by Margaret Ferguson
Throughout the long first months of the pandemic—from March to November 2020—I volunteered as a phonebanker for “Indivisible Yolo,” the local chapter of a national movement devoted to defeating Trump and electing Democrats up and down the ballot. We partnered with a group called “Sister District CA 3,” which focuses on electing progressives to state legislatures including those shaped by Republican gerrymandering efforts. I was able to devote quite a lot of time to this volunteer effort because I am retired from teaching and no longer have children at home.
The Indivisible movement began in an informal “grief counseling session”—a meeting of friends in Austin, Texas in November 2016 attended by two former congressional staffers, Leah Greenberg and her husband Ezra Levin, when they were in Austin for Thanksgiving. Returning to their home in Washington, D.C., they and nearly three dozen thirty-something friends collaborated in an effort to turn their grief about the election into action. They composed a 23-page Google Doc handbook called “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda”; Levin tweeted a link to the document with this message: “Please share w/ your friends to help fight Trump’s racism, authoritarianism, & corruption on their home turf.”
Adapting ideas drawn both from their own experiences with members of Congress and from tactics used by the Tea Party in its successful efforts to block Barack Obama’s agenda in 2010, the Indivisible guide went viral, and was shared by people with Twitter followings much larger than those of the document’s authors: among the amplifiers were Robert Reich, Jonathan Chait, George Takei, and Miranda July. Less than two months after its publication, more than 3,800 local groups called “Indivisibles” had formed to support the movement. It developed a website where the Guide was continuously updated in Spanish and English, and only a few weeks after Trump’s Inauguration, the fledgling movement became a 501(c) organization. Levin drily remarked that “The last thing the progressive ecosystem really needed was yet another nonprofit,” but in this case, the organization thrived. The protests it organized at the local level have been credited with, among other things, making it hard—and eventually impossible—for the Republican party to pass a “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act.
Different Indivisible groups have focused on different—and multiple–actions during the Trump era, frequently collaborating with other groups such as the Working Families Party and the Women’s March. What drew me to the local group in my Northern California town was its slogan of “Do the Work”—an alternative to watching TV news and wringing one’s hands—and the congenial community of activists it had created. Like others, I was excited when we were able to rent office space near Interstate 80 in March as we geared up for work during the election year; many of us had written post cards since 2016 and had canvassed in person for Democrats in 2018, but in early March this past spring, we would finally have our own space for organizing. I went to one meeting to be trained in texting potential voters, and I spent one Saturday morning cutting sheets of paper for postcards in the communal space. But then all organizing efforts had to move online as the virus swept through California and the lockdown began. The idea of not being able to knock on doors or set up registration tables—as we had done in 2018—at sites such as the Woodland Community College seemed incredible. One of my Indivisible friends, a woman with whom I had carpooled when our kids were in middle school and whose organizational skills I respected greatly because we had served as co-leaders of the garbage squad for our children’s high school graduation party, asked me if I would be willing to consider phonebanking. I said no. I told her that I am much too much of an introvert to do that kind of work. Plus I hate it when strangers call me out of the blue, so how could I make calls to strangers myself?
My friend, a scientist at the University of California at Davis, suggested that I read some of the research on the effectiveness of different methods of communicating with potential voters. With the help of other Indivisible members, I did that work, starting with the valuable article “Lessons on GOTV Experiments” published by Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies, with further bibliography. The authors give their highest mark of certainty—3 stars—to research studies finding that “personalized methods and messages work better” and that, after canvassing, with its face to face encounters, phone calls by humans (as opposed to robots) and also by volunteers (as opposed to paid operatives) are most effective. Though I’m still perplexed about what exactly the evidence is for this conclusion (exit polls? follow up calls?), I did come to believe that I should add phoning to the other things I was doing, namely postcarding and texting. The former action was boring but also satisfying: I found myself enjoying the mild challenges of fitting the words of a script into the allotted space and using different colored pens for my best grade-school handwriting efforts. But of course one never got any response to a postcard. Our campaigns were carefully chosen for maximum impact and I had really enjoyed writing cards with other volunteers before the pandemic forced us to write at home by ourselves. I had also enjoyed sending texts, which I learned to do for the Environmental Voters Project at the Indivisible-Sister District office just before it shut down. Texting brought a few positive responses including requests for further information; and it was incredibly fast: I could send 50 texts in less time than it took me to write one postcard. But most of the text responses told me just to STOP –or to do something bad to myself or to my mother, who is dead. I continued to text and write postcards, but I decided I should at least try to make phone calls too. Naively, I thought I could conquer my fear of calling strangers if I called as a member of a group of volunteers who shared information about best practices and stories about “memorable” calls—good and terrible—during Zoom meetings.
I’m deeply grateful that I was able to phonebank during meetings which included training on issues, tech support, and hosts who sent email reports after every session detailing the number of calls we had collectively made and which we reported (another small pleasure) in daily tallies—over 106,000 by November 3. But I never did get over my fear of phoning—a fear that became enmeshed with my larger and darker fear about the possibility of a Trump victory. My stomach tightened every time I lifted my cell phone for manual dialing sessions, and my stomach was even more upset when I attempted to use the “hub dialing” system that Indivisible and allied groups such as “Flip the West” considered to be the most efficient way of reaching potential voters. When you login to a hub-dialing system, a distant computer does the dialing for you and you get many fewer wrong numbers, busy signals, and disconnected phone lines than you do when you are dialing voters directly from a list supplied by a campaign. The downside of hub dialing, for me, is that the caller is not in charge of the timing of a connection; it could take many minutes (during which some supposedly calming piece of music would play again and again); or it could come just seconds after you had completed your previous call. This meant that there was no time for the psychic loin-girding I needed, and there was often not enough time to compose my face into the smile that experienced phone bankers recommend that callers wear (as it were) for every new connection. Voters can hear you smile, I was told. And although each campaign we participated in gave us scripts that came up on our computer screen for us to follow as the call unfurled, we couldn’t follow the scripts slavishly. The voter’s tone of voice and specific concerns (including sometimes strong concerns about being contacted at all) shaped what we might say from the first seconds of the call through the farewell.
Our phonebanking team was supporting several Senate races, and I was particularly invested in Theresa Greenfield’s in Iowa. Her staff provided excellent (and frequently updated) scripts for both manual and hub dialing, and I learned enough about her positions to be able to engage in substantive conversations with some Iowa voters. I also learned a good deal about the progressive candidates our group was supporting in Georgia (Jasmine Clark for District 108) and in Arizona (Doug Ervin for State Senate and Judy Schwiebert for State House in Legislative District 20). Clark and Schwiebert won last week; Ervin alas did not, and has modeled adult behavior by conceding to his opponent. I hope he runs again.
The first campaign I joined involved manual dialing for California Congressman Josh Harder. He was running for re-election in the 10th District, and his campaign was what veteran callers considered an easy one for neophytes. We were mostly calling registered Democrats and the script was good: it directed us to ask about what the Congressman could do for the constituent during the COVID pandemic before we asked the voter to support or volunteer for Harder. There was no request for money, to my great relief, and it turned out that a number of people I called did indeed have problems that they hoped the Congressman could solve. One man in his mid thirties (the information on the screen gave us the voter’s age and party affiliation) was having a terrible time getting a bank loan for his small business from the CARES Act. I got his email address, called Indivisible’s liaison with Harder’s office, laid out the problem, and learned that Harder, who had taught business at Modesto Junior College after working for a venture capital firm in San Francisco, would brainstorm with his staff about helping this constituent get a loan from a smaller (and evidently more flexible) bank. I called this voter back later in the day and he said he’d heard from Harder’s staff and had hope, for the first time in weeks, that he wouldn’t have to let his fifteen employees go. People I called for Harder did hang up on me and a few swore at me for interrupting their day, but a goodly number of people I spoke to described problems to me that I then relayed to the Congressman’s staff. One woman, in her 80s, needed groceries delivered; another, much younger, wanted to be put in touch with other parents who were trying to home school their elementary school age children. Some of the people I called didn’t support the Congressman at all or disagreed with his position on some issues, but if the voter didn’t hang up on me within the first ten seconds, we often had civil conversations; in many cases the person on the other end of the line thanked me. Josh Harder won his race on November 3.
The most rewarding phoning work I did during this long (and still unfinished) election season was for Reclaim our Vote, a non-partisan voting rights initiative founded by an African American woman, Andrea Miller, as part of the non profit organization “Center for Common Ground.” ROV collaborates with many other groups including Black Voters Matter, the Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, Mi Familia Vota, Religious Action Center for Reformed Judaism, and the American Ethical Union. ROV aims to counter the “[o]ngoing voter suppression and voter list purging [that] have been disenfranchising millions of eligible voters — especially voters of color.” As the organization explains on the page of its website that encourages new volunteers to join, the focus is on “voter suppression states” in the south. The campaigns, designed county by county, seek to “inform and mobilize voters of color to make sure they are registered and they know how to get a ballot and vote.” Volunteers join a ranbow coalition and are welcomed from around the country. The training materials include an interactive video especially for introverts and note that shy people may be especially good at this work because it involves listening as much as speaking. The trainers gently remind middle class white people like me that not everyone shares the sense of time (and self importance) that regards phone calls from strangers as an annoying infringement of personal space. Dialing manually to people on the ROV lists was, for me, both satisfying and unnerving. So many phones were disconnected, so many people simply didn’t answer, that I could and did make 30 calls in an hour with no human contacts at all. (My Indivisible colleagues interpreted such sessions as “cleaning the phone lists” for the campaign.) The scripts were straightforwardly informational; this was not a “persuasion” campaign but an effort to help people who might want to vote do so as easily as possible during a pandemic in a state where they might have been dropped from the rolls even though they believed they were registered. We could and did direct them to websites that would tell them if they were registered or not, but the ROV scripts acknowledged that the person being called might not have access to a computer. In that case, we gave them phone numbers for their county’s Voter Registration office. I imagined that giving someone that information might lead simply to long waits and frustration. But in at least three cases where I made the call to the Registrar on behalf of someone I had talked with, the official picked up right away and was extremely helpful. After talking to a young woman who wanted to vote but who didn’t know her polling place in Navajo County, Arizona, for instance, I spoke with an official who said she could get me that information if I had the would-be voter’s date of birth. I hadn’t thought to ask for that information. But then the official said she’d do some further research and get back to me. She did, within fifteen minutes, telling me not only the address of the polling place but also suggesting that the voter could get a free ride from LYFT since the distance was substantial. I called the young woman back and we had a conversation—surprising but intense–about our mothers. Both of them had been ardent Democrats.
I often thought about my mother as I learned to do the work of phonebanking during these months of being isolated at home. She died in 2015, and the only good thing about that is that she didn’t have to know about Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidency. I talked about Clinton with an 81 year-old voter in Georgia with whom I spoke on the last weekend before the election when our Indivisible group was having a 45 hour call marathon (7 a.m. to 8 p.m for 3 days) to oust President 45. The person I reached through the ROV list wanted to vote and had asked for an absentee ballot. It hadn’t come, or she didn’t think it had come, but she was pretty sure that she had requested it. She had voted for Hillary and she wanted to vote for Kamala and Biden. I asked her for her mailing address and had just taken it down when we got cut off (that happened not infrequently in my phoning experience). I was very upset about losing her voice. I called the Registrar of her county (Cobb) and explained that I was calling on behalf of a voter who hadn’t recevied her absentee ballot. The official, like the one from Navajo County with whom I’d spoken earlier, picked up right away and said she would try to help. Again, I had failed to get a crucial piece of information—again, the voter’s birth date. Nonetheless, the official said she would track the voter down and she did, in short order; she called me back to say that there was no record of a request for an absentee ballot, but she would call the voter herself to tell her where she should go for early in-person voting or for voting on election day. I was moved by this official’s willingness to go above and beyond what I imagine her duties are; and I dearly hope that my elderly interlocutor was able to cast her ballot.
I’ll never know for sure (I lost her number when we got cut off). But I do know that I’ll be volunteering for Indivisible Yolo, Sister District, and Reclaim our Vote again, attempting to participate in one form of the non-violent work of civil resistance that some scholars such as Erica Chenoweth—the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School—have recently been tracking and beginning to theorize. As part of the effort to reclaim our future, I’ll be calling this week for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia. I fear that the road for them is uphill, but I have hope that by electing them from a state that has already turned blue because of massive grassroots efforts inspired in part by Stacey Abrams, voters will allow a genuinely progressive Democratic agenda to see the light of day, despite the current Administration’s efforts to keep that possibility shrouded in dusk.
Charles Bethea, “The Crowdsourced Guide to Fighting Trump’s Agenda,” The New Yorker, December 26, 2016, retrieved 9 November 2020.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indivisible_movement and David Wiegel, “Left out of AHCA fight, Democrats let their grass roots lead — and win,” Washington Post, ch 24, 2017, retrieved November 9, 2020.
For an account of Chenoweth’s contribution to the recent civil resistance work, see Andrew Marantz, “How to Stop a Power Grab,” The New Yorker, November 16, 2020; retrieved 15 November 2020. .