There’s something about below-freezing wind that knocks the optimism right out of you, freezes it, and returns it in the form of shivering pessimism and numb, useless fingers. At 7am on Tuesday morning, I stepped onto the sidewalk outside of First Baptist Church, a designated polling place for residents of South Trenton, New Jersey. I pulled my phone out and tapped the weather icon: 26 degrees. The temperature only confirmed my assertion that the next five hours would be nothing if not disastrous.
The midterm assignment for my public opinion class was to conduct exit polls on Election Day. We were told to stand at least one hundred feet from the voting place (courtesy of New Jersey State Law) and convince people to fill out a double-sided survey about their political beliefs. I can honestly say that had it been me walking out of First Baptist Church into the coldest wind of the year, I would have refused to talk to anyone, much less a shivering student who clearly had no idea what she was doing.
One of the first women I asked to take the survey had four children with her, all of whom looked under the age of three. I talked quickly—began by telling her that I was from Princeton and we were conducting a completely anonymous survey…I expected her to keep moving, to avoid eye contact and hustle her children along, so they could all get out of the cold as quickly as possible. At best, I expected a quick, “no thank you.” At worst I thought she might question my sanity—“Are you kidding?” she would ask, “don’t you know it’s cold out here?”
“Would you be willing to take it?” I asked her finally. I held out the bag of candy we’d been given as an alternative means of persuasion, “You can just take some candy if you’re in a hurry,” I added. She could undoubtedly detect the trepidation in my voice, but she didn’t take my hesitancy as her opportunity to make a quick getaway. “Sure,” she replied, taking the clipboard and mini pencil from my hand. Four small children, 26 degrees, and still she took five minutes out of her day purely for my sake. She was not the exception. In fact, about 8 in 10 of the voters we asked took the survey agreeably, and almost all were generous with their time.
Of course, not everyone we spoke to was keen on politics. Some just wanted to chat. One elderly gentleman read my nametag out loud. Clearly puzzled by my hyphenated last name, he asked me if I was married. When I told him I wasn’t, he found it hilarious, and sagely predicted that when I did marry I would end up with three or four last names. “It won’t even fit on your driver’s license!” he laughingly informed me. I guess I’ve been warned.
As I rode back towards the bubble, I tried to work out what exactly made the voters walking out of First Baptist so willing to fill out a survey. I decided that it must have something about Election Day; it must have been the excitement Americans feel after pressing that red CAST YOUR VOTE button, and doing what, for most, is the one thing we do each election cycle for our country’s democracy.
But later in the day, when I’d fully recovered the feeling in my fingers, I came to a far simpler conclusion. Maybe the truth is that not every resident of New Jersey is a wannabe New Yorker, like I am. We don’t all whip out our phones and fane conversation, or turn the other direction, the second we spot an eager smile and a clipboard.