Political Action Figures

Political Action Figures

This year's volunteer is next year's voter.

While many people try to avoid jury duty, John Matel of Merrifield wants the chance to perform his civic duty. "I wish they'd call me," he said.

Since he can't choose himself to serve on a jury, Matel has found another outlet for his desire by volunteering for a presidential campaign. "I decided I should volunteer for whichever side I thought was better," he said. "I think people should just do it."

Matel wound up working for the Republican campaign on Saturday, he went door-to-door trying to help with getting out the vote for President George W. Bush (R) and offering rides to the polls on election day.

He would even give rides to people who want to vote for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). "It is a democracy, after all.

Democracy and elections were much easier for Alex Gorev, another volunteer, when he was younger. "It was a very simple election," he said, describing the process in his native Moscow. "You were asked to come to a polling station at a certain time, or they'd put you on the black list."

Gorev lives in Alexandria now — he hasn't voted in Russia in 15 years — and he takes the opportunities given to him in this country by volunteering during campaign time. "It's a very good feeling. It's a great feeling."

Gorev and Matel are just two of the many people who are out volunteering this year. "The intensity on both sides of the aisle is for the presidential year," said John Gibson, political director for U.S. Rep. Tom Davis' (R-11th) campaign. "On both sides, the footsoldiers are really excited."

"This has been a great motivating factor," said Dan Drummond, Democratic Party chair for the City of Fairfax. "I think there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm."

That enthusiasm is manifested in the number of people who turn out to volunteer. "We're seeing a greater turnout of Democrats. … People who identified themselves as Democrats, but never really did everything they could," Drummond said.

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY is also seeing increased turnout. The party conducted a nationwide "Walk the Vote" day on Oct. 16. Teams of volunteers met and fanned out across the country.

Locally, assignments were handed out at the Northern Virginia Republican headquarters in Fairfax. The reasons people had for coming out were as varied as the people themselves. Delilah Steinbach of Burke came because of how close the 2000 election was. "I foresee that happening again, and I wanted to make a difference," she said.

Jamie Hjort of Alexandria was out walking for Davis. She works for the Congressional Committee on Government Reform which Davis chairs, but it wasn't job security that had her knocking on doors. "I believe in the candidate," she said.

High school students were also out in force, partly since they are able to get community service credit for working on a campaign. Robinson Secondary School students Kimberly Letarde and Winnie Tung, both 17 from Fairfax, are undecided. Although neither will be eligible to vote in this year's election, they want help making up their minds about a candidate. "Maybe we'll get some information," Kimberly said.

"I just think because of what's going on with terror, if the president isn't elected," said Joe Gee of Vienna, shaking his head at the thought.

Gee is volunteering in his first campaign, and it's people like him who wind up being very valuable. In Virginia, even if there are no presidential or congressional races, there are still elections for state and county offices.

Since those elections take place in off years, voter turnout is typically lower. For example, in last year's election, 30.77 percent of registered voters voted, statewide. By comparison, the 2002 election congressional election drew 39.4 percent voter turnout, and in 2000, the last presidential election, the percentage was 68.5, according to the Virginia Board of Elections Web site.

In years with lower turnouts, a small number of votes can influence the elections. And now that so many people have registered as volunteers for the presidential campaigns, future campaigns will have a list to go to. "We are identifying voters, and then we can turn that around and contact people," Gibson said. "We can get them out voting and volunteering."

The volunteers are also networking among themselves, according to Matel. He said that by going out and knocking on doors they are finding other people sympathetic to their views, and people with similar motivations. "All the people I talked to were Bush supporters," he said.

The relationship-building aspect of volunteering was part of what drew Matel into the process. "I thought it was both a side benefit and something I expected going in," he said.

Those kinds of relationships help both sides.

"You don't just win election by election, you win idea by idea," Drummond said. Democrats are also keeping track of the volunteers which sympathize with their side, something they haven't done as aggressively as in previous years. "I think that's been a major flaw in the way our national party has done things," Drummond said.

At the local level, Drummond's party is seeing an increase in what it hopes will be long-term interest. "They're also becoming members of the committee," he said. "This is something that has to continue."