It was 5:30 p.m. on a 90 degree Tuesday in June, and John Conlon, a 60- year-old Ole Miss economics professor from New Jersey, found a place to park on a narrow road in a neighborhood off Highway 6 near the University Avenue exit. He parked in front of a run-down house with an unkempt yard and rotting wood posts. It was obviously vacant. Armed with a clipboard and a pen, he left the vehicle and headed toward the first house on his assignment. He knocked on the door of the first house, across the street from the run-down one, but he got no answer.
Conlon is a volunteer for Mississippi Votes, a newly-founded nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.. Specifically, he is volunteering for the organization’s canvassing effort, which aims to gather data on citizens’ opinions on voting-related issues in Mississippi, such as early voting, same-day voting and voter fraud. The volunteers, who are mainly recruited through word of mouth, also carry voter registration forms for people who aren’t registered. Currently, the organization seeks to blanket Lee and Lafayette Counties with hopes of covering key areas around the state. The effort officially kicked off in May after training sessions in March and April.
This is Conlon’s first time canvassing, and it shows with his initial hesitation to knocking on doors. He is one of many volunteers for the organization’s ambitious effort and also one of many first-time canvassers.
But for Conlon and other canvassers, the effort is more than just a quick-hit encounter. They are getting a lesson in citizenship, one that shows them how important it is to discuss issues with other people.
“I’ve never really thought that voting mattered,” said Kimberly Vassar, a 25-year-old Oxford native and volunteer. “It is interesting to go door-to-door and see everyone’s different opinions.”
Conlon’s assignment took him down a well-worn road in a working class neighborhood with houses on either side. Initially worried that the residents might find the survey a waste of time, Conlon was finally able to survey a resident, and he found the woman happy to participate. “That was smoother than expected,” he said after the encounter.
After an hour and a half of canvassing, Conlon was heading back to his car. He was sweaty but satisfied with his work. When asked why he was interested in canvassing in the first place, he said more people need to get out and vote, and he also saw it as an opportunity to chat with citizens, whom he found to be more receptive than he expected.
“I was afraid of annoying people by knocking on their doors, and at a certain point I realized that these people were friendlier than I am… I noticed that they didn’t want me to rush through the questions.” They wanted to talk. At one point, one woman insisted that Conlon take a seat on her small porch, even though the survey only takes a minute or less.
Most of the fourteen other canvassers were also surprised at the warm welcome they received. Tysheann Grant, a 23-year-old Grenada native and first-time volunteer, said that she was also expecting rejection. “It was pleasantly surprising to see that people would open their door,” she said. “People were very receptive… they really wanted to express their views on the questions we asked.”
Vassar found the whole experience to be enlightening. “It’s empowering, in a way,” she said of voter registration and education.
The canvassers agreed that their efforts not only supplied Mississippi Votes with valuable research data on voting in Mississippi, but surveying these citizens doubled as a conversation starter, with both parties learning through the exchanges.
Back at the cozy Mississippi Votes office, a space located behind Soulshine Pizza Factory, Conlon and the other canvassers handed in their surveys and registration forms to John Chappell, a 20-year-old junior at Ole Miss and Mississippi Votes Deputy Director from Albuquerque.
When asked about the goals of the canvassing effort, Chappell said that it serves two purposes for the organization: “It is a mix of voter registration and research so we can, at the same time, get people registered to vote and find out what people think about voting issues and voting policies. This is important because there is not reliable data on voting in Mississippi. Period.”
Chappell believes that once Mississippi Votes gathers substantial data they will publish research based on it, which will better inform Mississippians and Mississippi policymakers about voting-related issues.
The organization, which officially incorporated with the Secretary of State in March, gets funding from grassroots donations, but Chappell said the group hopes to receive foundational grants in the future as it grows.
Chappell was enthusiastic about the day’s work, because this was one of the largest group of volunteers he had canvassing at once. Despite their differences in age and background, they had one thing in common by the end of the session: they all were eager to sign up for the next round of canvassing later in the week.