My parents modeled voting as an obligation as solemn and nonnegotiable as paying taxes and fixing cavities. Sometimes the duty was grim, as it was in 1984 when they knew local hero Walter Mondale was going to get creamed. But sometimes it was fun, like the moment in 1998 when they giddily revealed that they’d voted for a pro wrestler for governor.
I vote every year, no matter what is on the ballot. I have voted in sweaty gymnasiums, concrete community centers, and incense-scented churches. The only thing I regretted about turning 18 in 1989 was that I was born a year too late to cast a vote for Michael Dukakis. Yes, that Michael Dukakis, the human version of Sesame Street’s Count Von Count, only without the charisma.
I wanted my first vote to be vitally important — to matter! I didn’t realize at the time how every vote, even for obscure county positions, matters.
When I learned that half of the eligible adults in the United States don’t even bother to vote, I was as shocked as if I heard that 50 percent of people with giant diamonds flush them down the toilet. To misquote Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, what on earth were they doing with their one, wild precious vote?
These days it’s easier than ever to share in nonvoters’ cynicism: reports of vote tampering, by powers both domestic and international, dominate headlines. Both red and blue voters protest targeted misinformation campaigns.
I used to start my day with The New York Times website. Now I’m more likely to click on People.com to see what Meghan Markle is wearing.
My firstborn is 18 now, and he slouches through the world like a teenaged H. L. Mencken, cynicism rolling off him in waves. “Did you register to vote yet?” I asked the day after his birthday.
“Nope,” Elliott said.
“BUT THE PRIMARY,” I pleaded.
“Whatever,” he said.
“BUT THE GOVERNOR, HOUSE, AND SENATE,” I begged.
“Mm, hmm,” he said.
My son is a registered voter, because the family trip to St. Joan of Arc church on primary day was presented as nonnegotiable. “IT’S HIS FIRST TIME,” I boasted to everyone within earshot. He was so bored he barely paused to get his “I Voted” sticker. I made him pose for pictures with me in front of the flag. I was more excited about the stars and stripes that day than I was on the Fourth of July.
When this column appears, your patience may be shredded by the barrage of campaign ads targeted to you in the media delivery device of your choice. Television ads shriek about the privatization of health care. Facebook ads threaten your family with terrors heretofore unknown. Perhaps in the interval between writing and publishing, the Mueller investigation will uncloak Russian hackers ready to gobble our votes and spit out racist, sexist, homophobic nonsense. Maybe we collectively decide to skip politics altogether in favor of more Meghan coverage.
Look, I know America was formed when white men rejected monarchy to form a republic that allowed only a fraction of the population to vote. I cherish the more inclusive franchise that was wrested from their resolute hands. But if you’re tired and cranky, I get it. I see you. Elliott is one of you, and he’s only a voting neophyte, a baby!
Yet if voting is nonnegotiable, you can’t quit; you simply find new motivation to move forward.
When asked if he’ll cast a vote in 2020, Elliott’s crankiness lifts. “Oh man,” he says, “I can’t wait to vote against THAT guy.”