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Getting Tommy to the Polls

A story about people coming together to help our democracy work as it should, in a nationwide effort to make sure one old man was able to exercise his right to vote.

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I’d been joining a weekly Zoom phone banking group, organized by a friend from high school who was working as an organizer for the Biden campaign in Michigan, every Wednesday night I could since the end of the summer. On Election Day, I put myself on mute on a work call, joined the Zoom, and hopped on the dialer. I know we were all on the same page that day — we had just a few hours left to try to make some small difference in the outcome of the November 3rd elections. 

The Michigan dialer was connecting calls very slowly, so one person suggested that we switch over to Pennsylvania. After phone banking for a while (mostly reaching people who’d already voted), a few people on the Zoom had to leave, so I decided to exit and rejoin my uncle Jamie’s Zoom group — which turned out also to be currently focused on Pennsylvania.

A few minutes and a few fruitless calls later, the dialer put me through to an elderly man in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Thrutalk listed his name and age as Thomas Pluchinsky, 95 years old. Tommy, as he introduced himself, told me that he hadn’t voted yet, but not because he didn’t  want to. The problem was, although he knew where his polling station was and lived very close to it, it was down a large hill, and Tommy didn’t think he’d be able to make it back up to get home again. I asked if he had anyone who could drive him, and he said that he had children but that they didn’t visit him anymore. I was worried that our call would get disconnected the dialer can be finicky, and Tommy himself didn’t seem the most tech-savvy , so I took down his phone number and address and told him that I was going to look into finding him a ride to vote.

He was very concerned about the prospect of being driven there and not being able to get back, so I reassured him that I would find someone who could take him both ways. At this point, it occurred to me to ask who he planned on voting for. Tommy said that he didn’t know much about the current candidates, but that he always voted Democratic all the way, so that’s what he planned on doing if he got to submit his ballot. I don’t know what I would have done if he’d answered differently. I honestly believe that everyone who wants to should be able to exercise their right to vote, but would I have gone to the same lengths (or even a fraction of the lengths) to help someone vote for Donald Trump? Actually, I do know what I would have done — politely wished him the best and gone on to the next call. I guess that might be wrong, but frankly I know what my priorities were, and number one was getting Trump out of the White House. It is what it is.

Anyway, it happened that Tommy was a solid blue Democrat, so that moral dilemma was thankfully not relevant. I tried to talk to him about voter protection services and resources in his area, but he just didn’t know how to access them — and it was almost 6pm. The polls would be closing soon. I told Tommy that I was going to try my hardest to get him there on time to vote, and that I would call him back either way to update him.

By this point, I had been furiously messaging both the current phone banking Zoom we were in and my group text with my original volunteer team, and a nationwide effort was underway. People from NYC to Detroit to LA to Maricopa County were all working to find a way to help this one elderly man get to the polls and exercise his right to vote.

I entered Tommy’s address in Ride2Share and Power Vote, but neither organization was operating in his area. Someone in the West Coast Zoom googled taxi services in the area, so I called half of them while an old high school friend from my volunteer group called the other half. Meanwhile, I waited with no success for an Uber or Lyft driver to accept my ride request. Someone in my group text had identified Tommy’s polling place in the borough of Ferndale, which is part of Johnstown, PA in Cambria County. I knew I’d have to call any driver that took the trip to explain that they’d need to wait and bring Tommy back home, but it never came to that — there were simply no available cars in the area. This was all the more frustrating because of how close Tommy was — less than half a mile from the Ferndale Fireman’s Recreation Center, where he needed to vote. 

Several of the taxi services seemed to have gone out of business, and the ones we were able to reach were either too far away, cash-only, or both. Patrick, my friend who was working as an organizer in Detroit, attempted to negotiate with a few of the companies but had no luck. No one was interested in accepting a Venmo payment to go ferry an elderly man on a one mile round trip to vote.

We tried everything. I posted on my Instagram story asking if anyone was near Johnstown — I didn’t really expect to be successful, but at this point we were not going to leave any stone unturned. No matter what it took, we would try until the last second to get Tommy to the polls.

Finally, when I was starting to think we were out of options, we got lucky. My friend had been posting in several Johnstown Facebook groups asking for someone to help drive “his friend’s grandfather” to the polls. A woman named Amber saw his post and reached out to him, and within minutes we heard that her mother Christie was going to go pick Tommy up. She had been cleaning her attic all day but didn’t hesitate when she heard Tommy’s story.

We gave Christie Tommy’s address and phone number and let her know that he was pretty old and a little confused, but that he knew he wanted to vote. Once Christie confirmed that she was on her way, I called Tommy back to tell him that someone in a white Nissan Altima was on her way to pick him up. He initially said he’d wait on the porch, but quickly agreed that it was too cold out. I said that she’d knock on his door when she arrived, so Tommy turned on his porch light and went to go get his shoes and socks on and get ready to go.

A little while later, Christie texted to confirm that she’d picked up Tommy, that they were headed to the polls, and that she would wait and drive him back once he was done. She called a few minutes later to let us know that he was currently inside — Tommy had made it and was getting to cast his vote in the 2020 election. 

I asked Christie to please call once she’d dropped Tommy off, and, if possible, to send me a picture of the two of them. Finally, I then called Tommy one more time myself to make sure he was home safe and doing alright. He was really happy to have made it to the polls in time to vote, and he also just seemed to have enjoyed talking to us and to Christie. We said a very nice goodbye (he referred to Christie and me both only as “dear”) and I left him to enjoy his evening.

I’m attaching the picture that Christie sent of her and Tommy, both proudly showing off their “I Voted” stickers. Yes, we were all slightly alarmed at the lack of masks — we hadn’t thought to ask whether they were wearing them because we simply assumed they would be (since they would be in a car together and he had to go into a public building). They both seem very comfortable without masks, so I suppose we just have to hope that Covid cases are very low in their area and that they were both healthy. Masklessness (and Steelers hat) aside, it was so rewarding to be able to put faces to their names and see the real people we’d been talking to and helping for the past two hours. The fact that there are people out there like Christie, willing to drop everything just to help one old man vote, felt like proof of the character, dignity, and decency in our country that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were fighting to protect and restore. It gave me hope.

I continued to phone bank in Arizona and Nevada until the final polling stations were closed, but even though I didn’t reach one more person who hadn’t already voted, Tommy’s success story made every call worth it. He is a true example of the actual impact that we can have — and why it’s so important to try, even if you only get one more vote.

I know all of our work for the past few months, whether making calls or going door to door, in Michigan, Arizona, or elsewhere, ended up making a real difference on November 3rd. Unfortunately, Cambria County ended up going to Trump, but Tommy Puchinsky from Johnstown, PA got to exercise his right to vote because people from across the country worked together to help him do so — not because we thought it would turn the tide of the whole election, but because anyone who has that right and wants to use it should be able to.

I know that there’s so, so much more work to do, and that even when Joe and Kamala are in the White House, and even if we win the runoff elections in Georgia, there will continue to be more work. And many days — even most days — that work might feel thankless, exhausting, and endless. Every once in a while, though, there is a day, or a moment, or a person, that reminds us why the work is always worth doing.

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