As voter turnout drops, the volunteer role rises

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Tired volunteers picked up coffee and bagels at the Minneapolis American Indian Center gymnasium, preparing for a day of door knocking for 5th Congressional District candidate for the U.S. Senate, Keith Ellison.

It was only a few days before the political party primaries held last November 12, and Keith Ellison, who ultimately won his party’s endorsement, was taking nothing for granted.

Around the gymnasium, tables bearing signs like “Training” and “Turf Table” guided volunteers through the various stations designed to ready them for a day of activism and getting out the vote.

Getting out the vote is important for all candidates in all elections, of course, but in recent years, especially in primary elections where the turnout tends to be low, it is especially important.

Voter turnout for primary elections has dropped steadily since 1998 and hasn’t broken 20 percent in a dozen years, according to Minnesota Public Radio. Two years ago, it fell to single digits.

*Opportunity Knocks*
In such circumstances, volunteers have become an increasingly important part of every candidate’s battle plan. That’s because only volunteers can put in the long hours needed to get every last possible vote, sometimes literally working for hours for a single vote.

I went door-knocking on primary election day, with Ellison volunteer Shayna Berkowitz, and saw this first-hand. We headed out to our first piece of “turf” – a stretch of rental property off Franklin Avenue.

Our very first door was answered by a man who said he didn’t intend to vote. “I can’t,” he said, explaining he was an ex-felon.

But Berkowitz, sensing opportunity, quickly informed him that if he’d completed his full sentence, including probation, he could vote and that Keith Ellison had been a key advocate for the voting rights of ex-felons at the Minnesota state legislature.

*A Personal Call*
Berkowitz immediately called Ellison’s campaign staff on her cellphone, and told them about the man’s situation, the neighborhood where he lived, and that he was a probable Ellison vote. The candidate’s staff in turn relayed back the address of the man’s polling place, along with information on items he would need to present to do same-day voter registration.

Then Berkowitz called the candidate personally, to check on the status of the man’s cousin, who was still in prison, and whom Ellison once had represented as an attorney.

Over 120 volunteers left from the Minneapolis American Indian Center “Action Center” the day of the primary election to volunteer door knock for Ellison, according to Julia Rybak, an Ellison organizer the “Action Center” volunteer handling check-in.

Countless more were trained and mobilized from two other “Action Centers” in South and North Minneapolis.

The volunteers focused on neighborhoods with a typically low voter turnout, but where Ellison’s strategists predicted many would vote if they only knew that the African American, Muslim candidate was running. These included areas like North Minneapolis, and areas where Somali immigrants live. In some of these historically low turnout precincts, voter turnout more than tripled over 2002.

In the end, Ellison won the Democratic party primary by a total popular vote of 41%, against a field including five other candidates. Who helped push him over the top?

Volunteers, natch.