The Sacrament of Citizenship
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
I love to vote. I can still remember the very first time. There I was, walking down the driveway of a neighbor’s house to the back door where the ladies — God bless the League of Women Voters and all their volunteers — had set up the card tables. On the tables lay these long rectangular books with pages filled with names and addresses, followed by an empty slot for the voter’s signature. I carefully inscribed my name, remembering to insert my middle initial to make it official. Since that first time, I have celebrated my citizenship in garages, basements, church halls, and my own home (absentee ballot). But whenever and wherever I vote, there’s always a “trailing clouds of glory” quality to it, as the poet says. And as I walk or drive past lines of people waiting to vote, somewhere in the distance John Philip Sousa is leading a band.
Times have changed since I first voted. Political processes have changed dramatically. The first time I realized how much variation in voting processes existed was when the venerable (even then) CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite held up a California ballot identical with the one I had used that very morning. In those days, the networks would actually wait all night for voting counts to come in — imagine! Desperate for something to talk about and looking to insert a little entertainment into the proceedings, Cronkite unfolded the paper ballot to its full extent. As I recall, our ballot was so large that he had to stand up to do it. Now, really! Just because we Californians have propositions directing our legislature to perform specific functions or even initiatives to change the state constitution doesn’t mean we’re some sort of political whackos, suitable for mocking on Election Day. Now that I think of it, that may also have been the first moment I realized that the rest of the country thought of Californians as some sort of comedic ethnic group. (“How many Californians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to change the bulb and two to share the experience.”)
Conventions were very different back in those days, too. Instead of the political infomercials they have become, conventions were actually places where decisions were made. Observers didn’t know in advance who the nominee would be. The network news producers didn’t know how long the convention would last. Some went on for weeks. And television news brought all the fascinating rituals of political conventions to the public. (“Mr. Chairman, the GREAT state of Fill-in-the-Blank, home of Whatever and Land of the Free, PROUDLY casts its # votes for the next president of these Glorious and United States, its own native son, WHOSIS.”) Network news staff would scurry around the convention floor, buttonholing anyone they could find, stuffing microphones in convention delegates’ faces trying to get some sort of a story. An important story on a candidate or a plank in the party platform would be great, but — as the convention slogged on — the bone-weary, harried newspersons would stoop to anything diverting and, in time, anything at all.
The rise of the primary system ended the role of conventions as important decision-making venues. Maybe it’s better that way, though I’ve often thought that the conventions minimized the “last one standing,” political endurance course that presidential campaigning has become. Conventions may have had their smoke-filled backrooms where politicos did their back-slapping, back-scratching horse-trading, but at least they served as a sort of personnel department, eliminating candidates with obvious fatal flaws. Need I say more?
Nowadays, primaries and state-based political get-togethers make up the venues for the selection of candidates. To make a difference in the political world, a citizen has to dig into the activities of potential candidates as they wander over the face of the nation. Building the war chests necessary to carry on lengthy campaigning requires a candidate to stay in the public eye all over the country, preferably not by doing something that makes Comedy Central. Citizens intent on voting as wisely and carefully as possible must scour cable news channels, scan an array of news sources, and check with interest groups that monitor candidates even more carefully. Fortunately, the Web has more than enough resources to help citizens in their pursuit of the perfect candidate and acceptance of the best they can get. If you don’t believe me, get ready to turn the pages and find the first MONSTER article in a series entitled “The 51st State: The State of Online,” written by the tireless and incredibly informed Laura Gordon-Murnane. The launch of the series focuses on the Web sites of all — count them — ALL Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, as well as the leading news sources. Future articles will cover congressional campaigns, leading issues, and changes the Internet has made to the political process overall.
The 2008 presidential election promises to be a watershed event, if only in demonstrating how the Internet and its Web are changing the political process. Speaking of watershed events, in my life as an American, I have witnessed three amazing historical moments. The first — which I was too young to appreciate at the time, but now know the wonder of it — was the addition of two more stars in the American flag and two more states to the Union — Alaska and Hawaii. When that occurred, the U.S. of A. was already the strongest power in the world, but young enough to still be growing. The second — an event I never thought to see in my lifetime — was the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. After all those years of struggle, when the end came, it happened with amazing speed. I can recall reaching out for the doorknob on my front door and freezing in momentary anticipation of how the next headline of The Los Angeles Times would read. For a while there, it seemed like each morning’s headline was a chapter heading for a history of our times. One morning the headline read that Poland had applied to join NATO. I laughed out loud. The third — which, again, I never thought to see in my lifetime, I am seeing now — a woman on the road to the White House. She may not make it and she may not be your choice, but she’s a legitimate candidate, and there are more women in this nation’s future who will follow her path. Decades ago, I listened to a lovely old lady tell about the amazing historical event of her childhood. She was sitting in the gallery of the Tennessee state legislature on August 18, 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and all American women gained the right to vote.
This is an amazing country. And I love to vote.