"Election day is usually really boring, with lots of poll-watching and sign holding and waiting around until vote counting starts."
For a great very many progressive organizers, election day isn't boring at all: it consists of repeated trips to the polling place, checking off who has voted against a list of targets, and then going into the neighborhood to try and convince those folks to get out and vote. This process is known variously as "election day get out the vote," (aka "e-day GOTV") "poll watching" or (my favorite description), "knocking and dragging." (note: while you do knock, no actual dragging is involved.)
Here's are five reasons why this is worth doing:
1. It really does help. To understand the math of why e-day GOTV is actually helpful, consider this: the unit political element in most states is a precinct, a small political district comprised of (usually) 500 to 1000 voters. In cities, a precinct is usually a couple blocks on a side. In most cases there is one polling place per precinct.
Take the example of precinct 3832, right in the heart of the supposedly super-voting city of San Francisco. This is a turnout map of 2004 (large-ish .pdf), and if you look at that you can see that turnout even in our fairly engaged precinct could best be described as "eh." In 2004 it was 82%.
If you peer into the voter file for this precinct, the party breakdown as of about a month ago was 522 Democrats, 186 Decline to States (or "DTS") and 33 Republicans. Most counties publish lists of everyone who has already voted early or by mail, so we also can figure that as of Friday, there are 429 Dems and 161 DTS left to try and turn out.
Now, I know this precinct reasonably well, and I know those Decline to States have overwhelmingly declined to state their party because they're somewhere to its left. They have a long-standing disgust with the Democratic Party and its inability to stand up and clearly articulate an alternative to the conservative movement (this disgust has softened quite a bit in the past few cycles, and quite a bit more this year). But if there's progressive stuff on the ballot, odds are turning those Decline to States out is going to be as helpful as turning out the Dems (if not more so).
That gives us a stack of voters (or in the parlance of organizers & consultants, a "universe") of 708 folks. If 83% turn out again this year, that means 592 voters will show up. If it goes up to 90%, that means 637 votes. So even if there's historic-record turnout of 90%, there's still 71 voters spread out over a couple blocks that might just need that one last nudge that we're going to go out there and give them.
2. The message it sends definitely helps. Someone once put it this way to me: the ability to vote is what separates us from slavery. I always find myself coming back to that. One of the most inspiring parts of Obama's message is that for the first time really in my life, a candidate at the top of the ticket is saying yes, we the people do have a say over our economic system. It's not working for us. We can change it. We do not have to be left to whatever the market decides for us. We do not have to be trickled down on. Every person in the field on e-day is a walking, knocking reminder of this fact.
Campaigns and movements run on perceptions, and actions really do speak louder than words. All campaigns say every vote counts, but far too few actually behave that way. If you've ever heard grizzled organizers complaining about election night parties that are scheduled to start even a minute before the polls close, this is why they feel that way.
3. People really do get confused. One of the recurring themes you hear from the chattering class around this part of the cycle is "how could anyone possibly be undecided?" This betrays a real lack of understanding of where most folks are at. For great numbers of people (even in San Francisco), they've only started thinking about Obama vs. McCain in the past few weeks - let alone the onslaught of propositions or other state and local races. Combine that with questions about absentee voting (no, you can't mail your ballot at this point, but you can drop it off at a polling place, yadda yadda), and you're going to find plenty of ways to make yourself useful.
4. Election day GOTV is solidarity made visible. Like many forms of collective action, knocking n' dragging would be utterly boneheaded for a lone person to do it. If I'm only able to persuade one person in my precinct to go who wouldn't have, that's one vote. But there are a little over 33k precincts in California. If we managed to cover all of them and get 2-3 extra votes per precinct, that could be more than 50k votes. In a race like No on 8, where as near as anyone can tell the polling is basically exactly tied, that effort could easily be the ballgame.
5. It beats reloading web pages. Really: what else are you going to do? If you care at all about this stuff there's no way you can concentrate anyway. (yet another reason why it's ridiculous that it's not a holiday; hopefully it will be soon.) You might as well get out, enjoy the fresh air, get a chance to interact with your neighbors a bit, and give yourself a somewhat mind-numbing task to take your mind off hitting that reload button.
To get started, all you have to do is call the local party or campaign office of your choice. Even if you can only chip in a few hours in the evening, that's entirely helpful. And one last benefit: the results party really is a lot more fun if you've been out doing this stuff all day. If you haven't had that feeling of doing your last poll check at 7:58 and calling in your last set of numbers, you really should try it.
Good luck everyone and get on out there tomorrow!