"I Didn't Know I Could Vote"

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just came back from eight hours canvassing swing exurban neighborhoods 20 miles south of Seattle. Walking two precincts, I left materials on about a hundred doors, spoke to a dozen or so people who'd already voted, and told a handful how to turn in their absentee ballots. It was easy to feel that my efforts were nice but redundant.

Then I knocked on a nondescript house and a man in his late forties answered the door. He had chains tattooed on his wrists, and looked liked he'd been through hard times, maybe jail. "I'd vote for Obama and the Democrats," he said. "But I haven't been voting. I didn't know I could vote."

"You're on the list," I said, double-checking. Your wife is registered as well." I checked again, and he was definitely registered and eligible. I'm not certain how he forgot, but he was definitely on the list and said he'd go to the polls first thing and vote for the Democratic ticket. I'd canvassed for four hours by then, and my feet were tired, but suddenly I had a spring in my step. Maybe he and his wife would be the only new votes I turned out, but four years ago our excellent Democratic governor won by 129 votes, and her rematch this round looks just as tight. So I thought of all the volunteers working in my state and across the country, and all the other elections decided by one vote or less per precinct. I thought of those and felt more than fine.

It would be great to get dozens of additional Democratic voters at a shot, and maybe sometime that will happen. But ground games win when enough people knock on enough doors or make enough phone calls so the numbers add up. And even if it was just that one man and his wife, their votes would be multiplied by those secured by all the other volunteers until the ones and twos add up to a wave that really is capable of tipping an election. I'll be phoning more voters and knocking on more doors until the polls close, and the memory of that conversation will sustain me.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While.