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Expat dispatches: ‘It’s different this time’ – stories from an Obama call centre

Volunteers make phone calls supporting the re-election of President Barack Obama at a campaign office in Lorain, Ohio November 1, 2012.


Collin Friesen, from Winnipeg, is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, Calif. This is part of our U.S. Election 2012: Canadians in America series – expats talking about life and politics south of the border.

I'm standing in front of a woman named Tiara who's wearing a form-fitting LSU shirt and tired smile. She looks to be about sixteen, but there is no question she's in charge of the phone bank operation and dealing with reporters who show up unannounced.

"We can't let you talk to anyone," she tells me, unless I have prior permission, which I clearly do not have.

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All around us in the cafeteria of the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, there's a low-key hum of activity as about a hundred people use their cellphones and free weekend calling plans to try and rally the Democratic troops from various swing states.

It's a simple premise: volunteers tell people where they can vote – hopefully for Barack Obama – and answer any questions they may have about how awesome the president is.

This is how my wife Stephanie wanted to spend her birthday. She's already off in a corner with a happy-looking bunch of equally liberal-minded folks from the neighbourhood. They're currently working on Nevada. But everyone wants Ohio.

Meantime, Tiara and I are making very little progress. Perhaps realizing I'm not going away, she offers me the email address of the man who can sign off on my less-than-intrusive story. I dutifully send him a request and agree to go wait on the patio.

The volunteers have spilled out here as well, roughly 30 or so, seeking shade under the umbrellas as they study their lists. It's a multi-ethnic group, maybe a little weighted to the hipster side of things, but there are all ages, races and sexual orientations, at least as far as I could gather from the number of guys in skinny jeans taking pictures of the "Marriage Equality" signs.

Fay, an elderly woman in a sweater that only a Grandmother would wear in public, is at the table next to me. "It's voting day today" she tells someone on the phone, which is technically true thanks to early voting, but perhaps a little misleading. I wonder if she's on script. I wonder if there is a script.

A moment later, she's onto another call. "Hello? Is this a person?"

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Like many of the volunteers who block their phone numbers, she gets a lot of answering machines.

Steven, a 30ish filmmaker who's wearing a Dodgers jersey and a Yankees ball cap, is just finishing a call. "Have a blessed day," he says as he hangs up, then explains how the voice mail he got had told him to have one, so he thought he should say it back. I tell him he may have a career in telemarketing. He smiles, but we both know this is not a compliment.

There is some debate on the patio over whether or not they should leave messages. The policy is clearly unclear. A guy in a fedora says he's not going to say "Obama and his allies," as it sounds too "sinister." On this point, there is agreement.

Fay, meantime, has another one on the line. "Are you of age to vote? You sound like a very young person."

Steven tells me about a call he made where he asked for a woman and ended up talking to her suspicious husband. He's pretty sure the guy didn't believe him when he said he was calling from the Obama campaign. We both imagine the couple's dinner conversation that evening.

As I still have no official permission to chat with people, I take notes as discretely as I can. But in truth, no one seems to mind. When people find out I'm Canadian, everyone has a compliment about our healthcare system or a story. One worker says his old roommate once tried to pay him in Canadian Tire money. He also found the name Regina kind of funny.

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And while everyone is incredibly nice, people aren't as riled up as I expected. I ask Carol about this. She's a professional background artist – yes, that is a thing – who worked a phone bank four years ago for Mr. Obama.

"It's different this time," she admits. "Last time was exciting, this time is work." She says she's disappointed in some of the things Mr. Obama has done, but the Romney alternative terrifies her.

"Why can't I get a live person?" Fay loudly announces to anyone. The two black women in Obama T-shirts at her table don't respond. Fay moves onto the next number.

Inside, on a sheet of paper where people can write down their caller's responses, someone has scribbled "Leave me alone, I'm sick of this [expletive]!" There are many stories about callers who are sick and tired of being contacted, but the calls don't stop.

About midway through the event, they seem to run out of voters to contact. Organizers quickly hand out the names of other potential volunteers who might be able to come in, meaning they would now be callers calling callers about calling callers. Someone calls it a vicious circle. I see it more like a voting mobius strip.

I sneak back inside. My wife has just got off the line with a woman who's at home phone banking for Mr. Obama from her living room. "I'll let you go then," Steph tells her.

After three hours and a nice catered lunch, it's over. Everyone picks up their laptops, cellphones and chargers and heads home with a souvenir bandanna and a button. The bandannas are made in China. My wife is disappointed.

I ask her if she felt she convinced anyone to vote for Mr. Obama who wasn't going to. "That wasn't the point," she tells me as she gives me that look I'm getting too familiar with. And maybe I am being too literal. Maybe connecting with other voters on your side makes them more likely to go vote. Maybe it's the guilt thing, that sense of not wanting to disappoint a total stranger who called you at home. Or maybe it's like your mom telling you to make your bed. Nag the Vote, if you like.

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