Obama and volunteers phone banking.

Biden won by only 43,000 votes.

Volunteers like me (and you?) made the difference.

Edmond Alkaslassy
6 min readFeb 23, 2021

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The presidential election of 2016 was a wake-up call for this Democrat.

Hillary Clinton was favored to win. But instead Donald Trump won, flipping Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a scant 77,744 votes in an election where 139 million votes were cast and 92 million eligible voters did not vote.

In such a close election, would a few more campaign volunteers have made a difference?

I had an epiphany: If people like me don’t care enough to volunteer, who will? I had never volunteered before but I realized that voting was not enough. I simply would not be able to live with myself if Trump won again and I had not tried to defeat him. I decided to volunteer for Biden’s campaign.

And I’m glad I did. Biden won in 2020 by even fewer votes than Trump won by in 2016 (more on that later); without volunteers working to get out the Democratic vote, Trump could have won.

Because I know first hand how impactful volunteers are, I would like to encourage folks who have not yet volunteered to consider doing so. I hope that sharing my experience as a volunteer will demystify volunteering and help folks who care about politics make the same little hop (it’s not a leap) that I made, from non-volunteer to volunteer. Here’s how I helped Biden (and other Democrats) win.

Because I live abroad I needed an online volunteer option so I “adopted” Wisconsin through VoteSaveAmerica.com’s “Adopt a State” program. (Note to readers living in Deep Blue states: If I can call Wisconsin from abroad, you can volunteer in any state you like. Just pick one that tends to have close elections!) My task was to call people in Wisconsin, aka “phone banking.” I attended online trainings to learn how to use a computer program that automatically dials numbers, displays a script for callers to follow and records responses. I found it all to be pretty straightforward. I do not much like talking on the phone but my motivation to defeat Trump was stronger than my aversion to talking to strangers on the phone. I ended up being quite comfortable making these calls and actually looked forward to my shifts.

I called Wisconsin for two hours each week from June 2020 to the end of October. I was stunned to learn that, if not for cold calls from strangers like me, many voters would not know how or when to register or cast their votes. (This is not what I expected from “The Greatest Democracy in the World”; we can do better.) Indeed, although I spent some phone time talking about policy, I spent most of my time helping voters with the mechanics of voting: registering, requesting absentee ballots and identifying dates and places for early voting. I also developed specific voting plans with voters (voters with a specific plan are more likely to vote), recruited new volunteers and asked voters to encourage their friends and family to vote.

I made 1506 calls (yes, I kept track). Here’s how they broke down:

Short calls (hang-ups, wrong numbers, moved, deceased, no answer, GOP supporter) — 1309 (86.9%).

Good conversations — 197 (13.1%).

Every call, even the short ones, made a difference. Calls to wrong numbers and to voters who had moved or were deceased were not much fun but served the useful purpose of “cleaning up” the phone records so future volunteers would not waste time calling those numbers.

And during our training, volunteers were told that the average person needs several “contacts” to solidify their intent to vote. Thus each time I spoke with a voter (however briefly) I increased the chances that they would vote.

I had many memorable conversations. An elderly man said he had voted in every election since FDR and “sure as hell” wasn’t going to miss this one. I spoke to people who were feeling the sting of racism and of living in a culture that was more tolerant of white supremacy. I spoke to people while their kids were screaming and the TV was blaring. I spoke (briefly!) to people whose language skills were mismatched with mine (our team followed up with them later). One woman said plainly, “I don’t want to vote” and another said “I used to care when I was young.” Ouch.

What was the electoral impact of my five months of volunteering? It is impossible to know for certain but I offer this rough calculation:

I estimate I provided necessary information to or developed a voting plan with half of the 197 folks I spoke with: 98.5 people, or 98 votes. I also recruited nine volunteers; those recruited early (June) had more time to affect the election than those recruited later so perhaps the average volunteer was responsible for half as many votes as I was: 49. Those nine volunteers yielded roughly 9 X 49 = 441 votes, plus my 98 makes a total of 539 votes.

In sum, my efforts may have netted 539 votes in Wisconsin. Even if this is an overestimate it is clear that I was personally responsible for many more votes than the one I cast. Whether it was 539 votes or 98 votes or somewhere in between, I made a difference.

And I was far from alone. The automatic dialing program showed 50 to 200 other callers working alongside me during calling sessions, peaking at 1351 callers near Election Day. (And there were many other calling sessions I did not participate in, so there were many more volunteers making calls). It is indisputable that volunteers made a difference in Wisconsin’s close election (Biden won Wisconsin by just 20,682 votes).

My volunteer work for Biden ended with success in Wisconsin and in the national election. But after Election Day two Senate races in Georgia remained unresolved so I started calling voters there. When I went to bed on January 5 the outcome was unknown. But the next morning the country received historic news: Georgia had elected its first Black Senator and its first Jewish Senator.

I rarely cry but that morning I cried tears of joy. And justice. And hope.

Although I volunteered in order to have an impact on the 2020 election, there have been other unforeseen benefits. Speaking to my fellow Americans, struggling to pronounce their diverse names, hearing their voices, their accents, their local expressions, their concerns — all of this moved me. I feel more connected to my diverse fellow Americans than ever before.

Phone banking was also a kind of therapy for me. The last few years have been difficult and it has been easy to get depressed about the state of affairs. But phone banking connected me with hundreds of people — voters and volunteers — who shared my vision for a more humane future. Phone banking lifted my sprits when they needed a lift.

Many of us have the wherewithal to volunteer. That is easy for me to say: I have ample free time, the technological tools and (nominal) funds needed for phone banking, and no physical or other impediments. Making calls for two hours each week required no sacrifice on my part. Citizens will decide for themselves whether they can volunteer for an hour or two each week in the months before an election.

That decision (whether to volunteer) should take into account the remarkable closeness of the past two presidential elections. Trump won in 2016 by 77,744 votes but 2020 was even closer. Biden won the Electoral College by 36 votes, including narrow wins in three states totaling 37 Electoral College votes: Arizona by 10,457 votes, Georgia by 11,779, and Wisconsin by 20,682, a total of 42,918 votes. If Biden had lost those three states, he and Trump would have been tied with 269 Electoral College votes. When there is a tie the winner is determined by the House of Representatives. Because Republicans hold the majority of state delegations in the House (although they are in the minority overall), Trump would have won.

We should not be distracted by Biden’s massive but electorally meaningless margin of 7 million votes. The sobering truth is that Biden won the election by the slimmest of margins, a mere 43,000 votes out of 159 million votes cast. I hope we will purge the number 7 million from our collective memories; the number we should remember is 43,000.

Both of the last two presidential elections were determined by fewer than 80,000 votes. Close elections are the new normal. Volunteers — neighborhood canvassers, letter writers, phone bankers and others — make a real difference, especially in close elections.

Trump or his kin may or may not be on the ballot in the next election. But Trumpism will be on the ballot for years to come. Whoever is on the ballot, volunteers will make a difference in the next election and the one after that. I will be one of them. Perhaps you will be too.

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Edmond Alkaslassy

Faculty Emeritus, Assistant Professor of Biology, Pacific University, Oregon. He is writing a book that compares the daily lives of humans and other animals.