When Scott Steward told me about Peggy Bernardy, who is working tirelessly to turn out voters for the midterms just a few weeks away, I was eager to contact her.
She responded immediately, telling me she’d get back to me later as she was on a Nevada Democratic voter hotline at the moment. I assured her what she was doing then was more important than responding to my questions; I looked forward to hearing from her when she was available.
As noted in Part 1, Peggy was embarking on her sixth visit to Reno, Nevada, to register voters–this time emphasizing reproductive rights.
Peggy Bernardy’s Responses to My Questions
I have to say I am not a paradigm of grassroots activists, and there are many, many more very admirable and talented people. But I’ll tell you about my experience. (Your inquiry reminded me of this article written by a member of our group who is a retired UC Davis English professor: https://www.boundary2.org/2020/11/doingsomework/ )
How long have you been canvassing? How and why did you begin?
I did occasional political work prior to 2016, but waking up at 4 a.m. November 9, 2016, and checking the news was seismic, and I’ve been in a state of panic ever since.
After the exhilarating Women’s March (here it was on the Capital Mall in Sacramento), I got involved in a few women’s huddles and then found the local Indivisible and committed to organizing with them.
There’s a whole history there, likely similar to the stories of other Indivisibles, but to answer your question, we did do some traditional door-to-door canvassing until the pandemic hit. This year we’ve revived it with our WalkTeamYolo (alongside our CallTeamYolo and TextTeamYolo). We work closely with SisterDistrictYolo. [sisterdistrict.com is a nationwide grassroots organization with 50,000 volunteers working in the swing states to elect Democrats to state legislatures and Congress.]
Last spring I decided to focus on Nevada because it is a battleground state, and I thought it would help to focus–rather than thinking about so many things all at once. (In 2020, I worked on the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Voter Hotline and was assigned to work on the five southwest states. Keeping track of all the rules was brutal!)
Are you knocking on people’s doors at all? If so, do they respond? If not, where do most of your interactions occur?
I will do traditional door-to-door canvassing with the WalkTeam the next couple of weekends, but right now I’m doing voter registration drives in Reno. I follow the Field Team 6 method which I think is fantastic (the training video is here: https://youtu.be/b1enGZYtkLo).
Instead of the traditional sitting at a red-white-and-blue bedecked table with forms, we take a clipboard and go to someplace with a lot of foot traffic, and hopefully with people sympathetic to the Democratic Party, and approach them using an introductory line that is value-infused.
So we don’t say, “Are you registered to vote?” because that’s very boring, and people will just walk away. And we might end up helping Republicans. Field Team 6’s suggested line (for 2020) was “Can you help me save the world from Trump?” I was more comfortable saying, “Hi! I’m working on a project to [any number of things like, protect Social Security when we need it, prevent pollution, improve childcare in Nevada]. Can you help me?”
Over time, I learned that using that same phrase with “protect women’s rights” stopped almost everyone in their tracks — even men — at which point they would turn and look at me intently. Usually followed by, “What do I do?” or (grimacing) “I’m really busy,” in a pained, guilt-ridden way.
Then I just say, “We want to make sure everyone is registered to vote, because voting is our superpower. Are you registered?” Then they are either relieved to say, “yes,” at which point I give them literature on the Democratic candidates, as well as some links and phone numbers to use if they run into problems voting.
If they are not registered, usually they are very happy to do so or figure out what they need to do.
Obviously, one of the keys is tuning into the mood and pace of the person. Almost everywhere, people are going somewhere and want to move along. This was certainly true at the University, so sometimes I’d walk alongside them and talk really fast, while giving them the literature with a very quick explanation.
Most people were very happy to have the link to Field Team 6’s innovative BlueVoterGuide.org because you can see who’s endorsed all the candidates on the ballot, even those far down on the ballot, who tend to be nonpartisan, and it’s hard to find out what they stand for.
With the BlueVoterGuide.org, a voter puts in a street address, and the screen populates with the same ballot the voter will have, along with all the endorsements.
My line always was, “It doesn’t tell you who to vote for; it just gives you the endorsements, so you can choose according to your own values.”
Scott wrote: “Peggy knows that most people do want to connect even if they don’t agree with you.” Please elaborate.
Well, it’s interesting Scott said that, because I don’t think I ever would have said that. As I said above, people are very engaged in protecting women’s rights. One woman said, “I am lit, I am lit,” many times over, so I asked her if she would like to volunteer, too, and I took her name and email to deliver to the organizers at Field Team 6.
I guess one way to look at what Scott said is I’ve had some good days, (and some bad days), and once on a good day a new volunteer was starting out and said she noticed I got a lot of people engaging in conversation with me.
I said I really didn’t know why — she was using the same pick-up line as I was. Then she watched me and said I smiled a lot. So I think it’s true: when I smiled and worked hard to adjust to their mood and concerns, allowing them space to speak, we did end up in a conversation.
This is odd because I am not known as a friendly person generally! But with practice, I naturally found that being hyper-friendly and open was the way to get people to engage, and so I did that.
They don’t look upon you negatively as an outsider?
I haven’t found being a Californian doing political work in Nevada is ever an issue. For the most part, it doesn’t come up. Once in a while after the conversation goes on for a while, something comes up and I end up saying I’m from California, just as part of the conversation, and it’s no big deal.
Sometimes it’s “Wow, why do you come here?” And there’s an easy answer to that–in Nevada, you have two senators for 5 million people, and in California 40 million people have the same number of senators! Your vote is worth so much here!
The key, of course, being from California, I do pronounce Nevada correctly, which many East Coasters never seem able to do.
Can you provide anecdotes of encounters that were very gratifying? And have there been any that made you question whether you can continue or need to take a breather?
Many women, like the one who said “I am lit” and others who thanked me for doing what I do. A couple of people who said they didn’t vote then agreed to register anyway, just in case they changed their mind. Those are gratifying.
For the most part, if people I approach say something negative, I just immediately move on and find someone else to talk to. Like the young man who said, “How are women deprived of their rights?” I just said, “Dobbs” and walked away.
How do you refocus after negative encounters?
With individuals, I have a tough skin, as I said above. I did get put off by the NYT article saying all the Rs were ahead in Nevada, and it was going to be very hard for the Dems to win the Senator and Governor positions, and would possibly lose all three Dem members of Congress. I wondered whether I was wasting my time.
But I thought it through, and decided it was stupid to give up just because somebody wrote an article based on polls which have been wrong so many times.
I also think about these “red” or “purple” states: there are plenty of people with good liberal values in all these states! And they suffer not only from being in a political minority (sometimes not by much, losing political power more by gerrymandering than anything else — not so much in Nevada, to my knowledge) but also from the terrible policies and laws the Rs put into place that they have to live with.
So it’s definitely worth it to continue the fight, win or lose, to support those people. That’s how I justify to myself continuing with this.
Are you planning more trips to Nevada before Nov 8? Based on your visits, would you care to assess the mood there?
I will be going Oct 8 to do door-to-door canvassing with my Indivisible group and staying over for the three following days to do voter registration. Although Nevada is very liberal with same-day registration, that only works for people with a Nevada drivers license or ID.
For various reasons, there are people without those kinds of IDs, but they can use other IDs (military or student IDs, for example), but only if they register before October 11.
These elections, as I tell people, are decided at the margins, and the goal is to reach these people without IDs, who just moved, who got their wallet stolen, etc. etc., get them set up for voting, and then make sure all Democratic voters send in their mail ballots or get to the polls.
I am struggling now with figuring out how to locate these people–lately almost everyone says they are registered at their current address–which is good and to be expected this close to the election!–so we need to find those remaining people who haven’t gotten there yet.
At any rate, after October 11 I’ll be switching to some door-to-door canvassing, working on the Nevada voter hotline, and working as a Democratic party poll observer (the urgent need for poll observers in the face of Republican threats to county election workers is a whole story in itself).
As to the mood, it seemed as of last week everyone was very familiar with the idea that an election is coming and they’re going to be voting. The vast number of people were very sympathetic and concerned about women’s rights.
I’d say about 5% turned away with a brusque “not now,” which in itself is ambiguous, and possibly less than 1% with an openly hostile response.
But how that fits into the overall mood and how people will actually vote, I can’t tell. I do sense, strongly, that true Rs keep their views to themselves, like a conspiratorial secret they can’t share with the “libs,” so clearly I’m not hearing the whole story.
What will you and Indivisible Yolo do post-election—based on the polar opposite possible scenarios? ( I choose not to consider the negative personally…)
We have a party outdoors to celebrate our work; then we generally take time off to tend to our personal and work lives. If the Democrats win, hallelujah! But we still work hard because they need to hear from us and get things done.
In the beginning, we did a lot of advocating with our Congressman and our state legislators, so I imagine that would be our focus again. If the Rs control Congress, it’s hard to imagine what to do. Speaking only for myself, the tools we use are the peaceful tools of democracy.
So much has been done to dismantle democracy and democratic norms that I’m not sure I understand the utility of those tools in that context. Overwhelming majorities in favor of gun control, abortion, fighting climate change, DACA,….yet the Rs through the filibuster and the courts have blocked most progress.
So yes, we’d continue our work (recognizing most of us are white, older, and financially comfortable, and not subject to all the risks others face in resistance work)–and try to give some real thought to retooling.
Anything else that you think will encourage, enlighten my readers?
Getting out and talking to people about politics is a really good thing to do! Too many Americans completely refuse to talk to each other about politics and how their lives are going.
Someone told them to avoid politics and religion and they take great pride in following that dogma. Some of them seem to believe and act as if they have absolutely no personal power at all–mere sheep, demoralized and disenfranchised.
So the mere act of opening a respectful, two-way dialogue models healthy democratic behavior and opens up a possibility of breaking the barriers between us.
Taking a meta-view of what you do as an activist allows you to think beyond the actual content of the conversation, and whether you achieved a specific goal, and realize you’re doing something very worthwhile just by engaging in the work itself.
What do you think, dear readers? Have you had experiences with civic action in any form that you care to relate? If not, can you see yourself doing this kind of work? Grassroots citizen action is so very important–now, more than ever.
In my nonpartisan days years ago, I was a League of Women Voters regular– sitting behind the kinds of tables Peggy described registering voters. For Obama, my husband and I went to a Republican area in a neighboring state to register voters. A number of self-identified Republicans asked us how they could change their party affiliation to vote for Obama. That was gratifying!
Now we’re writing our postcards. Sometimes it’s boring and my hand gets cramped, but it’s still gratifying. I’m keeping my eyes on the races we’ve amplified with our cards in the hopes we’ll see some winners post-election.
But I think in these days of accelerating hostility, Peggy’s insight bears repeating:
“So the mere act of opening a respectful, two-way dialogue models healthy democratic behavior and opens up a possibility of breaking the barriers between us. “
I know that the Scotts and Peggys who go in person and even knock on people’s doors are the most effective. And they both say people are for the most part polite, even welcoming the connection. That’s a lesson for us all.