Nimmer on the horn

vote buttons

Here we are in a New Year with a new Congress in Washington, governor in Minnesota and legislature in St. Paul. And for the first time in my life, I got off my fanny — and on the telephone — and got involved.

In the process of calling 1,000 registered voters over the course of five evenings, I learned a little something about democracy, humility, transparency and civility.

Yes, at the age of 78, I got a civics lesson in the election process.

It all started with a supper last spring with three former students in the first journalism course I taught at the University of St. Thomas. We were griping about the state of politics, politicians and public affairs, when it occurred to us we ought to do more than complain.

Inside the campaigns

So, with prompting from the students, I jumped on some candidates’ websites and signed up for phone duty. That took me to an artist’s studio in St, Paul, an office building on East Lake Street and a storefront next to a liquor store in West St. Paul.

Depending on the location, I sat on the floor, on a folding chair or a bar stool. Sometimes I used the campaign’s “burner phone” and sometimes my own.

Wherever I was, I noticed how much grunt work this business of campaigning requires — keeping the schedules, organizing the volunteers, providing the snacks, leading the cheers and, yes, cleaning the bathroom.

This is about as far from the cheering crowds, television lights and victory celebrations as you can get. The task of running a campaign is a gritty, grimy business and I’m impressed with the kids I met who were doing it.

What I said…

What humbled me was the thought of calling strangers who, I suspected, would be indifferent — or annoyed.

I had their names, ages, addresses and past voting history. I also had a prepared script: Give respondents my first name, tell them I knew they’d voted in past elections and ask them if they planned to vote in the upcoming election. If they said they were, then I was to urge them to vote for my candidate.

This kind of vague introduction produced some responses of, “None of your business.” So I changed the script and got more up front. I started out by giving my full name and the name of the candidate I was supporting. I asked them to please vote and, if they could see their way clear, to vote for my gal/guy. The pitch felt better, and it worked better.

…and how they responded

Almost 90 percent of the calls I made were to people who weren’t home or didn’t answer. Of those who did, about a quarter hung up somewhere between my name and my pitch. Another 25 percent didn’t like my recommendation — and a few of those told me to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.

But half of them listened respectfully and some even asked thoughtful questions about my candidate(s). That part was the most rewarding because I got a chance to defend — and define — my choices.

Two of the respondents flat-out surprised me, actually thanking me for calling and caring enough about this business of democratic elections to get involved. You guessed it: They were both senior citizens, who’d seen, and voted in, dozens of elections. Chatting with the pair made me feel kind of proud of what I’d done.

I’m under no illusion that I became democracy’s handmaiden — although all four of my candidates were elected. The most obvious result of my calling is that I’m now much nicer to telephone solicitors. After saying, “No, thank you,” I wish them a good day.

Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].