When I was a kid, I remember my parents going to “the polling booth” to vote. They’d step to the registration table, tell the lady their names, she’d look them up in a big book, then turn it around so they could sign their name and verify their identity. Then they’d step into a little cubby, pull the curtain, and vote in private.
I never once saw my parents put a sign in our yard, or in the window of my Dad’s office. No bumper stickers on the car. My parents voted Republican. At least I think they did. I never once heard them call a Democrat an idiot, not publicly or in private. They did their homework before they voted, they had strong opinions which were occasionally discussed at the dinner table in a respectful manner, and then they stepped into that little booth, pulled the curtain, and voted their conscience. In my entire childhood, I don’t believe they ever missed an opportunity to vote.
When my beloved granny was born, women were not allowed to vote. I’d like my younger female friends to take a moment and wrap their head around that. Women did not have the right to vote in the United States until 1920, simply because they were born with a uterus. The insanity and inhumanity of that still galls me. Granny told me she vowed she would never miss voting in an election, and to my knowledge she never did. My grandmother was a beautiful, sweet, and loving woman. She was also prejudiced, bigoted, and close minded when it came to issues regarding race, religion, and sexual orientation. She was a staunch Democrat, but if you were black, Catholic, Mormon, or homosexual, she wouldn’t vote for you. Where you stood on the issues was a moot point. The last time she voted was at the age of 95, a few months before she died. She lay in bed and poured over that voter’s pamphlet, wrote questions for me in the margins, and circled in pencil the candidates she thought were the ones she wanted. In pencil, because she might change her mind. She licked the edge of her ballot envelope, and sealed it up really tight like it was top secret, handed it to me with a solemn look, and firmly instructed me to go straight to ballot box before the deadline. She was convinced her vote mattered and must be counted.
I voted in my first election in 1980, at the age of 18. Jimmy Carter was president and Ronald Reagan was running against him. I voted for Reagan, not because my parents liked him, but because the world seemed like a frightening place to me. Americans were being held hostage in Iran, and the Russians were our ENEMIES. They had nuclear bombs. We had them too, but that was allowed. We called our relationship with them a “Cold War”. We all knew about the red phone in the oval office, and that with a presidential flip of the switch that Cold War would become World War Three. Ronald Reagan made my 18 year old self feel safe. He also reinforced my beliefs, the ones I’d been taught, that America was the greatest country on earth, that Americans were the greatest people on earth, that we were the leaders of the free world, the privileged, the torch bearers, the big guys on campus. So for the first time in my adult life, I walked into the rural community church that served as our polling station, stepped inside that little booth, pulled the curtain behind me, and solemnly and respectfully voted my conscience. It felt good. It felt responsible, like I’d done something that mattered. My ballot was my voice, and I had just let my voice be heard.
Today, in much of these United States, we vote by mail. I liked it better in the old days when I stepped into a cubby and pulled the curtain. It felt a little more solemn and honorable, a little more sacred. It meant I had to go out of my way to get to a specific location. I had to show up and tell the lady my name before she’d hand me my ballot. It felt important. The formality of that process lent credence to the idea that voting is a privilege and an honor. It doesn’t feel quite the same when I lick that envelope.
At 54, I have not been a member of a political party for at least 10 years, because when I was a little girl my dad told me that you’re known by the company you keep. Truthfully, I have absolutely no desire to be identified as a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, after watching snippets of this year’s presidential debates, I can’t think of anything more embarrassing or disgraceful.
This election will be the first in more years than I can remember that I’m going to vote for someone. Most of the time, I vote against a candidate or an issue. Its rare that I’m presented with an option I can be in favor of, so I do my very best to pick the lesser of evils. This year, however, one of my dear friends is running for Lane County Justice of the Peace. I’m going to vote for him. Not because he’s my friend, but because I think he’s exceptionally qualified for the position. (His name is Woody Woodbury and I think an awful lot of him.)
I purposefully don’t voice my political opinions because I don’t believe two people of opposing views can ever have a civil and respectful discussion about politics. I’ve lived five and a half decades and I’ve never seen it happen. I don’t even talk about who I’m going to vote for with my husband. He thinks we should review the voter’s pamphlet together and decide how “we’re” going to vote. I disagree, because sometimes we’re going to cancel each other’s vote, and I know that bother’s him. Especially on issues like gun control.
I don’t put up signs in my front yard or in the window of my shop that advertise my preference for a candidate or a measure. It clutters up the neighborhood and, frankly, I’ve never seen a sign change anybody’s mind. Last week, a man walked into my shop and asked me if I’d like to put a decidedly pro-candidate placard in my window. I told him I can’t afford to advertise my political views in my place of business. He assured me it was my right as an American citizen. I told him I like having a roof over my head and I like to eat. Some of my fellow business owners feel otherwise and put signs up anyway. People with opposing views throw rocks that shatter their windows, they boycott their business in protest, or they go on social media sites and call their friends and neighbors idiots. Or worse.
Who let the dogs out?
Was it always like this?
When did the yelling start?
Where did all these bullies come from?
These are the people I’m afraid of. Not the Russians. Not the Islamic extremists. Not the Iraqis. I am afraid of the implosion from within. I’m afraid of the Liberal Left, the Radical Right, and the Moral Majority. I am afraid of That Place where ridicule and retaliation are acceptable forms of self-expression, and I am afraid of the people who go there.
As I await the arrival of my ballot in the mail, I’m continuing to educate myself on the issues I’ll be asked to weigh in on. I’m trying, with moderate success, to avoid the news commentaries and Facebook rants. (That “unfollow” button sure does come in handy.) Despite the rhetoric and sounds bites, the mudslinging and blaming, the lies and deceit so commonplace that we just expect it, the gradual and consistent desensitization of humanity to what is right and what is wrong, and the remarkable ability of the American press to put lipstick on a pig and pass it off as a pretty little pony, you and I are about to partake of something closely akin to Holy Communion. Let us all be mindful of the sobering fact that blood has been shed and lives have been lost so that each and every one of us can vote our truth with our ballot. Your truth may be different than mine, but we all get to speak. And when we do, our voices are heard.