As I noted, I spent the weekend in Sioux Falls South Dakota, working with South Dakota Healthy Families to fight Initiated Measure 11, which would ban virtually all abortions in the state.

You probably remember that in 2006, anti-choicers got the legislature to pass a bill that would have banned abortion, even in cases of rape/incest, and where the health of the woman would be endangered — and when pro-choicers challenged the law and got it sent to a referendum, the ban was shot down 56% to 44%. Leslee Unruh and her ilk did not like this, and so now the proposed ban is back in force — only this time, with supposed and completely bullshit “exceptions” in place.  In a state that is rather anti-choice, this does indeed make the task somewhat harder.  And in a state with only around 500,000 registered voters (this is in fact a high number for a population of about 700,000), every vote really does matter.  Thus, Planned Parenthood (along with other orgs like the ACLU, who was not present last weekend but will be this weekend) has been sending out people to help identify supporters — meaning people who are voting “no” — and there were around 40 of us this weekend.

We started out on Friday evening with an orientation — featuring former Feministe guest-blogger Shannon! — explaining the messaging that SD Healthy Families has been using in their campaign.  Just from checking out their website, you can get a pretty clear idea of how this works.  1. Emphasize the message of “health” 2. Use the word “decision” (pro-choice research has indicated for some time now that the word “choice” does NOT resonate with a lot of people, including many who are in effect pro-choice, but for some reason the word “decision” does in fact tend to.) 3. When possible, talk about families making decisions, or women and families making decisions together and 4. put a heavy emphasis on the incredible fallibility of the supposed exceptions, specifically by pointing out that there is absolutely not a damn thing in there about fatal fetal abnormalities.  As South Dakota apparently has a strong libertarian streak, another major point of discussion is government intrusion on personal decisions.

In other words, we’re working with a traditional pro-choice message slightly tweaked to resonate with “moderates” on abortion — the key voting bloc of people who do not like abortion but do not necessarily believe that it should be illegal.  The issue is about health just as much as it is about rights, choices and decisions are in the end really the same thing so we might as well use the word that works, an extraordinarily small number of women make the decision of whether or not to have an abortion entirely on their own and do include their families or other trusted people in that choice, and I think it’s actually important to put a focus on some of the most vulnerable women — like rape victims and those facing medical issues — who would be negatively impacted by this bill if it were to become law.  I do however understand and respect that many people are uncomfortable or downright upset with this type of messaging that isn’t strongly “my body my choice” and so on.  In a more ideal world, I would agree with those people.  In this one, I think you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do in order to actually keep women safe, even when it means biting your tongue a bit.

Moving right along, we spent Friday evening getting to know each other — I met so many amazing people this weekend — working on a mailing of a detailed voting guide to those voters who are undecided or leaning towards voting no on Measure 11, and of course watching the debates.

Saturday was the big day, and we were split into two teams.  (My team, the Pink team AKA Lipstick on a Pig, won the competition and identified the higher number of supporters, just for the record.)  My team got to start off the morning with a visibility event at a busy intersection in Sioux Falls, waving signs and drumming up enthusiasm.  Let me say first of all that while Friday got up to 89 degrees, Saturday morning was fucking cold, and windy, with no sun.  The good news is that we did get an overall really positive response.  Lots of honks, thumbs ups, grins, people yelling out their windows to thank us and so on.

But of course the most memorable moments were courtesy of the opposition.  On my side of the street, we got three “baby-killers,” a “you’re going to hell,” and a woman who stuck her head out her sun roof, while driving around a corner, to scream at us “vote YES on 11!”  On the other side of the street, members of my team got someone inexplicably telling them “you’re not even old enough to be having sex,” a person driving a moped, without a helmet, who said to them that “abortion kills” (to which one of my teammates said back “so do mopeds”), and someone else asking them when the last time they had sex was, and then acting as though they had won an argument when an answer was refused.  Oh, and we also got two kids who looked to be around the age of 8, aggressively shaking their heads and giving us two thumbs down, which sparked a discussion about the indoctrination of children and how none of us even knew what abortion was at that age, let alone could identify the name of the ballot initiative concerning abortion considering the fact that the word “abortion” didn’t appear on any of our signs.  People are funny.  But for real, we did get a warm reception, which got us revved up and ready for phone banking.

As it turns out, I suck at phone banking.  Or maybe phone banking just sucks, I’m not sure.  In any case, it was my first time phone banking, and I can’t say that I exactly liked it.  Now, a big part of this was actually luck.  So while other people in the room were ringing little bells to let everyone else phone banking know that they had identified a supporter, I kept getting a.) answering machines and b.) disconnected numbers.  The first could have been predicted, I suppose, since it was a Saturday afternoon.  But to make things even more frustrating, as other people were getting supporters or at least funny non-supporters, I got hung up on a couple of times once I identified myself, and a long line of people who were “undecided” on the bill.  One guy said that he was leaning towards voting no, but refused to commit to as much.  One was an 18-year-old Democratic woman who expressed that she had no idea which way she was going to vote yet, and made me want to bang my head against the wall.  I ended up not getting a supporter until my fifth to last call out of seventy dials total.  And then I got another supporter immediately after that call . . . which made me wish that I had decided to do my list from back to front.

But then we all reconvened for door-to-door canvassing, which ended up going much better!  We did canvassing in groups of two, and my partner Miranda and I were assigned to a very nice suburban neighborhood that was also unfortunately filled with lots of winding streets rather than any sort of grid that might have been easy to navigate.  But no mind.  While trying to figure out and canvass a neighborhood in two hours when we had never seen it before was a bit frustrating, we had a really good time, and though it was exhausting it was actually my favorite part of the weekend.

Apparently SD Healthy Families has been canvassing the hell out of Sioux Falls, so our group got a bit of the dregs — meaning not that these votes are unimportant, but that the houses were all spaced pretty far apart, and that sucked because we didn’t have cars . . . though I do think I got the most exercise I have all year.  That means that in two hours, Miranda and I only managed to knock on a shameful 35 doors.  But the good news is that we got 10 supporters out of those 35, and that’s considering the fact that about half of the doors we knocked didn’t have anyone at home.

Let’s see . . . the first house on our list didn’t exist.  No, really, there was no house at all by that address.  At the second house, we had a married couple who were a couple of “yes” voters.  Ugh.  And then, at the third house we had a couple of supporters!  Only the husband was on our list, but he was very enthusiastic about signing one of our supporter cards, and said “hey, I’ve got someone else here who I bet would want to sign one of these” and went to go get his wife, who also signed a card and even signed up with us to go canvassing herself!

Even the people who support Measure 11 were very nice to us.  There were no doors slamming in faces or anything like that.  We were told this in advance of going out that this is some sort of South Dakota thing — “even if they absolutely hate you, they’ll still be nice to you.”  I’m sure it’s not a universal truth by any means, but it certainly was my experience while there.  One guy was so enthusiastically smiling at us and listening so intently that we thought he was on our side, until he said extremely pleasantly “well we’ll be voting yes, but thanks so much for coming by.”  Weird, but okay.

As for our supporters, they were of course great!  It was really heartening to see a.) that our supporters were really eager to talk to us and b.) who those supporters were.  Allow me to clarify that we were specifically going to the doors of people who were believed to be most likely to be undecided, or potentially sway-able.  Largely, this seemed to mean: Independents, female Republicans, male and older Democrats, and newly registered voters.  And the supporters among them, which were the majority, were really happy to see us, frustrated about the fact that they had to vote on this bullshit again, and eager to discuss it with someone.  It was also really fun to see that we got quite a few Republican supporters — I know pro-choice Republicans exist, but they seem so hard to find most of the time that I always feel like they’re just a myth — and also that the most enthusiastic supporters we seemed to find were middle-aged white men!

I thought this was very cool . . . especially since others reported talking to men who seemed supportive, only to end up saying that they’d pass the information along to their wives as if it had nothing to do with them.  With that phenomenon going on, and with the face of anti-choice Americans being older white dudes, it was really great and lifting to have the reminder that they’re far from all being like that.  And it was certainly not what I was expecting, to more than once stand on a doorstep in front of a man old enough to be my father, as he talked about the importance of letting women make their own decisions about their bodies and when/if to have children, and the necessity of keeping abortion safe — and to have them be the ones happiest to do so!  Really, it was so much fun and made me feel so much more confident about this November.

Oh, and numerous people told us that they had seen us holding signs earlier in the day — which I guess means we accomplished our goal of visibility!

Perhaps the coolest thing to happen during the entire trip didn’t actually happen to me.  But it’s still fucking hilarious.  Two awesome ladies, Katie and Ashley (from left to right in picture below), were canvassing in quite a rich neighborhood.  At one point they were talking to a mother and a daughter who were adamantly pro-choice and were excited to see them, when they said “you should go to the house across the street!” When Katie and Ashley asked why, they said “because that’s Leslee Unruh’s house!!!“  The one and only Leslee Unruh, who is the major proponent behind this bill and screams on national television about how much she loves babies.  Apparently, these neighbors hate her . . . as is certainly understandable.  So while of course Leslee was not on the canvassing list, Katie and Ashley decided to stroll on over and leave some lit in her front door about how her own legislation is total bullshit!  They even saw the fields out back where she keeps her horses.  And then of course they posed for a picture outside:

If that is not total win, I don’t know what is.  Thanks to Ashley for letting me use the pic!

Because I am perhaps the worst person ever when it comes to taking pictures, I didn’t take any.  But you can view some pictures from the weekend here at the Stand UP South Dakota blog.  I ended up in a couple of them — like the bottom right-hand corner of the last picture on the page.

Well okay, I lied.  I did get a few pictures — of the Sioux Falls, which were absolutely lovely, and which a group of us went to see Saturday night when we were all far too exhausted for the proposed pub crawl:

If you live in South Dakota or nearby, I can’t encourage you more strongly to get involved in any way that you can.  And of course, in addition to the need for bodies, there is also the need for funds.  You can give to the campaign here. Remember that we’re only a month away from the election, so every body, dollar and minute counts.

cross-posted at Feministe


1 SunlessNick October 2, 2008 at 3:08 pm

Rock on, you! And Katie and Ashley. For matter, and the mother and daughter who sicced them onto Ms Unruh.

2 Judith Faucette October 2, 2008 at 3:34 pm

Cara, thanks for the update! It’s great to have a little preview of what my weekend will be like. We’re leaving Iowa City tomorrow afternoon, meeting up with Healthy Families in the evening, and then working all day Saturday and Sunday. Apparently there’s a visibility event, a parade, and a lot of canvassing. I hope we get cool pink t-shirts! Haha.

3 Cara October 2, 2008 at 5:11 pm

You’ll have a great time, Judith! And you’ll definitley get t-shirts . . . though they have several kinds, so I don’t know what color they’ll be :)

And we didn’t get a parade! Damn. I did know that you folks got out of phone banking . . . talk about double lucky!

4 Cara October 2, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Oh, and tell all of the campaign managers that I say Hi!

5 Jen October 2, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Cara – it was great to meet you last weekend! I’m so glad you came out with the PP kids. Being here with the staff all this week, it’s really clear that the PP live action camp really did make a difference in the morale here.
..I really think i’m the only one who likes phone banking. Which is good for the campaign, I guess?
And we’re so stoked for the ACLU crew this weekend, too.

FYI Judith, the parade is probably not going to happen with the ACLU group. You’ll be mostly doing a lot of canvassing on Saturday, with visibility and mailings and other stuff on Sunday. Sad, I know. But you are lucky – I don’t think you guys will be phone banking at all.

6 Betty October 3, 2008 at 11:02 am

Just wanted to say “Thanks!” for doing this work for all of us! :-)

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