When I was five years old, my mother took me into the polling booth with her, where she cast her vote for Adlai Stevenson. I didn’t understand voting at the time, but I did think it was great fun to stand in a booth with a curtain closed behind us. I urged my mother to explain to me what she was doing. She said she was voting. I asked if I could vote too. She laughed and said not until I was twenty-one. Voting was for grown-ups, my mom said. She told me it was a right and a privilege to vote, and that I should never take it for granted because there were lots of countries where citizens did not get to elect their leader. I was so excited and could hardly wait to grow up so that I could vote.
Four years later in 1960, my very sweet grandma Virginia and I watched the Democratic and Republican conventions together, and we watched the Kennedy-Nixon debate. My grandma told me that it was important to understand both parties so that I could be an informed voter and vote wisely. Election night that year was the first election night I stayed up watching the election returns. I was thrilled, especially when my candidate, John F. Kennedy, finally was declared the winner the next day.
Four years later, my parents made a radical turn and became Goldwater Republicans. I was puzzled how two people who voted for Kennedy in 1960 could vote for Goldwater in 1964, but my parents did not care about my questions. I was enlisted to stuff envelopes and go door to door stumping for Goldwater with my childhood friend Nancy. It was a real eye opener. We had so many doors slammed in our faces. We weren’t certain whether we were right or wrong, but we sure saw how strong people’s feelings are when it comes to their candidate.
Four years later, still too young to vote, but now starting to think for myself, I decided that I was for Bobby Kennedy, while my parents were for Nixon. For the life of me, I could not understand how anyone could be for Nixon. My grandma Virginia and I stayed up on primary night, both of us hoping for Bobby to win our state of California, and, sure enough, he did. But, then tragedy struck. Bobby was assassinated. My grandma and I hugged each other and cried. We couldn’t believe it. We felt lost.
Four years later in 1972, I was finally old enough to vote. I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to step into the voting booth. I decided that I was for Hubert Humphrey because I felt badly that he had lost in 1968, and I thought he had the best chance to beat Nixon. My boyfriend, who I loved very much, was for George McGovern. I liked McGovern a lot, but I thought he was too naive and too nice to be president. On the night of the California primary, my boyfriend took me to McGovern’s California headquarters in Los Angeles to watch the returns with others who worked on his campaign. What a thrill to be in the room when McGovern and his wife entered, and he gave his victory speech. My boyfriend and I kept hugging each other with undiluted joy. We didn’t get home until after three in the morning, and I had to get up for work at six, but it was worth it to get so little sleep. We were part of the democratic process, and we felt so alive, so patriotic, and so full of joy.
Two things that trouble me these days, however, are how many people stay home and don’t vote, not even by absentee ballot. I cannot understand how any citizen who has the chance to vote chooses not to vote. What’s up with that? Do these people want to live in a dictatorship? Do they want someone else deciding their lives?
And then there are the voter ID restriction laws being enacted in many states, especially swing states. This is crazy. Voter fraud is so rare as to be statistically negligible. Many of the legislatures enacting these laws are brazen enough to say it is to elect a Republican. This is disgusting. Democracy demands a level playing field, which means that all citizens should be able to vote, and we should be making it easier for them so that more people will participate in our democracy. And, Citizens United should be thrown out immediately. Corporations are not people! They have no right to influence voters.
If I had my way, we would take the money out of politics. We would get rid of lobbyists. Elected officials would earn a small stipend and have to buy their own insurance–I bet we’d see universal health care enacted in no time–and no lifetime pension other than Social Security. Why should our elected officials have better benefits than the average citizen has? Also, each candidate would be given exactly the same amount of money to run his/her campaign, and there would be a time limit of a month to air commercials, which could only be positive. No negative commercials manipulating the voters with fear. We need to think of the future of America, not just the next election cycle. We need to think bigger and outside the box. We need to look at the positions of all our political parties and find a way to create a coalition. We need to bring back the joy of voting and of being an informed citizen.
It’s the joy that is missing. Fear makes us think small, makes us think only of ourselves and this moment. Joy opens us to potential and opportunity. Joy expands our world and encourages us to think bigger and more inclusively, a bigger tent for all people. So I say that this year we should bring back the joy of being an informed voter so that people will be eager to get to their polling place on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. And be sure to bring your young sons and daughters with you into the booth so that they can start looking forward to growing up and being able to vote too.
How can we bring joy back to the democratic process?