I turned the corner with my walk sheet, wilted by sweat. Late October, warm, a quiet Sunday. I was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, so had to carefully peer for an address.
The neighborhood was split between neat starter homes and public housing. For some, it was a day of gardening. Others had the vacuum cleaner and car wax out in the driveway.
Far from an annoyance, being in new parts of Durham is one of my favorite parts of pre-election canvassing. Without the challenge of 50 doors to knock on, I’d never have made the left onto these streets. We all get stuck in routines: home to work to friends to stores, churches and favored restaurants and watering holes. Even the most intrepid Durhamsters tend to save their exploring for travel outside the city.
But canvassing prior to an election – knocking on doors to encourage people to register to vote and by the way select my favored candidates – allows me to see the city from new angles. “Canvassing” is a term political junkies like me use without knowing exactly where the word comes from. In politics, it’s both one of the most time-consuming and effective ways of ensuring a favorable turn-out.
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But why the word “canvassing”? Does it mean applying colors to the streets, like painting a canvas? Perhaps rolling up voters securely (then why isn’t it rolling or kidnapping)? According to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, the word “canvass” means to sift a powder or grain, an origin that makes me feel confused and a little hungry (grain = flour = that Guglhupf pastry left over from breakfast and waiting back home). Other dictionaries contend that canvass meant sorting people by tossing them in a taut sheet, either in fun or as a punishment.
Walking the Forum
What’s not in dispute is that personally contacting likely voters is as old as democracy itself. In Rome, candidates would walk the Forum to shake the hands of eligible voters and request their support. Their slaves, called nomenclators or name-callers, would whisper the memorized names of voters into the candidates’ ears so that the candidate could greet them personally.
I was heartily glad I didn’t have to toss anyone into the air. It’s hard enough to get people to open the door. Sometimes, a child would answer, ensuring that a flustered parent wasn’t far behind. Or I’d hear the shuffle from behind a firmly closed door, seen but avoided.
About a third of the time, I’d get to talk to an actual human. What struck me most is how little voters knew or cared about an election that, for most, has the most visible impact on their lives. Out of the city’s 193,346 eligible voters, only 36,181, or 18.71 per cent, actually voted on Nov. 7. Is waste collection a problem? Policing? City parks? Traffic? All of these are handled by city leaders and dramatically shape our days.
On the positive side, the most welcome feature of municipal elections is the lack of partisanship. A poisonous and divisive clatter has thoroughly demeaned political talk at the national and state level. Our city’s purposefully non-partisan election reveals a shocker (not). The candidates lining up for the often thankless tasks of zoning meetings, late-night budget wrangles and long-term city planning are all solid, good, thoughtful people.
On the streets I trudged
Of course, I have strong views on why and how partisanship happens and who fuels it. But on the streets I trudged that Sunday, all of that was pretty much irrelevant. Deep down, few people relate partisanship to local issues. In Durham, we tend to be in violent agreement about ensuring health and safety, bettering opportunities, supporting kids, helping the less fortunate and coming to consensus decisions.
Except for That Guy. You probably have one in your neighborhood (and it is almost always a guy): the one scowling as he opens the door. At one level, I get it – my Sunday afternoons are a lovely respite I fill with the garden or a good book or, best of all, a long nap. Being disturbed is no one’s choice.
But he could have ignored the doorbell. What That Guy wanted was a fight.
Well, there I was. My spiel: Durham resident, supporting (great person). Election coming up, blah-de-blah.
That Guy: I only vote for president.
Me: (scrambling) Durham is changing and we’re electing a new mayor and…
That Guy: I only care about presidential elections.
Me: (ceding) Have a great Sunday!
Still, I came away a little pumped. There’s nothing so hard, so frustrating, so inefficient and so beautiful as democracy. That Guy won’t vote. But the new citizen on the corner will. The retired couple in their duplex proudly showed me “I voted” stickers. So did the colleague I was surprised to find at the neat A frame. My co-workers and daughter, my favored barista, my new hair stylist and mail carrier all voted.
I got news for That Guy. You’re missing out.
And you’re welcome.
Robin Kirk, a writer and human rights advocate, teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org