Remembering the People Behind the Polls

Last week, I made the short trek up to New Hampshire to knock on some doors and get out the vote in preparation for the state’s Feb. 11 primary. Later that evening, I went to a Democratic rally, giving the candidates a last hurrah before Monday’s election. Each candidate spoke, and in these speeches, I found not an opportunity to cheer the loudest for policy issues and taglines the candidates brought up, but instead to look around the room and notice who did. That is to say, I approached the event as a journalist.

I grew hyper-aware of how candidates altered their speeches and talking points from those we hear on the national stage, in televised debates and in interviews, to this event overwhelmingly comprised of New Hampshire voters. My only exposure to the New Hampshire primaries and the specific issues surrounding it was filtered through national news platforms; I’d listen to “The NPR Politics Podcast” discuss New Hampshire stakes and predictions, hypothesizing what it might mean for the rest of the country. Running through poll numbers makes the election out to be some lottery gamble, an issue of numbers and votes. But being in New Hampshire showed me how many people there are that go into creating the graphs and numbers that shape predictions.

While I canvassed, I used an app called MiniVan, which syncs the campaign with your phone to tell you which voters to talk to and where they live; it prompts the canvasser to click through a series of questions and answers for the people they talk to, indicating who the person’s first or second candidate choice may be, what their top issues were and so on. The app also designates a list of voters for each house, sometimes listing only one resident, sometimes up to three. In essence, MiniVan render a clean-cut picture of the voting scene and attempts to streamline the canvassing process: go to each house, ask residents the questions and hopefully sell them on your candidate.

But this could not be further from reality. In real life, all three registered voters listed in the app don’t rush to answer when the doorbell rings — often only one will come to the entryway, or someone else entirely (i.e. someone not on the list) will answer. What then? Fill in the boxes of both listed people with the answers of only the one who spoke? That feels skewed. Do you ask for the others to join so that the information typed into the app can reflect reality? That feels stilted and unnatural in a conversation that’s meant to be honest and real.

Sometimes individuals speak as “we” or sometimes they tell you one thing while believing another just so that you can carry on and they can resume their Sunday coffee. It is freaky to think that all these one-off interactions become distilled into a checkbox on an app that reflects nothing of what actually happened. Then, these check boxes turn into numbers on charts and graphs that then direct action, policy, news stories and people’s opinions.

This process sheds light on the ways that information travels and the room for error in this information that is then deemed infallibly true once it becomes a “data point.” It is no longer a person who answered the door in pajamas with interest in anything but talking to you.

Spending a weekend hyper-focused on the individuals behind the ballots heightened my attention to how I lost the personal in the politics as a reader and consumer of news, data, postulations and predictions. It’s easy to forget yet essential to remember that it’s not trends and demographics that travel to gyms and high school cafeteria to cast their votes; it’s individuals, each with a unique set of interests, priorities, whims and goals.

Even moreso, it heightened my attention to how I let this phenomenon happen in the writing that I do, and that we all do here at The Student. In the same way, it’s people with full lives and opinions and interests who place words on the page and pose questions for interviews that then become news stories between these pages. My years on various newspapers have illuminated this fact to me. It’s shifted the way I take in the news — local, national or otherwise — and made me, I believe, a better media consumer. Even the most careful and aware reporters from the most professional publication might shape and shift their world perception, and thus, how they write the news.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means we all need to do our part, writers and readers alike, to enter this media landscape with an awareness to the personhood and personality that goes into creating a story (whether that be a news story from The Student or the story a polling point out of South Carolina). We need to do our parts to fill in the blanks and round out the gray space that comes with these inherent erasures.