11/6: Voting Rites (& Wrongs): Palm Beach County, FL – Dispatches from the Heart of Darkness

November 6, 2012:

Dateline Jupiter, FL: However things go tonight, there’s going to be plenty of time to criticize the Obama campaign’s efforts here in Palm Beach County. Never one to leave Christmas shopping to the last minute, however, I want to get my observations on the record early. Because here’s the thing: What I’ve seen here in my area (the so-called Jupiter/Jupiter “West” portion of the county) has often been discouraging and disheartening, and a large part of that is down to local coordinators who were too inexperienced to lead and too stubborn to change direction.

  • Door-to-door canvassing needed to have stopped at least a week ago. I know, I know. The conventional wisdom is that knocking on doors is going to win this election for Obama in Florida. But the “conventional wisdom” failed to account for a brand-new phenomenon: the number of doors that are getting slammed in volunteers’ faces. People are sick of seeing volunteers on their doorsteps who are there to ask them the same damn questions. Some volunteers were getting worse than slammed doors: verbal abuse and, in at least a few cases, threats to call the police if they came back. And these are volunteers who are canvassing Democrat voters–in other words, the ones who are supposed to be on our side. What happened to them? Who knows, but when even they can’t stand to see you, you need to start leaving them alone.

This out-of-control over-emphasis on canvassing has also had a negative impact on volunteer morale. People who are largely untrained are being sent to talk to people who are increasingly exasperated, if not downright hostile. As a result, volunteers have bad experiences and don’t come back. The local Organizing for America (OFA) office had no way to address this problem other than finding fresh meat to send out onto the front lines.

To put it succinctly: the Jupiter OFA has only one strategy — door-to-door canvassing — and has refused to consider any other, even if that has meant leaving volunteers with nothing to do (or with only busy-work to do) or alienating them (and voters) entirely. That’s bad for Obama, but it’s bad in so many other ways that will, arguably, be even more important down the line. (Rick Scott is coming up for re-election in two years, and happy volunteers from OFA are the likeliest force to help staff the effort to send him packing.)

  • What is currently in your face may not be the most important thing to do. One of the local OFA’s big weaknesses has been the inability to prioritize tasks and to determine what was truly important and most likely to lead to a desired outcome. Yesterday, the 5th, volunteers in the office where I was working were still being asked to do cold calls – to a general list of all voters of all parties — to try to recruit Obama get-out-the-vote volunteers for Election Day.I don’t argue that I’m a representative sample of anything, but I started putting my name on Obama volunteer lists months ago. I first signed up in person with an Obama pollster at the farmer’s market in May. I gave my name to an Obama volunteer at the university where I work. When a different Obama campaign worker called me to find out whether I was planning to vote, I asked him to be sure to pass my name along as a volunteer. I signed up online – twice, both locally and nationally. I receive an average of twenty fundraising emails a week, but no one has ever called me to ask me to volunteer. Not once.

Sure, I could be the only one who slipped through the cracks. But I doubt it.

So here’s what I worry: that there are other lists of volunteers who’ve never been asked to do anything or who perhaps volunteered months ago but haven’t been invited back since. If that’s true, why — at the eleventh hour — is the campaign trying to recruit folks from a cold list of people who’ve never expressed any interest whatsoever in volunteering to do anything?

But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose all would-be volunteers have been called and are already either assigned or tapped out, were these calls really the best use of our time? Rather than risk another alienating phone call to a voter, why not simply send invitation emails to those people? The effort required is relatively small, and I’d be willing to bet the number of positive responses would be about the same (that is, minuscule, and that’s because it’s a random population unlikely to produce results). In other words, how about putting minor effort into initiatives with the likelihood of a minor return and major effort where the likelihood of success is major? That’s what a strategy looks like, folks.

  • Communication. In fairness, there have been lightning changes in information over these last few days. Early Voting was extended. No, it wasn’t. Instead, Supervisor of Elections offices would allow in-person absentee voting at all satellite offices. No, they wouldn’t. Yes, they would. You could still vote if you hadn’t already requested an absentee ballot. No, you couldn’t. Yes, you could. You can vote at your regular polling place even if you requested an absentee ballot but never sent it in. Yes, but you have to bring your absentee ballot with you. No, you don’t. Yes, you do or your vote will be provisional and it won’t be counted. Yes, it will. And on and on.

So OK, granted: There’s lots of confusing information circulating, and part of the confusion has been the media’s mangled reporting.

But that’s where the Obama campaign could have served as a reliable clearinghouse for accurate information. That didn’t happen.

Case in point. On Sunday at just about 1pm, the Florida State Director for FL.BarackObama.com sent out an email saying that “voting hours were extended Sunday and Monday” at the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office and giving the address of the main SOE office in West Palm Beach.

Here’s the SNAFU. First, the erroneous implication that “early voting” had been extended — one of the most widely misreported “facts” of the last 48 hours — is already present in the subject line of the email, though the body makes clear that only “in-person absentee voting” was at issue. It may seem that this is a distinction without a difference, but for important legal and strategic reasons, it’s crucial not to confuse the two. Second, the only place to cast an “instant absentee” ballot on SUNDAY was the main SOE office in West Palm Beach, but on MONDAY voters could go to ANY of the four SOE offices in the county to vote absentee in person. That info isn’t in the email, and it took until late Monday morning, when the SOE offices opened again, for volunteers at our location to confirm that all SOE offices would accept absentee-in-person votes.

More important, our local Jupiter/OFA office instructed us not to give this information out to anyone. Why? Here’s what we were told: because OFA was worried the SOE’s office would be overrun. Thankfully, most of us saw that as the nonsense it was and ignored the advice.

  • The Devil is in the details – but so is God. This morning, Election Day, an urgent issue arose at a polling place in Lake Worth, about 40 minutes south. We needed to contact the coordinator of the Lake Worth OFA office for help. Problem. The Jupiter OFA office DOES NOT HAVE A LISTof the names and phone numbers of the other OFA offices in Palm Beach County.OK, I know all that information is inside the iPhones of the Generation Facebook muffins who run the office – but it’s Election Day and they were all out doing other things, exactly as they should have been doing.

What I want to talk about is the willful cluelessness it takes to fail to place a list of contact phone numbers in prominent sight. That’s a lack of campaign (and real-world) experience that is, in a word, staggering. Yes, I know, if you dick around on the “Florida Organizing for America” website, you can eventually find those numbers – still no names, but at least numbers – which is where we eventually got what we needed. And that works great if you happen to be sitting at home at your computer and aren’t out in the field doing campaign work.

If a campaign is going to have volunteers, properly training and orienting them should be one of a campaign’s top five priorities. And once they were trained, a volunteer could have been asked to type up that contact list (or simply print it out). One of those volunteers, say, who was burned out on canvassing, but who still had a lot of desire to help… .

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Posted on 6 November 2012, in Florida Sucks OK!. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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