I was raised in politics. My father, a Political Science professor, was a political junkie who started off in radical 1960s politics like the riots at the 1969 Chicago Democratic convention. When I was a young child we had political organizers camped out at our house off and on for years. I was only four when I wrote my first constituent letter to Texas Congressman Jake Pickle. A few years later I went to backyard barbecues with George McGovern, spoke to Jimmy Carter on the phone, and one time spilled a cup of coffee on the governor’s desk soaking the bills waiting for his signature. And when I was in college I interned in the United States Senate where I started my professional writing career drafting public statements for the Senator, writing policy briefs, and answering many, many constituent letters.
I’ve worked at every level of government, I was canvassing door to door when I was seven years old, and when I turned eighteen I didn’t go register to vote with the masses, I had a personal appointment with a voter registrar at her home. My dad was so proud when I signed that voter registration form that if it had been today he’d have posted the pictures on the Internet. I also worked the polls when I was in college, roomed with a congressman’s daughter, and had a collection of political buttons that would probably be worth a few thousand dollars today. I kind of wish I knew what happened to all of those.
But the thing that I remember most about politics when I was growing up was voting day. Every election from the time I was old enough to press the levers, my father would take me with him to vote. In those days there was no early voting. You went to the polling location for your precinct on voting day, you stood in line, and you were sent into a big metal box with curtains across the front to give you privacy. The curtains would close and that signaled the machine was ready for your votes. Then you pushed little metal levers next to the candidates’s names and when you were done, you pushed a bigger lever that recorded your vote somewhere deep in the bowels of the machine. Don’t ask me how or where, it was one of those mysteries that I prefer not to know the answer to.
So on voting day, my dad would put me in the car, and take me to the polling place. We’d talk to the poll workers, most of whom he knew, and when it was our turn, we got to cast our vote. When I was really small he’d hold me in his arms and point out the levers to push. When I got bigger I’d stand in front of him and we’d read the names together. It’s the reason why I insist on voting with real machines today, even though they’re just touch screens, and the reason I’ve taken my own children to vote on real machines as well. There was a magic about the ritual of voting, to know that I could do something reserved for grown ups, to push levers by the names of people I’d met in real life. To think that I could be casting a vote for the person who would live in the White House next. To have a “team” that I wanted to win and to actually be able to help the team by pressing that little metal lever.
In the years since I’ve been an adult, I haven’t always stayed close to politics. As often happens with things we’re exposed to frequently as kids, I got burned out, and ignored it for the most part for many years. But I never stopped voting. I’ve been a registered voter everywhere I’ve ever lived, I’ve voted in every presidential election and most local elections during my adult life. I can’t always tell you what judges should be retained (really, does anyone ever know that?) but I’ve never had much doubt about which candidates I want to represent me, whether it’s on the city council or in the U.S. Senate.
This election cycle I encouraged my teenage daughter to take a fellowship with a presidential campaign. She spent three months making phone calls, registering voters, organizing and training volunteers, entering data, and knocking doors. And Tuesday she will cast her very first vote for President of the United States. Politics isn’t her life’s work, but she’s learned what it can look like at the ground level, she’s seen the passion that people can bring to our electoral process, and she has a healthy respect for how democracy works, and the responsibilities that we all share as members of a free society.
This election has been fraught with negativity and conflict. So much so, that many people have sworn not to vote. But I’d like to ask you to reconsider. I’d like to ask you to think about the thousands of people who, on nothing more than the strength of their convictions, have given their time, their money, and their hearts to campaign for the candidates in this race. Because while it may seem that it’s all TV commercials and big corporations, politics is actually made up of people. Thousands of people like my father, people who believe something strongly, people who want to make a difference, people who love the rush of being a member of a team, who want the challenge of seeing if they can convince others to adopt their views. In a nation full of choices, who to vote for is the biggest one we’re given, and the luxury should never be taken for granted.
My father is seventy-five years old now, and while he’s healthy and well, I realize that he has reached an age where there may not be too many more presidential elections in his future. I am solidly middle-aged myself, and I have gained a real appreciation for the unique experiences I had growing up, and the respect for and commitment to public service that he taught me. I hope that I’ve passed on some of that to my own children. And I think that I’d like to vote with my dad one more time before it’s too late. Go stand in line at the polling place, walk up to the machine with him, push those buttons, and be part of democracy together.
Please make sure to vote. It matters.