Five Days in Reno — Driving Senior and Disabled Voters to Early Voting in Nevada’s 2020 Primary
The manufactured home was just one of thousands of random-looking boxes scattered across the high desert as if blown there by the Washoe winds Mark Twain wrote of in “Roughing It”. I paused at the gate with a clear “No Trespassing” sign and called out “Hello!?”. No answer. So I looked around for dogs, and, seeing none, went into the front yard, up to the porch and cautiously knocked on the front door. A dusty-looking older blond woman answered the door.
“Hello, I’m Martin. I’m a volunteer driver for the Bernie Sanders campaign — “
“We’re NOT Interested!” she said pointedly. (The “you communist parasite who wants to rob me with taxes and take all my hard-earned possessions” was implied with tone and piercing eye contact.)
“One of our phone volunteers said Henry wanted to get a ride to early voting. Is he home?” I asked.
“Oh. He stays in the trailer in the side yard.”
“Thank you. I’ll just go ask him then”
The camping trailer door has a message scrawled in black Sharpie:
“TO CONTACT OCCUPANT: KNOCK LOUDLY,
IF NO ANSWER, CALL (775)XXX-XXXX
IF NO ANSWER, TRY AGAIN LATER
IF EMERGENCY: ASK GOD!”
The reason I was here in person, on something of a cold-call, was because the phone number seemed to be out of service due to an unpaid bill.
I hoped following the #1 suggestion wouldn’t lead directly to a #4 situation.
The trailer was no more than a 20-foot 5th-wheeler, so it wouldn’t have taken long to walk to the front door from anywhere inside it. After a half-minute, I heard someone stirring inside and, after another half-minute, Henry emerged, wearing pants at least (blessing counted) and stooping to about my eye level. I explained I was there, following up on the phone call he’d had the previous week, to give him a ride to one of the early voting locations that was open today. By they way, I try to never mention that the lines at these locations typically take one or two hours to get through. I’m not much of a salesman, but that much I’ve figured out on my own.
I said I didn’t mean to bother and that I usually call ahead of time, but there seemed to be a problem with the phone.
Henry was tracking this okay and thought for a few seconds. The mid-February afternoon was clear and sunny, but still on the cold side for the three layers I was wearing. Henry, sans-T-shirt, was probably assessing the discomfort of venturing out of his accustomed turtle-home and finally said that he appreciated me coming out, but he just didn’t feel up to going into town today. He agreed to go the next day and we made an appointment for me to show up between 2:30 and 3:00 the next afternoon.
Leaving past the main house I glanced back up to the front porch and wondered in what dystopian workers’ paradise any comrade would be vying to be the one to occupy THIS place…
“ You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack…
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
— Talking Heads, “Once In a Lifetime”
How, indeed? I’m from Oregon where we have vote-by-mail and our closed primary doesn’t come around on the calendar until May, by which time the Democratic primary would essentially be over. I wanted to have some impact in an “early state” and Nevada was closest on the map. Reno was within a day’s drive from my home. I’ve phone-banked in the past, but grew weary of how unreceptive and annoyed people often sound when disturbed by a non-personal call. I still feel shy about going door-to-door canvassing. But driving voters to the polls — that’s something I feel comfortable with. But there’s no need in Oregon, where we have vote-by-mail, so…
Nevada’s new “early voting” was from February 15th thru 18th. I left home early on the 14th, Valentine’s Day. Fortunately, my sweetheart was mostly okay with having dinner out a night early although it meant sacrificing a music event we usually go to on Valentine’s Day. I am grateful for her support, understanding and shared enthusiasm for “political revolution”.
There was a little snow on the road going over the Willamette Pass from Eugene, but soon I was on the clear, straight high desert highway 97. There are places in northeast California where you can stop your car just off the highway and enjoy a pipe while hearing absolutely nothing but your own breath and the wind in the pine trees.
My old type-A habits had me wondering if I’d be able to drive a hundred people to the polls in four days. That was my goal at the outset. Even then part of me knew it was ridiculous, but I clung to it until I arrived in Reno and learned there were only nine people on the ride list by then.
I started by texting each phone number, introducing myself and asking them to call me back and set a time to go to the polls. But, people who need help getting to the polls often have land-lines — living on Social Security often means the expense of a cell phone isn’t as essential as some of us in younger generations like to think. So I started voice-calling and began making contact with the people I wanted to help.
Joe lived in a low-income apartment only about eight blocks from Reno’s downtown library polling place, but it’s a distance that’s too far to walk with his leg and back pain, so my first client was just a short ride. While I found a parking place (It’d be nice if free parking were provided for volunteers such as myself) Joe found that, as a disabled senior citizen (he walks with a four-pronged cane that’s between a regular cane and a walker for stability), he was allowed to go to the front of the hour-long line and vote right away. I was given an “election observer” wristband so I could accompany Joe into the voting room. I really didn’t do much observing and I didn’t notice anyone else wearing the bands. Perhaps in future elections I’ll focus my volunteerism solely on observing the voting and the chain-of-custody of the ballots. I don’t know if elections officials will later say this polling place couldn’t have been tampered with because of the observer (me) — “see his name on the sign-up sheet” — would have seen it (even though I was only there about 45 minutes of the day).
Joe put his ballot in the ballot box and we walked out front, I got the car and we started back to his place. Joe had noticed a sign on a different low-income housing building that would be a better location for him, so he asked if I could drive by it again so we could write down the phone number. We did that.
There are squat apartment buildings in many parts of Reno that seem like warehouses where senior and disabled people are parked and, too often, forgotten.
When they live by themselves, it may be no one will notice if they start to decline faster. They might only drive a few blocks to the nearest fast food burger joint when they’re not up to cooking. They might experience drowsiness when riding in a car (or driving?). They might have medications with side effects that make them spacey or sleepy or forgetful. Who is there to notice if its not “ordinary” dementia? Nobody is around to question if the medicine is really what’s best for them or to keep track of what the doctors have advised.
When they live with family members, they’re often still in poverty because caring for them can be a full-time job or at least time-consuming and/or random enough that it precludes having a full-time job outside the home. Maybe the family members are forced to work anyway and end up neglecting their parents or grandparents to do so.
Jill fell in love with Steve during the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco (1967). They went to many concerts of the day — Led Zeppelin, Janis, Grateful Dead — and were activists together for over fifty years until Steve passed from a massive heart attack. She heard him crash in the kitchen and he seemed to already be turning pale when she got to him. That was only nine months ago.
When I called her, she said she’d received my text, but still wasn’t sure how to reply on this new smart phone she had. She also didn’t know how to take pictures with it. Her neighborhood had streets named after civil rights heroes, but most of the houses now had “Trumpers” living in them and she felt more isolated than ever since Steve passed. He’d gotten along with the neighbors, despite political differences, because he’d lend a hand with house and car repairs sometimes and provided some social glue — that intangible ingredient for peace and well-being that many people don’t understand well enough to emulate and, too often, take for granted.
When we got to the library, Jill confessed she had trouble suddenly falling asleep and, even though she was conscious the whole time, she wasn’t really clear on how we’d gotten to the library. She was also able to bypass the long line and vote faster. She said her house was crowded with boxes of things she can’t really bear to sort because she’s too full of grief and can’t access mental health care to cope with the grieving. She owns five vehicles and needs help selling them. She was looking for help to find a trustworthy attorney to draw up her will. After she voted, she asked if we could stop at the Jack-in-the-box for a burger because she was hungry. We did that.
Jill spoke of “signs” by which she knew Steve was still communicating with her. As we drove away from the library, she looked out the window and said quietly, “Steve, I voted.” Fighting injustice was a cause they’d shared for over fifty years and she voted for him, with him, because he was no longer able to. I imagined, somewhere, he was grateful for that. I wished I could access more help for her. I felt bad leaving her back at her house, alone. I’m afraid she might not be able to make it much longer.
The next day, I hadn’t received any call backs from people I’d left messages with. Some peoples’ voice mail boxes were full so I couldn’t leave messages. Others had no known phone number. So, there was nothing to do but simply drive to their address, see if they were home and ask if they wanted a ride to the polls.
In one very comfortable-looking retirement home, following up on a phone number that had been “disconnected” or was “no longer in service”, I saw the woman’s name on her door had been replaced with a new name. At the front desk, they told me she’d “moved”. I wondered if that was a euphemism.
In another much older cinder-block apartment, no one answered the door when I rang the bell. Twice. A nice young Asian man stopped to visit an aged parent next door, but he didn’t know the neighbors. I wondered how long it would take for someone who lived here to be found if they fell and couldn’t get to the phone or the door. What if they weren’t fortunate enough to have a son or daughter who visited or called every day?
I was told Rosa was asleep by a young couple also living in her apartment. The wife of a man I was trying to give a ride to turned me away from their door. There was an “Oxygen in use” sign on the door and I wondered what the logistics of going to vote with an oxygen tank might be like. What if we got delayed and ran out of air? There were some cases where apparent care-givers turned me away in person or on the phone. One said there was “Nobody here by that name” and I doubted that because the volunteer records were usually quite reliable. How often, I wonder, do caregivers isolate their charges from friends, family, recreation or voting out of neglect or lack of time or concerns about their charges “doing too much”?
One can lose too much power to caregivers one is dependent upon.
Henry from the side-yard trailer called me the day after our first meeting to let me know that, unfortunately, once again, he wasn’t up to voting and needed to cancel our appointment. He must have found a way to pay his phone bill. I hope I didn’t get him in trouble with his host family in the main house. I hope they weren’t giving him a difficult time now for being a communist or something. We can’t know all the ways our actions will ripple and impact the lives of others. We can only do our best to guess and anticipate and there’s a risk our actions will have negative side effects. But, usually, the risk of inaction is even greater. So we do what we can. And that’s okay. There is, beyond regrets, guilt and second-guessing a surprising place of grace that we can get to when we know we’ve done the best we can and trust the world to fill in the blanks we can’t.
Happily, some voters were able to get to the polls without my help. One woman’s grandson came to visit and he drove her to early voting. I suggested she post an “I Voted” selfie of her and her grandson at the polling place on her social media and she said it was a good idea and she’d do it. One lady got her car back from the repair shop on the last day of early voting and, so, was able to drive herself to the polls after all. I gave a young man who didn’t own a car a ride from his job at the airport to the polling place which turned out to be only a half-mile from where he worked. Because he had to wait in line I went to pick up another voter meanwhile. He hadn’t realized how close the polling place was to the airport and decided to let me off the hook for driving and walk back to the airport himself. In general, it seemed that people who had a smart-phone for texting were more likely to find other solutions for getting themselves to early voting.
The polling place workers told us Sally wasn’t sufficiently disabled to qualify to skip waiting in line. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a cell phone. I left her in line and went to pick up another voter, but when I got back, Sally was gone. By asking people in line when they’d gotten in line, I found the line position where she should still have been, but I learned she’d been able to skip to the head of the line after all, after I’d left and had already voted. I reached her on her home phone and confirmed she was safely back home okay. She’d taken a taxi after voting. I felt bad about her spending the money, but I was glad she was safe and had successfully voted.
I had much difficulty at first understanding Liza, my last voter, on the phone. She had an accent and I am a little embarrassed by how long it took me to recognize she was speaking Jamaican dialect. Our first try was aborted because she did not know her Social Security number (the last four digits are requested, but, I later learned not absolutely required on the voting form) and couldn’t call her son while he was at work to get that detail from him. Her son typically helped her navigate legalities and government forms and so on. But the next day, she had her passport and, even though, contrary to my past experience, the passport did not have her SSN in it, it was sufficient ID for her to vote. After the ordeal with Sally the day before, the manager of the polling place and I were now acquainted and he took my word that Liza had a disability and let us jump to the head of the line. We helped her fill in her name and address on the forms as her eyesight wasn’t so good. She knew who her first and second choices were, however, and filled in the ovals for them in the proper columns.
On the way back to Liza’s place, we talked about volunteerism and how she used to work on campaigns in Jamaica and helped people in her church by filling in wherever there were gaps — sewing a wedding dress for one, baking a wedding cake for another, helping people get their train fare to get to work or the doctors. She was such a kind and compassionate lady. I am so happy I had a chance to meet her.
In conclusion, I think that Nevada’s new early voting helped many more people to vote (caucus on paper) than would have been able to attend the regular caucuses. If we are to be a true democracy, we cannot deny participation to senior and disabled citizens. If we only allow caucusing on one day, at inflexible times, and the process takes a grueling 3–4 hours (or sometimes longer), this excludes many senior and disabled people whose schedules are sequenced subject to their needs and the availability of their support network. It would be a great service to the senior and disabled community to have vote-by-mail in Nevada and other states. The Oregon model has proven itself very well. Foremost in my mind, however, is that there is a dire shortage of social workers today. It would be a blessing if most of the people I helped had more regular visits and assessments from social workers with knowledge of local resources they could plug into for various needs — people who could help them advocate and who can assess if their care-givers are truly being helpful or abusive or something in-between. There is no getting around the fact that the quality-of-life for these people can only be improved if we preserve and expand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and Bernie is the one to do it.
In the 80’s there was a popular sign that appeared in the back window of young families’ cars that read “Caution! Baby on board”. An elderly friend of mine in Minnesota had her witty sarcastic response, putting a sign in the back of her car that read “No worries! Expendable Old Folks on Board!”. Perhaps that sums up the de facto attitude of our culture toward the elderly and disabled which seems to be “If you ignore them, they’ll go away”. It’s a far cry from my experience volunteering with a local native american tribe. In the tribal custom, elders are honored and it was a breath of fresh air to see the young people guiding elders to the front of the line to eat and waiting their turn.
I’m glad I went to Reno. I learned and experienced more than I expected and, even though I didn’t come anywhere close to taking a hundred people to the polls, I did get to take a few very high quality people to vote who otherwise would not have been able to. I am grateful to them for the experience.