I can’t remember much from my childhood, but I do have a distinct memory of my mother taking me to vote each year. Our district’s designated location was the rescue squad building, next to the Dairy Queen. (“No, we’re not here to get ice cream today.”) The little old ladies in charge of the operation would not let me into the booth with my mom, but they promised to keep their eye on my sister and me as my mom stepped behind the curtains. Propped up on a chair was a little box with several levers labeled Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Eugene McCarthy. (These names would remain the same in subsequent elections, four and eight years later.) Jenny and I fought over who would get to pull all the levers, much in the way that we fought over who got to push the elevator buttons at my grandmother’s apartment building in the Bronx.
When my mother emerged from the curtains, having performed her civic duty, and found the two of us wrestling in front of the fake election box, I’m sure she questioned whether we understood the reason for being there.
But, as I urged Sophie to get dressed this morning so that we could head over to the local church to cast our ballot in the gubernatorial election, I remembered my early voting experience with fondness. I may not have known who was running, or what my mother was doing behind that curtain or even what a president was, but it left a large enough impression on me to want to do the same.
Yesterday, Sophie came home from nursery school with a sticker that read, “My family took me to vote!” a not-so-subtle prompt from her teachers to model participation in the activity that is both a responsibility and a privilege. “Can I go with you to vote, Mommy?” Sophie asked, “my teacher told me to.”
“Of course,” I told her.
This morning, we had to park way down the street because it was already jammed with would-be voters on their way to work.
Sophie popped out of the car and shot down the side walk, “Race ya, mom.” I jogged behind her and caught up—she’s actually pretty fast—just as we approached the church.
“Oh I remember this place!” Sophie exclaimed. We had come here last year for local elections.
Inside, we immediately spotted Larry the Librarian from the children’s section. He’s one of the few people Sophie will tear herself away from the computer to chat with. Larry was an election official. At least that’s what it said on his sticker.
“What are you doing here?” Sophie asked. Larry clearly belonged in the library.
“I’m helping people vote,” Larry told her. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m going to vote with Mommy!” Sophie exclaimed.
Larry waved her close. “I’m going to tell you who to vote for.” He cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered into her ear. Sophie looked confused.
Walking over to the table to sign in I asked Sophie, “Who did he tell you to vote for?”
Sophie pulled me down to her mouth and whispered, “the best man.”
“I would have said the best woman, but…..” Larry called out.
“Yeah, yeah….” I replied. At the table, they couldn’t find my name. Then I realized another district was on the other side of the room. “Maybe I’m on the wrong side?” I asked, hopefully. They asked me what street I was on, and when I told them, they pointed to the other set of tables.
Larry shot me an inquiring look as we switched tables. “Wrong side of the tracks,” I told him. At the table, I had to spell my last name three times before the elderly women found it on the list.
I signed, took my paper ticket, waited for a few moments, and when the booth was vacant, handed my ticket to the older gentleman sitting next to it. “Is it alright if I bring her in with me?” I asked the man, gesturing towards Sophie.
He gave her the hairy eyeball. “As long as she doesn’t touch anything.” As if four-year-olds routinely commit voter fraud.
Inside, I made my selections. Sophie waited patiently as I read through the questions and tried to figure out what the hell they meant. Once I double-checked everything, I eyed Sophie. “Go ahead,” I told her conspiratorially, “press the red button and cast our vote.”
Sophie was appalled. In a voice that seemed to echo in the otherwise silent room she announced, “BUT MOMMY, THE MAN SAID NOT TO TOUCH ANYTHING!”
Now she decides to be a law-abiding citizen? What kid can resist a red button? I would have killed my sister for this opportunity.
I quickly pressed the button and usher Sophie out of the room, avoiding eye contact with the booth guard.
Someday, I hope she shares this experience with her own kids.