Osius column: So rock that vote
Malcolm arched an eyebrow at me. “You mean to tell me that in all that big country you don’t have two better candidates than a peanut farmer and a movie star?” he asked.
The year was 1980, the presidential election was drawing close, and I was sitting in the staff lounge at the British national mountaineering center in North Wales.
Friends and co-workers at the center asked me, “You don’t think Reagan will win, do you?”
“Oh, no!” I answered, waving airily. When I had left the United States in June, I felt that Ronald Reagan, star of cowboy movies before he was governor of California, was not taken seriously. Heaven knows I was aware of the Iranian hostage crisis, the energy crisis and escalating inflation, but I did not expect President Jimmy Carter to be blamed (particularly for the first), nor realize the traction Reagan had gained while I was gone. Enough to win.
Just out of college, I had left the country to travel to the Alps and Dolomites, then live and work at the Plas y Brenin, in Betws y Coed, Capel Curig. A place with a name like a poem. I had intended to stay two or three months, and then just kept on. Because I was having a great time and because I could; for the first time since age 5, I didn’t have to go to school in the fall.
“You didn’t vote?” my father said, astonished, when I returned home in mid-November. I peered into his face for levity, but he was unsmiling.
“I was out of the country!” I protested. I hadn’t organized it beforehand, nor known how to from afar, nor taken the initiative.
“You could have voted absentee!” he exclaimed. He said, “I’ve never missed an election in my life.”
I haven’t missed one since.
My parents, he a Republican and she a Democrat, always voted differently. They canceled each other out. Really, they might as well have stayed home. But they always went to the precinct and voted. Despite the availability and ease of mail-in voting, I still go to the polls. I like the atmosphere, seeing the voters and volunteers, and feel a thrill to cast my ballot.
A year ago when both my sons were away in college on the East Coast, I wrote and repeatedly urged them to vote. They didn’t, and I fumed. I have just now texted them, one in Virginia and one in New York, asking if they are registered, informing them that they can do that these days by text.
(Text 28683 and write “CO.”)
In 2008, my brother (a diplomat) was present when citizens in Bhutan first voted. Moved, he wrote in a family email: “They stood solemnly in line wearing their most colorful robes. After voting, they held picnics on the lawn. One day they were a monarchy, and the next a democracy.”
Much as I have grown up with the right to vote, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was only ratified in 1920 — not even 100 years ago. My grandmother married and had a baby (my aunt) all before she achieved that legal right. The first state (Nevada) to ratify Amendment 15, giving the vote to persons — males — of color was in 1869. Not that many generations ago.
I am reminded to appreciate the vote when I read about, for example, voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect low-income, minority and elderly citizens who are registered but lack government-issued photo identification. Or about long (as long as five hours) lines, especially at minority polling places. About too few polls and too few parking spots, about broken machines, closed doors, places closing early, systems going down.
This past summer, visiting Maryland and reading the Washington Post, the paper I grew up on, I read about mobilization efforts aimed at Asian Americans, a fast-growing racial group in the United States.
In the article, a volunteer asked a Vietnamese immigrant if he had registered. He hadn’t.
“’It’s your benefit as a citizen,’ [Minh Gia] Nguyen, a volunteer with a nonpartisan civic group, said. She rattled off a list of issues that resonate with Asian American voters in polls: health care, education, immigration. ‘Do it for your family, for your children’s future.’”
Thanh Ngo registered for the first time in his 20 years in this country. He had never voted. No one had ever asked him to.
Please vote. Because you can, and it matters.
“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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