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Even in the digital age, American voters prefer the human touch

Fran Hawthorne writes about the experience of canvassing for votes in one US electorate.
A voting booth used in the US midterm elections. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg)
A voting booth used in the US midterm elections. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg)

Up five steps to the front porch of the two-storey redbrick house with a white picket fence, where the door is answered by a middle-aged man in a black T-shirt, holding the leash of a small white dog.

“Domenic Recchia?” he smiled. “I know him. He spoke at my son’s school.”

The man promised to vote for Mr Recchia, the Democratic candidate for the US House of Representatives from that section of New York City.

Down five steps.

Up five steps to another redbrick house, a wind chime tinkling softly on the front porch.

“I will never vote for a Democrat,” declared the dark-haired woman sitting on a lawn chair and speaking in a heavy Russian accent.

“Not the way Barack Obama is trying to turn this country socialist. I lived in a socialist country, I know what it’s like on my skin.”

Down five steps.

So it went on a windy Saturday afternoon in September, in a residential neighbourhood seven blocks from the Coney Island boardwalk, in that cherished ritual of US politics: door-to-door canvassing for votes.

Even in the age of Twitter, Facebook and multi-million-dollar TV advertising, Americans who hope to be elected to public office still rely on such direct contact with voters.

“People want to see and hear from the campaign, and from their neighbours,” said Ashleigh Owens, campaign manager for Mr Recchia, a former New York City Council member who ultimately lost the congressional race by 42.3 per cent to 55.4 per cent. “They don’t necessarily believe the [advertising] hype.”

Although this particular district traditionally votes Republican, the Democrats had spotlighted Mr Recchia’s campaign as one of its few strong chances in a bleak year to flip a congressional seat to its side, pouring more than $1 million into TV ads.

That is because the incumbent, Michael Grimm, a former Marine and FBI agent, was under indictment for financial fraud related to a restaurant he once owned.

Mr Grimm claimed that the federal justice department unfairly targeted him for political reasons. His trial is scheduled to start next month.

In the end, Mr Recchia was unable to overcome “a cycle when everything was working against the Democrats”, said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College in suburban New York and a frequent contributor to Fox News and Al Jazeera America. In addition, Mr Recchia was hurt by weak performances in the candidates debates.

The Democrats’ unsuccessful effort began in March by collecting 6,000 signatures to officially place Mr Recchia’s name on the ballot.

For the rest of the spring and into the summer, the handful of paid staffers focused on two organisational goals. They recruited dozens of volunteers, ranging from high school students to Mr Recchia’s cousins. And those volunteers fanned out around the district offering New York State voter registration forms. They ultimately enrolled more than 6,500 new voters, one of the highest totals in the country.

Two types of direct voter contact were added to the registration drive in the autumn. “Persuasion” volunteers asked residents if they had been thinking about whom they might vote for in the election and what issues were most important to them.

“Turnout” volunteers did much the same, but they also urged anyone who seemed sympathetic to volunteer, put a “Recchia” placard on their lawn, and sign a “commit to vote” postcard that would be mailed to them close to election day.

Finally, a few weeks before the election, everything shifted to turnout. Supporters got multiple reminders to go to the polls.

On one two-hour “turnout” walk involving 62 homes spread over 10 blocks, only 17 people were home.

Two of the names were deceased, one had moved and one man outright refused to answer the door.

Despite defeat on election day many of these same foot soldiers will be back two years hence, ringing the same doorbells.

Barbara Felder, a college freshman who hopes to become a lawyer specialising in international civil liberties, was recruited as a volunteer during a voter registration drive. “I am waiting on Hillary in 2016,” she grinned.

Fran Hawthorne is a US-based journalist and author who specialises in covering the nexus of business, finance, and social policy. She did some volunteer door-to-door canvassing for Domenic Recchia in this campaign

Updated: November 8, 2014 04:00 AM



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