From before I was born, my mother was an active member of the League of Women Voters. In my family, we just called it the “League”. Mom, now well into her seventies, remains active with the Monterey Peninsula chapter, of which she is a past-president. I can remember helping my mother make coffee for Friday morning League meetings at our home. We would buy Pepperidge Farm cookies at the Safeway, and I was sufficiently trusted as a small boy to place the cookies carefully onto plates for the ladies (and occasional gentlemen) who would come for coffee, sugar, and animated conversation.
My mother frequently talked to my brother and me about voting. Indeed, she spoke of voting with what seemed to me to be genuine reverence. She took us to the polls with her many times; my first clear memory is of the June 1974 California gubernatorial primary. A very young Jerry Brown (my father had been his philosophy TA at Cal) won, but Mama backed the very decent William Matson Roth, an old-guard liberal of the sort that has all but vanished from our public life. (I shook Roth’s hand at a campaign rally at Monterey Peninsula Airpot — ’twas very exciting for me. His is still the face I visualize when someone says the word “politician”.)
My mother has voted at the same precinct for nearly 40 years, a little Episcopal church a couple of blocks from our Carmel home. In my childhood — and now — there were three or four temporary voting booths, each made of wood and cardboard for easy assembly. Each had a cloth curtain for privacy, concealing an average-sized voter down to his or her buttocks. As a boy, I have many memories of watching the back of my mother’s legs as she filled out her ballot. When she came out of the booth, she would hand the completed ballot (tucked into a small paper sleeve) to my brother or to me, and we would solemnly present it to the precinct captain, who would, with a great smile and not inconsiderable flourish, tear off the stub, hand it back, and then gently tuck the ballot into a big plastic crate. (As one might surmise, my brother and I fought a time or nine about which one of us would be given the privilege of handing over the ballot!)
One of the great frustrations of my life was the 1984 presidential election. I was to turn 18 in May, 1985 — six months too late to vote against Ronald Reagan. I can assure you that we were among the three families in Carmel by-the-Sea who strongly supported Jesse Jackson in the primary; we drove over to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey one spring afternoon to hear the late, great Shirley Chisholm speak on the candidate’s behalf. Mom voted for Jesse in the primary and Mondale in the fall, and a handful of my fellow seniors at Carmel High were able to vote by the general election as well. (Most of us turned 18 just a wee bit too late.) In the mock election held in my civics class, Reagan beat Fritz Mondale by an even-bigger margin than he did in the real count. It was hard going being an avowed liberal at the time that “Reagan Youth” were in their ascendancy!
The first election I was able to vote in came in June ’85, only a week or so after I graduated high school and a month after I turned 18. It was a special election: a school board recall. Three members of the Carmel Unified School District Board were recalled after a brutal battle with faculty and staff. The real reason for the recall was bad blood over the board majority’s stand on union negotiations, but students had their own reason to be angry. Carmel High had always had an open-campus policy which allowed students to leave during lunchtime; the board majority had ended this forty-year old tradition just in time for my senior year, requiring seniors to stay on campus. (The rumors that prompted the switch to a closed campus revolved around one small group of students who drove to the beach to get high, and others who reportedly went home to have sex while their parents were at work.) I took great pleasure in being able to vote at last, and to vote to throw out the wretches who had imposed these draconian measures upon us. A community more sympathetic to teachers than to penned-in students nonetheless agreed to recall the board majority by a satisfyingly wide margin, and it was a happy introduction indeed to voting for me.
I am proud to say I have never missed an election. Since turning 18 in 1985, I have turned out (almost always in person, but sometimes absentee) for every election, no matter how minor. School board recalls, water board contests (that has a double meaning, figure it out), municipal polls in cities large and small. I have been registered at various times as a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green. Through four marriages, I voted in tandem with some wives and “cancelled out” the votes of others. I fill out my sample ballot as soon as it comes in the mail, and look forward to election days with anticipation and giddiness.
I have even voted — vaguely illegally — in Britain in 1999. I hold dual UK/USA citizenship, but voting in the UK requires one (not unreasonably) to have a residence in that country. Some countries do allow overseas citizens to vote, but not Britain. In June 1999, I was staying with Anna, my ex-sister-in-law who lived in a flat on the Herne Hill/Brixton border in South London. The European Parliament elections took place whilst I was visiting. One of Anna’s roommates was on vacation in Sri Lanka, and had left instructions that Anna was to find someone to vote in his place, using his name, in the MEP elections. That person, she reported, could vote for anyone except the Tories. Anna and I went to the polls together, and I represented myself as David-somebody-or-other, and got a ballot. I voted for the Liberal Democrats; they are the party in the UK more or less most closely aligned with my views. Anna voted Green. A simple ballot, just paper and pencil, no chads or computer printouts.
I am not a patriotic man. But I am a civic-minded one, and there is a difference. I say the Pledge of Allegiance perfunctorily, and I don’t put my hand over my heart for the anthem, but I never try and get out of jury duty and I never miss an election. I have no great love of country, but I have a strong sense of communal responsibility. Voting is an obligation as well as a right. It is not a privilege, but it is to be engaged in with a certain degree of solemnity, even if — as the remnants of my Mennonite faith remind me — the leaders whom I elect are just modern versions of Caesar.
Today, I’ll be voting with Eira and my children at the little retirement center next to our home. Both my children were born during the first Obama term (Heloise six days after he was inaugurated). This is my first presidential election as a father, and I’m excited that my daughter is old enough to accompany her parents as they vote. May she long remember this reverent exercise of civic religion.
And may she not know another president in her lifetime before January 20, 2017.