters, so big they filled the parking lot. “They trained 1,000 people in Durham,” he was overheard saying later, in wonderment. It was the largest outpouring of volunteer support ever seen for a North Carolina election.
In the end, all our efforts didn’t matter, because the results in November weren’t even close. Bush took 56 percent of the vote, versus 43.5 percent for the Kerry/Edwards ticket, almost identical to his 56-43 victory in North Carolina over Gore in 2000.
But lots of people got involved in grassroots politics because of our efforts that year, and many of them stayed involved. We registered a lot of Democrats to vote in the Triangle, and helped build a more progressive North Carolina for the future. It was a remarkable election season. I’ll never forget the dedicated, good-hearted people I met and worked with that year, like Susan Baylies. It was a moment when a diverse section of the community came together in a humble office building in Durham to fight together for something we all believed in.