Our mother dressed up to go vote. That is, she put on earrings, fresh lipstick and, in Novembers, her nice black-and-white coat. When our father got home from work they collected their marked sample ballots, then drove to the polls. It seemed an enormously consequential undertaking. The night before they’d cleared the dining room table, sat down with their sample ballots and began marking them. On the big questions– president, governor, senator,–they always knew whom they wanted. No discussion or analysis was required, but that didn’t stop our father from delivering the occasional gratuitous aspersion. One that I heard from early childhood on remained with me forever. “That character doesn’t know his A from a hole in the ground,” Dad would declaim. He tried generally to swear in initials when we were present. For a long time I wondered, what was an A? It was no use to ask because the answer was always the same: you’ll find out soon enough.
Our parents were Democrats. When they had to make choices about propositions, matters of finance, and obscure contenders for minor offices they relied on the Sacramento Bee, then the more progressive of our two city newspapers. The other paper was the editorially conservative Sacramento Union, the “oldest daily in the west.” Mark Twain had famously published articles in it, a fact that inspired our mother to say, “Mark Twain is turning in his grave,” whenever the Union advocated some particularly wrongheaded policy.
The Great Voting Panic occurred when I was probably ten. It was Election Day, after dinner, and our Bee had not been delivered. Yesterday’s paper had been taken in the trash and for some reason our parents hadn’t filled out their ballots. The immediate neighbors didn’t subscribe to the paper. There were no Bees left at the corner market. The polls closed at 8 p.m. My father said, “This is a hell of a note” and my mother said, “Hell’s bells,” so we knew civic extremities had been reached. Mom came up with the solution. I was dispatched to the market to pick up the last remaining newsstand copy of the Union. Our parents were going to read the Union endorsements and vote the opposite way. I ran down the street, conscious of the patriotic seriousness of the mission: getting out the vote.
My parents never missed voting. Never. In the deadliest of dull primaries, they spruced up, got in the car and drove to the polls. One fall day in 1978 I visited just as they were going off to vote. Our father was sick then and I was struck again by how skinny he’d gotten. My mother carried their sample ballots. When they got home, my father said, “I don’t think I’ll drive much more, honey.” Neither one of us said what we thought: that he wouldn’t vote again either. I will always remember that evening. My mother had brandy, my father had tea. My father said, “Looks like that Indira Gandhi gal is shaking things up,” and said that if he was over there he’d vote for her.
In 2008 my friend Michele’s mother, Mabel, was hospitalized. I liked Mabel because despite age and infirmity, she kept her light shining. She asked her daughter to bring in her absentee ballot. Mabel was two years old when women earned the right to vote. From her hospital bed, in her last act as a citizen, 84 year old Mabel voted for a woman for president.
These things matter.
I’ll vote on November 4th. I’m in what political strategists call that “small universe” of frequent voters. Pew research says we are 35 % of the adult population of this country. 60 % of us mail in our ballets, 40% still go to the polls. My sister and I go to the polls so we’re in the even smaller universe of the small universe. We’re so elite we’re microscopic. But there we are every two years, waiting in line, bestowing bi-partisan smiles on our neighbors.
We aren’t guided by the Sacramento Bee either. It has become too corporate and smug for our tastes. But we’ve had time to develop fairly informed opinions about local governance and can easily spot and bypass those candidates who don’t know their A’s from holes in the ground. We don’t dress up to go vote. We’ve stumbled in wearing sweats from the gym, wearing masks so we don’t spread colds, and once I voted in a funk nasty gardening shirt with holes in it. We vote in every kind of weather, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes just before they close. We’re often in a hurry but sometimes we linger to joke around with the poll workers. We’ve voted with groceries in the car, on our way to the movies, on our way to dinner parties, even late for appointments. We’ve driven to the polls, been driven to the polls, jogged, ambled and walked. We always get there. We always vote. I guess it’s our way of keeping faith.