Thursday, October 02, 2008

This is what democracy looks like

This story is one for the book on 'how to win elections':

"York native Leslie A. Wars - is the walking and breathing reason why, in 2008, the electoral map of Pennsylvania has changed.

Not everybody goes out daily to register new voters. But multiply a single afternoon by thousands of people, and four or five new voters at a time adds up to be the difference between victory and defeat in many states.

Wars works a demanding job as a resident service worker (non union) for a mental health group home: She reports at 9 p.m. and remains at her post until 8:30 a.m. - working 80 hours in seven days - and then gets the alternate week off.

Until this year, the 51-year-old Wars had never been active in politics.

She had never even voted.

But she was flipping the channels one night last spring when she came across a concession speech by Barack Obama, after losing the Ohio and Texas primaries. "When I had first heard of Obama, I laughed," she remembers. "I said, ‘There's no way that America is going to vote for an African American by the name of Barack Obama."

But something about his words that night moved her. "I thought about it for two weeks, began following the campaign, and finally I registered to vote," she tells The Field. "I'd never had any interest in voting. I was very cynical about politics and politicians. But when he came to Pennsylvania I went down to headquarters and jumped in, head over heels."

After campaigning for Obama in the April 22 primary, she wondered what to do. In June it hit her: she would go out and register new voters. As of Monday at noon, Leslie Wars had single-handedly registered 1,136 of them. Her best days came when she joined a registration drive on the York College campus - 92 new voters in eight hours of walking around with a clipboard. Her worst day: four voters. She finds that 80 percent of the new voters she enlists sign up as Democrats, "but I'll sign them up whatever their party."

She goes in front of the stores at strip malls outside of town, to laundromats and and supermarkets, and walks the neighborhoods downtown. "I approach people in the street," she explains. "When I first started I would do it three or four days a week. Now I do it every day, sometimes up to eleven hours. On the weeks that I work I do three or four hours a day." When it rains, a local store lets her stand under the awning in front.

"Evenings are best," she tells, "when people are off from work. I say, ‘Hello. My name is Leslie. I'm a volunteer with the Obama campaign. May I ask if you're up to date with your voter registration?"

"I'm so proud to represent Obama and I think my enthusiasm is contagious," she laughs.

Wars says that you can't judge people's politics by their appearances: "When I would try to guess before approaching them, I was wrong every time." So she approaches every person that she encounters.

She finds she has to explain to many people that registering to vote "doesn't mean you're required to vote, and it doesn't mean that you get called up for jury duty."

"The last half hour, before a store closes, when people are just rushing around, I tend to get a lot of them in that last half hour."

Now, when she walks down Market Street, children proclaim, "Mom! There's the Obama lady!" And many folks that initially turned her down approached her later and asked to be signed up to vote. "I'm not pushy," she says. "I say thanks and move on. And you'd be surprised how many come back later on."

One American.

1,136 new voters since June.

That's about one out of every 15 new voters in York County, signed up by Leslie Wars.

And you - yeah, you, reading about this one American here - how did you spend your free hour today?

If the results on Pennsylvania on election night turn out as close as Florida in 2000, well, we've just met one person that might just have made the singular difference in who the next president of the United States of America will be.

As we left Leslie Wars she was heading out to register more voters, which she plans to do daily until the October 6 deadline.

And what will she do after October 6?

Wars smiles and say, "Oh, then I'll do persuasion canvassing.""

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