At the end of my street, a healthy new fall crop has sprouted—of signs. What’s for sale? Politicians. At least that’s what the disenchanted folks on the other end of the line hinted at Monday night when my husband and I volunteered to work on a phone bank at our local party headquarters. The mission was to call as many unregistered voters as we could in three hours and convince them that signing up to exercise their electoral right was a breeze—and worth the effort.
“I’m not a voter,” said one lady, making her status sound like a badge of honor. “I don’t like anyone.”
“I’m not interested,” said a man. “I’m against anyone in Washington.”
“We don’t vote,” said the patriarch of a large clan. “We don’t feel man can have the answer.”
There was no arguing with them. I tried. And as I did, they revealed pieces of their lives—intimate things about the wreckage left after a divorce, the loneliness of being trapped in a wheel chair, the weight of lingering illness—a patchwork of troubles layered over their disgust with Washington. I was sympathetic, but did their woes excuse their inertia?
My husband thought I was foolish for trying to engage some of them. Just say thank you and get on with the next call. But I couldn’t. And it’s because of what I’ve seen in the last four years with Oxfam: the fear and profound suffering people endure in countries around the world where there is little respect for their basic human rights.
As I slipped, unseen, into the kitchens and living rooms of strangers on the other end of the line, I had two sets of images in my head. One was of their world and its relative comforts. I heard pots clattering, children fussing, friends calling out—the sounds of suppertime in a secure place where people rarely go hungry, where medical care is available, where boys—and girls—can easily go to school—all things active voters can influence.
The other image was of the places I’ve been—Darfur, the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia—places where conflict and endless cycles of drought leave people with little control over the direction their lives take. In Congo last March, we traveled down a dirt track into the small village of Kotoni where mud-walled huts sprouted between plots of manioc, a tuber that’s a mainstay of the local diet. Widespread illiteracy and darkness—there was no electricity for miles around—were among the villagers’ biggest concerns. But that hadn’t stopped them from seizing the chance to vote in 2006 when, for the first time in decades, the country installed a democratically elected president.
On Monday night, one of my last calls was to a man who picked up only after the phone had rung more than a few times. He was annoyed, but stayed on the line long enough to hear my question. Was he registered to vote? No. Would he consider it?
“It’s a personal choice,” he snapped.
“Don’t take it for granted,” I wanted to say. But it was too late. The line had already gone dead.