Reading Voters

Tagging along on Operation Ohio in pursuit of the college vote


That would have helped, because in the end Operation Ohio did not meet its original goals. The third date at Cleveland State was sparsely attended, probably because of poor timing (it was at 3 in the afternoon) and the fact that it's a commuter school. But even at Oberlin and Ohio State, very few registration forms got filled out because everyone passing the gauntlet of volunteers was already registered. "If you live here," one volunteer at Ohio State said, "and you leave the house, you're already getting asked to register 10 times a day"—which may not have been an exaggeration, since county clerks across the state had been having trouble keeping up with the unprecedented surge in voter registrations.

"But registration is only halfway," Stephen kept saying. "You also have to get those people to the polls. That's why like the phone call is the more important part."

The phone represents the second stage of Operation Ohio—the all-important mobilization scheme that would take effect once we were all gone from the state. Stephen created a list that would allow students to sign up to receive a call on Election Day from a well-known writer, reminding them to vote. With more participating writers than those who made it to Ohio, including Tobias Wolff, ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem, there was plenty of call capacity. Before any of us arrived in Ohio, 300 people had signed up through Operation Ohio's Web site. Now there were a couple hundred more names to add to the list. And the press from the tour, Stephen guessed, would attract another wave.

"The question I tried to address here is, 'How do you get college students to vote?' " Stephen said. He'd thought about this a lot, having spent some of the campaign season hunting for the mythical Youth Vote. It has never materialized in powerful numbers; even when 18-year-olds first got the chance to vote in 1972 and there was a war with a draft on, they didn't show. Howard Dean's candidacy held some promise for energizing young voters, and the numbers for the 18-to-24-year-olds were up in many primaries. Stephen wanted to keep that momentum.

"That's why the calls on Election Day are really the focus," he said. "Elections are won on Election Day. Look at what happened here in 2000." That's when Gore's campaign, thinking they were down by 10 points, redeployed manpower and pulled ads from the state, only to see the gap close on Election Day to 3.5 points. "Today, the polls are much closer," Stephen added, "so the calls will help."

Sure, Stephen admits, it would have been nice to get more. "But anything is a success. These are people no one else would have reached. They say they're going to go, and they don't. Unless they get a phone call from Tobias Wolff."

I thought about Meiers and Lipscolmb and reminded Stephen that a few of those voters might get a call from Tobias Wolff and go pull the lever for Bush.

"Well," he said, pausing for a moment, "that's a whole different problem."


As of Tuesday, Operation Ohio has signed up close to 800 people to receive phone calls on Election Day. If you want to be reminded to vote, and you live in a swing state, go to stephenelliott.com/ohio.html.

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