Knocking on Bangor’s door: Librarian, 63, takes to the streets to discuss gay marriage initiative

The 5,200 people knocking on doors in every Maine county to urge residents to cast their ballots in favor of same-sex marriage are not trying to convince the “definite no” voters. Their aim is to make sure people who are leaning toward voting yes actually do it. Turnout on Nov. 6 is essential to passage of Question 1, and research shows canvassing is one of the most effective ways to boost voting rates.

“There are enough people who agree, but they have to actually get out there and vote to make the difference,” said volunteer canvasser Mary Ann Perry, 63, of Holden.

Perry is a librarian in Bangor and has been knocking on doors for about two months. “I decided it was time to really take a stand,” she said. “If you want to believe it, you need to do it.” She didn’t come to that conclusion automatically, however. When she first walked into the Mainers United for Marriage office in Brewer to sign up to volunteer, she said she wanted to stay in the background and help with office work and data entry.

But, as she connected with the other volunteers and workers, Perry said they convinced her to try knocking on the doors of strangers to discuss the often personal issue of gay marriage. “It just gave me more confidence to see how these young people were so committed, so involved, so energetic, where they could have been out just hanging out with their friends,” she said. “It invigorated me.”

Canvassing has been a surprisingly positive experience, she said. Because she lives in the area, she often knocks on the doors of people she knows. “That makes it so easy. In the middle of it you’re meeting with a friend,” she said. Most people, she has found, are kind and willing to talk. Even those who disagree with legalizing same-sex marriage usually still discuss the issue and explain their reasoning. “Even when you’ve met someone with opposition, you can really just chat about it,” she said.

She has so far encountered only one person who acted rudely. The voter was a woman about Perry’s age who “let me have it with both barrels,” arguing that marriage should only be between one man and one woman, she said. Canvassers aren’t supposed to engage with voters who express strong disagreement, so Perry simply said she felt the opposite and that they probably wouldn’t find middle ground. “That kind of hit you in the face,” she said. “But the good thing about canvassing is you can walk it off.”

The most rewarding interactions come when she clears up misconceptions, she said. Some people aren’t aware that clergy won’t be required to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. Other people don’t understand that civil unions aren’t allowed in Maine or that, if civil unions were legal, they wouldn’t offer the same protections to couples as marriage. “You walk away from those (interactions) all excited, you want to jump up and down,” she said.

The canvassers, who all receive training, have a routine they follow at every home. They verify that the person answering the door is the one on their prepared list, introduce themselves, explain their purpose and then ask how the person plans to vote and why. The point of engaging in conversation and encouraging someone to verbalize a position is to create a personal connection, which increases the likelihood the person will vote on Election Day. Canvassers share their stories, too.

The most common reason Perry finds as to why people support same-sex marriage is because they know someone who is gay and want the person to have the same rights. The other common reason falls along the lines of “live and let live.” People tell her that gay couples should be able to do what they want; gay marriage won’t affect them.

Has Perry been surprised by anything? “More people are in favor than I expected,” she said. Canvassing also shows her the power of each vote. Sometimes it’s difficult to see how one person can have an impact, looking at an election from the outside. But knocking on each door and making the direct connection has showed her firsthand how changes are driven by a mass of mobilized individuals.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.