Confessions of a Phone Bank Captain

I’ll begin by locating myself in virtual and real space: In the latter I sit at a desk in a cottage, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean from the coast of Maine. I have a cup of cooled coffee in a mug that reads “For the Love of Pete, Vote Joe.”

In virtual space, I am in a breakout room of volunteers making phone calls to Colorado. Our awesome field organizers are Nailah and Charlotte. On my MacBook Pro I see myself and nine other volunteers. We are in the “new room” where I took everyone through a 20-minute training on the dialer software we use to connect with voters. Theo just returned to his computer with a cup of something to drink. Anna has her chin in her hand, a thoughtful pose as she makes her first calls and enters data.

Our job this morning is to Get Out The Vote, or GOTV in campaign parlance. We are calling supporters, though once in a while we find ourselves talking to someone supporting President Trump. In that case the dynamic script shifts to “Thanks for your time, have a nice day.” For everyone else, we find out if they have voted yet, and if not we help them find the closest dropbox or in-person voting location. In the training, I urged volunteers to have IWillVote.com open in a window of their computers — it’s a drop-dead easy way to help anyone vote.

I just heard a voice in my Air Pods Pro. “Len?” Anna asked. She was the one holding her chin thoughtfully, in the upper left square of my Zoom screen. “Yes, what’s up Anna?”

She was having trouble with her computer’s audio. When she clicked on the dial button for a voter, she should have been able to hear the sound of their phone ringing, but instead there was silence. I asked if she is working on a Mac or a PC — PC, she said — and we tried a few troubleshooting ideas, which she is now testing. I can see her at work, but no audio.

“Try a few more calls and see if you can hear the dialing,” I suggested. “I’ll be here if you’re still having trouble.”

In some ways I prefer making calls to serving as a Phone Bank Captain. Those conversations with real voters are memorable and sometimes intense. When I get an undecided voter on the line, they often sound sheepish, as if it’s a character defect to not have decided yet.

“An undecided voter! “I say with genuine enthusiasm. “ You’re the first one I’ve talked with today. How will you be deciding? What are the most important issues for you?”

The role of the Phone Bank Captain is to train volunteers on the dialer and then hang out in the New Room for help as needed. That means there is time available for, say, writing notes on my new Freewrite Traveler keyboard, or reading a few pages from Bob Woodward’s Rage book. But you have to be ready to answer a question in the Zoom chat, or answer an audio request for help. Even with a small number of volunteers in the room, I feel useful knowing that, if I can solve a problem, I might help someone to keep going, to make another 50 calls that would otherwise not get made.

The truth is, I love helping people with tech problems, so this feels natural.

“Hey, Len,” I hear in my air pods. It’s Rodina, my tech person for the new room. “I’m about to go get some tea. I’ll be right back.”

Rodina gave the “field pitch” yesterday for one of the two-hour shifts. Her story was powerful. She’s working to elect Biden, because she feels fear as an immigrant. Her parents fled civil war in the Sudan. Hers is just one story, from one square on the Zoom grid. Together, they all add up to powerful confirmation of the need to win this election, to return our nation to values that have made it a beacon of hope for people all over the world.

Anna just broke in by audio, saying a voter has three ballots that someone was supposed to pick up and take to a dropbox. The voter is quarantined with COVID and can’t do it herself. I checked with the team to see what our options are, and Nailah said if Anna is willing to deliver them herself that would be great. I texted Anna, ending with “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

“Yes!” she texted back. “I can do it. She is only 15m away. I can do it at 11am. I can text her directly and coordinate that.”

This gives me chills: Three actual votes added to the Colorado tally on Election Day.

Real world: I am sitting by a fire in the fireplace, watching early returns on CNN.

Virtual world: The only other screen I’m watching is a small e Ink display on my Traveler. No tweets, no text messages, no distractions from writing — that’s the idea of this writer’s gadget invented by a startup in Detroit named Astrohaus.

If Biden wins Florida, Trump loses. End of drama, well before midnight. Oh please.

My six hours on Zoom earlier today are a happy blur. I helped a guy named Jeff get hooked up to the dialer on his Mac. I gave him my mobile number, because he had to disconnect from Zoom to make the connection work. I was outside here at the cottage in Maine, turning a steak over on the grill, when he called from Colorado to report that he’d talked with a few voters and felt good about the time he’d spent making calls. “Awesome!” I told Jeff. We weren’t exactly sure how to sign off, strangers who had connected in a joint effort two time zones apart, linked by the net and common commitment to Joe Biden.

Joe just took the lead in Florida, with 22 percent of the vote in.

At the volunteer leaders’ huddle at the end of my last shift, we exchanged farewells and waved hands in our Zoom boxes. “I’m 70, and working with you guys has made me feel like I’m 30,” I said in signing off. It was true. I wasn’t the only Boomer on the team, but we were in a minority. Our two field organizers appear to be in their 20s. They ran a smooth, smart, calm operation, putting in 80-hour weeks. One was in Denver, the other in Nashville. Their passion for the work was genuine and therefore infectious.

I quickly grew to love my field organizers and fellow volunteers, known as “vols” in campaign speak. It’s okay that I probably won’t see any of them again, in the virtual or real worlds. We didn’t exchange coordinates or plan a reunion. We’d worked like ER nurses, calling voters across Colorado, asking them if they planned to use a dropbox or mail, helping them find their polling locations, urging them to talk to three friends or family about how to vote. Then dialing again.

9 p.m. — Fox News just called Colorado for Biden and the Colorado US Senate race for Hickenlooper. Mission accomplished! It’s a tad anticlimactic, knowing how much effort went into the ground game in Colorado. After millions of calls, hours of Zooming, and days of work up and down the ballot, it comes down to this: A yellow checkmark on the Fox tally screen for Joe Biden and John Hickenlooper.

Thursday night — I realize I’ve felt oddly serene in the two days after the chaotic election, not knowing yet who will be the next President. All the work that Darlene and I did on our phones and computers seemed to vaccinate us against the hand-wringing virus I’ve seen spreading around us this week, online and off. We did our work, and now it’s in the hands of people who know how to count votes and record them accurately, fairly, with integrity and courage.

Still, there may be more work to do. I’m thinking about volunteering for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the US Senate runoff election that will be held in Georgia in early January. We had already planned to drive from here to Sanibel Island in Florida later this month.

If there is a way to knock on some doors safely, I’d love to stop for a few days in the Peach State and help out. Virtual democracy has its charms, but I still yearn for the real thing — meeting voters and other volunteers in person, in a state I’ve never visited before, tasting the local food, getting out the vote, taking part in the show.

For all its faults, democracy lurches ahead toward a more perfect union. Churchill was right. It’s a mess sometimes. The alternative is surely worse.

Host of the weekly Kindle Chronicles podcast