With only a day left to mail in ballots for the presidential election in Oregon, Alek Felstiner ’04, a regional field director for the League of Conservation Voters Environmental Victory Project, is out canvassing neighborhoods, persuading anyone he can find to vote, and to vote for Sen. John Kerry ’66.
“I’m going door-to-door but no one’s home,” Felstiner said. “We’ve done the bulk of the work already, and now it’s intense and hectic but less daunting. We’re still working a decent 14-hour day. We’re basically on the doors as much as we can be.”
Felstiner is not alone. He is only one of thousands of political activists, including many Yale students, who have worked overtime for several months organizing volunteers, campaigning door-to-door, and doing everything possible to turn out the vote.
But even though he is pounding the pavement some 2,000 miles away from New Haven, Felstiner is still surrounded by Yalies. Ten Yale graduates and two undergraduates all work for the same organization in the same office in Portland, Ore.. Although current polls indicate that Oregon –once a swing state — has recently crossed into Kerry’s camp, the state is still regarded as a campaign battleground; and throughout the year it has attracted the attention of canvassing campaigns and eager volunteers. Through networking and word-of-mouth, a small enclave of Yalies and other Ivy League students ended up at the League of Conservation Voters’ office in Oregon.
“The Yale thing played its elitist way out here,” field organizer Evan Muchmore ’04 said. “Everyone heard of the LCV through each other.”
In January, the League of Conservation Voters, or LCV, an organization that describes itself as “the political voice of the national environmental movement,” hired Felstiner for its campaign against President Bush, whom the LCV Web site criticizes for having the worst environmental record of any president in recent memory. Felstiner sent e-mails to Yale acquaintances and successfully recruited four Yalies, including Sarah Moros ’06, to join him in Oregon.
Moros, now a regional field director for the LCV, said she had never before done anything political in her life.
“I was planning on taking the year off and going to Venezuela when I woke up one morning and realized that the best place to be a world citizen was here in the states,” Moros said. “I received an e-mail from Alek, so I started talking to the LCV people on the phone and liked it because they had an environmental perspective.”
While the Yale canvassers said they worked well with all 35 employees in the LCV office and not just with each other, Moros said she has enjoyed the company of people from her college, in particular.
“We all really get along with everyone in the office,” she said. “When I came out there were only two Yale people in the office. Now there are more. While it’s always fun to play the name game or stuff like that it really teaches you that connections and the people who care for you will last for life.”
In the last few days of the election, the office has mostly cleared out; everyone is canvassing the crucial swing districts. Oregon conducts its elections entirely on a vote-by-mail system. Ballots are sent to all homes by mid-October and must be filled out and postmarked before November 2 in order to count. Oregon routinely enjoys high voter turnout — in 2000 the state had the highest percentage turnout in the nation — but at least 35 percent of distributed ballots had not been received by November 1. The Portland LCV office is exhausting all possibilities to turn out the vote. Over the weekend 300 volunteers, recruited and trained throughout the fall, campaigned door-to-door.
Field organizer Ana Munoz ’04 said she believes a Yale education indirectly offered a good background for working on a campaign and specifically for canvassing neighborhoods.
“Yale will consistently push you to figure out who you are and what you’re dealing with,” Munoz said. “In that sense it prepares you to knock on a door and to deal with people. [Campaigning well] is about being able to have a mind that’s able to process information and to be sympathetic to anyone you talk to.”
Jocelyn Lippert ’04, the volunteer coordinator for the office, said she enjoyed most of all the opportunity to campaign door-to-door and speak to the average undecided voter.
Lippert ’04 was a staff reporter for The News.
“The best way to address undecided voters is person-to-person and heart-to-heart,” Lippert said. “It is satisfying, really satisfying to go out and find an undecided voter and ask, ‘What are you concerned about?’ and then to come at the issues from what they say they care about.”
The attitudes of voters have changed over the past few months from apathy to a sense of urgency, Felstiner said.
“At this point there’s a great deal of voter fatigue, but I’ve been shocked by the willingness of voters to engage with us at the door and to be quite personal about their problems,” he said.
With polls giving Kerry a narrow lead in Oregon, Lippert sized the situation up as dicey. But other Oregon Yalies still expressed confidence in a Kerry victory.
“The Oregon election was won for Gore by 6,700 votes,” Muchmore said. “If we can mobilize enough volunteers to reach thousands of people, we will win the election in a landslide.”
Munoz found encouragement in the enthusiasm of her fellow volunteers.
“It’s sad that we let things get so bad,” Munoz said of the Bush presidency. “What makes me happy to be alive and proud to be an American is that people are mobilizing and that will translate to getting votes for John Kerry.”
For Felstiner and other politically active Yalies, Tuesday may be only the beginning. Felstiner said he and the other Oregon canvassers are committed to continuing their political work long after this campaign. But, he admitted, he will be relieved when the election ends.
“Most of us are in this for the long haul, and we’re going to keep running into each other,” Felstiner said. “But after this we’re all going to take a month off.”
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