Volunteer of the Year: Stephanie Gubelin
It’s been four months since the presidential election, and Stephanie Gubelin of Lake Placid still gets animated when she talks about the reasons people gave her for not registering to vote.
Gubelin, 71, a slight woman with a gray pixie haircut who favors pink glasses and scarves, first started volunteering for voter registration drives in 2018. But it was the 2020 election that sent her nascent volunteerism into overdrive.
“One woman didn’t want to vote because she didn’t want to tell anybody what to do, which I thought was very interesting,” Gubelin said, thinking back about the months she spent helming tables outside drug stores, grocery stores, post offices and farmers markets.
“People said a lot of things,” she noted, then began cataloging the most common reasons she was given: “It won’t make any difference anyway. I hate politicians and all the bickering, and I don’t want to participate in that. It’s only something for older people or yahoos or goody-goodies. I don’t know enough to vote intelligently, and I don’t have the time to look into that stuff, so I might make a mistake.”
So Gubelin brought a paper scroll and magic markers to the registration tables and began asking folks to write down their reasons — or, for the many, many others who did register, to give comments. She still has the scroll, an ad hoc testimony in bright colors, to remind her and the group of 35 or so fellow volunteers of all the work they did in the months leading up to the November 2020 election.
Gubelin credits a weekly current events group she attended at the Saranac Lake Free Library for planting the seeds for her volunteering.
“I started wondering, instead of just talking all the time, what could I do?” she said recently, thinking back over the seeming eternity that was three years ago. Getting folks registered seemed something she could do herself fairly easily, at least at first, so she started working a table at local farmers markets.
The 2020 election cycle galvanized her and others in the community to expand their efforts. Joining Gubelin were people from the current events group, some folks from Adirondack Voters for Change (a Saranac Lake-based progressive advocacy group), a few more from her water aerobics group and some friends that she “kind of roped into it.”
“It was a really passionate election time,” said Gubelin, a former massage therapist and private cook who moved to Lake Placid from New York City in 1989.
Before COVID-19 hit and closed down group activities last March, she worked with Saranac Lake High School students and staff to host registration events. After the pandemic they continued, doing distanced events outside. With Gubelin’s help, in the summer, a group of students put up handmade signs in the community, urging people to vote.
Gubelin and the others put information and flyers into the boxed meals offered by Meals on Wheels in Tupper Lake and the weekly Community Suppers prepared by the First United Methodist Church of Saranac Lake.
They expanded their tabling efforts to include food pantries at Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, the job fair at North Country Community College organized by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and at dairy distributions in Vermontville and Saranac Lake. They put “Your Voice Matters” flyers up in Stewart’s Shops and other local stores, and in lower-income housing units. (She is quick to thank local businesses such as Kinney Drugs and Price Chopper for letting her set up tables. Many other businesses, she noted, did not. “That was disappointing.”)
And then there were the postcards she and the other volunteers wrote and sent out — 3,000 of them, to likely unregistered voters across Franklin County. In partnership with Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, and the New York Civic Engagement Table, a New York state nonprofit that offers data support, the postcards were a way to reach a wide group of possible voters.
“We concentrated mostly on Franklin County because Franklin County had voter registration in the 60th percent — versus Essex County, which had voter registration in the 80th percent,” said Gubelin. (Figures from New York state’s elections.ny.gov website show election enrollment by county.) Gubelin, who admits that she only recently got a smartphone and rarely uses it, enlisted friends to help with social media. Susan Hahn set up an Adirondack Votes 2020 Facebook page, and, hoping to reach a younger audience, Liz Harvey and Kaet Wild started an Instagram page.
As the election neared, Gubelin said that she and the others were mostly handing out and explaining absentee ballot requests.
Gubelin kept motivated by listening to the people who came to her tables. “I remember reading that often it needs like five to seven touches before somebody will engage back,” she said. “So even if this time they didn’t register, maybe next time.” She also credits a trip to Washington — a city she’d never seen — a few years ago, when she pilgrimaged to the Holocaust Museum.
“They had a section on Hitler’s rise to power, and he was actually elected with something like 40% of the vote,” she said. “The parallels were striking.”
In the wake of the most recent election cycle, Gubelin says she’s been reading about get-out-the-vote methods in Georgia and has become interested in the kind of relational organizing done there.
“Using your social group to contact people and to help them then contact people within their social groups, so it’s person to person, people who know and trust each other. Instead of me, who nobody knows, standing at a booth trying to get people to register.” It’s a methodology that has enormous potential, she said, but it’s also one she might leave to younger folks, ones more savvy with social media — and smartphones.
“I think it sounds so much more real, more human. I’m a pretty asocial person, actually; I’m really a hermit,” she said, smiling broadly. “And so I’d be happy to help, but I’m not the one to do that. I just did what I could, being who I am.”
Gubelin is quick to credit the many others who volunteered with her, helming tables, writing emails and postcards, answering questions and making signs. And she credits those who registered, and who voted, regardless of whom they voted for.
“One kid said, ‘I’m going to be the first in my family to vote.’ I thought that was really cool,” she said, thinking back and smiling.
“My feeling was that there’s more good-willed people in this world than not, and if we can get them to vote — and voting is still the system that we use — that things will turn out OK. You have to come from a place of trusting a whole lot of people, and if you don’t trust people, then there’s no point in having a democracy,” she said. “Democracy at its best is self-correcting.”