Tales of a phone bank

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and the sun is blazing. On an ordinary day, 14-year-old Mitch Belkin would be lounging around his house watching the History Channel or some independent film like “Triplets of Belleville.”

“Have you ever seen it?” the teenager with a wild mass of curly black hair and glasses asks excitedly, taking a break from harassing people via telephone at their homes about the upcoming election.
Betsy Rothstein
At a local phone bank, Nancy Adelman mistakenly calls a dead man.

OK, so it’s not quite harassing. Belkin, who has donned a patriotic blue “America” T-shirt, dark shorts and sneakers for the occasion, is exceedingly polite when he calls people up and bugs them in the middle of the afternoon. Without looking up, he reaches absently for a miniature pretzel in a metal bowl. He slouches, elbows all over the long rectangular table at the Kensington Democratic phone bank in Montgomery County, Md.

Like all phone-bankers, Belkin is scripted. And he must follow rules. He is not to argue with callers, but rather must listen and calmly state the Democratic viewpoint if the voter is a conservative. Volunteers receive two minutes of training before they hit the phones.

“Hi, this is Mitch,” he says in a voice that sounds entirely too practiced and smooth for a goofy, big-haired teenager. “I am volunteering for John Kerry and John Edwards. If you are still living at … then your polling location is. …”

We can all breathe a sigh of relief today. People like Belkin will no longer be calling our homes. But during election season, phone-banking is like a steady heartbeat. It’s happening all the time, and it gives volunteers a chance to believe they are doing something to help their candidate win the election. Like telemarketers, they get their share of hangups and angry reactions. They also deal with the embarrassment of trying to phone dead people.

Belkin’s father dropped him off about an hour ago. The ninth-grader says his parents are thrilled he’s there. “They like me doing it,” he says, adding, after a moment’s reflection, “They like me doing something.”

Jeri Pollen, an older woman who recently retired from the National Institutes of Health, is less experienced at phone-banking than Belkin, who has been at it for about three weeks. It’s her first day on the phones.

“I’m a real novice,” she says, smiling sweetly as she dutifully makes her calls. “It’s going pretty well — a lot of people are probably out at this time of day, so I get the voicemails.”

The point of phone-banking is not just to remind voters to vote on Election Day.

Other services include information about which polling location a voter goes to, transportation to the polls and how to vote using an absentee ballot.

The Kensington office is a messy, cluttered room with mismatched chairs — some orange, others brown leather and falling apart. But the ambience doesn’t seem to matter. At the moment, the humble space is adrift in a cacophony of voices.

Somehow, it has the effect of being melodic rather than clashing and painful. Some voices are high, while others are baritones. Some are young, while others are older, wiser. Some are in English, while at least one male voice speaks in Spanish.

“I am calling for Irwin Scherwitt,” says Pollen in her soft-spoken, high-pitched voice. “Hello, is this Irwin? My name is Jeri, and I’m a volunteer for John Kerry and John Edwards.”

She presses on. “We urge you to vote for the entire Democratic ticket,” she says. She smiles, asking hopefully, “Are you planning to do that?”

Pollen, who won’t reveal her age, says she’s here because she has “serious questions with the current administration.” She’s concerned about Bush’s policies on the environment as well as on the budget and taxes.

She says she thinks Bush is “probably a pleasant fellow, but I have problems with the way he makes decisions. He doesn’t think things through, and he doesn’t change his mind.”

The half-dozen phone-bankers here are serious about their calling and barely look up from their phone pads and lists. They don’t joke. They don’t engage in small talk.

The only time I see them interact is when one volunteer finally cracks open a window, and then they all begin commenting on the lack of air conditioning.

Steve Dutkey, a middle-age volunteer with a thick, dark beard and mustache, is in the midst of a call. “Do you mind sharing with me how you plan to vote,” he asks. “All the Democrats? OK, that’s music to my ears.”

Dutkey has been phone-banking for a few months now and is taking a week and a half off work to volunteer. Why does he do it? “I think this is a critical election,” he says. He rolls his eyes. “What else is there to say?”

Over on the other side of the room, Nancy Adelman, a woman with a short spray of white hair and a bright smile, is apologizing. “I’m so sorry for the untimely call,” she says.

Later she explains, “Did you hear I got the nightmare call? I asked for someone and they said, ‘I buried him yesterday.’”

Adelman isn’t new to the volunteer gig. She volunteered in the ’90s for former President Bill Clinton and as far back as the 1968 presidential election of Bobby Kennedy, when she handed out literature on the streets of Chicago.

She says she feels strongly that phone-banking can make a difference. “I’ve had two elderly women say they need rides, so it is important,” she says.

Unlike some of the other phone-bankers, Belkin doesn’t mind people hanging up on him. “I didn’t even get to ‘Hi, this is Mitch,’” he says, boasting of yet another hangup. He delights in recounting his call to a woman who “seemed a little hostile.

After she heard why I was calling, she said thank you rudely and hung up.”

But the teenager says he understands: “If I got a call [like this], I might hang up.”