Polling peril: Political canvassers face dangerous situations and unlawful obstruction


Shayna Rain Mercer likes to talk politics—so much so, she canvasses door-to-door in various neighborhoods of the Valley. But not everyone wants to talk politics with her, as you can imagine.

Last week, as she was canvassing for Republican state Sen. Michael Roberson in a Henderson neighborhood, she was banished from the street by a man in an unmarked uniform and car, despite informing him of her rights and intent not to sell anything. “You have to be a Jehovah’s Witness,” she says he told her. Despite having canvassed for nearly five years, Mercer left, unsure of his true authority status or whether her rights had been trampled.

“We’re not given any [declarative script] to carry,” she says. “I’ve been in some really scary situations.”

Does that mean canvassers are unsafe, or vulnerable to political foes? Mercer knew when to back off—she’s seen a potential survey-taker pull out a gun before, and she has heard similar stories from others in her line of work—because that’s how campaigns and organizers, like nonprofit Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, typically instruct their canvassers. “If someone is upset, we just project friendliness and leave the situation,” says PLAN Field Director Howard Watts.

Ebeth Palafox, state director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino advocacy nonprofit, echoes that sentiment. “It’s learning how to back away from the conversation and dismiss yourself. You never know how someone will react.”

Frank Santora feels that he can gauge a resident pretty quickly—the New York expat has been working on the grassroots political level for five decades, and has recently been encouraging others to get out the vote. His experience as both a canvasser and a football coach makes him relatively unflappable. He’s only been threatened once (though no weapon was present), and like most of his colleagues, he travels with partners and teams. As such, he eagerly chats up people in less stable communities, and advises people to err on the side of common sense.

“You want to target neighborhoods no one wants to go to,” he says. “If you respect people and treat them as you want to be treated, rarely do you have an issue.”

However, it’s still good to strategize certain times of day when visiting certain areas—and to know your rights. Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Nevada affiliate, says there are no laws limiting neighborhood access unless a homeowner’s management company tells the canvasser to scram. Otherwise, he makes it clear to those currently or thinking of politically engaging with the public: “Any law enforcement trying to curtail or stifle someone’s free speech would be a violation of the First Amendment. It’s protected political speech.”

Tags: Politics, Opinion
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