There have hardly been any instances in my life, in which i just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be part of history. But passage of the 18-Year-Old Vote gave me that chance.
To vote in 1972 was probably, like, a Way Far Out experience for 19 and 20-year olds as well, but for an 18-year-old, it was better. There's something special about being the last one who gets to dash through the door before it slams shut. We were just old enough. Only we 18-year-olds got to savor that full three extra years of power.
Blessed with an early-in-the year birthday, I got to vote in the 1972 primary as well. I voted for Shirley Chisholm. That should be the big voting experience that I remember most. It was, after all, My First Time. But it went so fast. No line. Fewer items on the ballot.
The November election is the one I remember in detail.
That's partly because it took forever. Our polling place was at a country church that seemed way out in the boonies, but the crowd was huge. It rained. Parking was a bear.
Good thing my mother and I went together. Carpooling helped, though we still had to park alongside the highway and walk along it, on the wet scrubby shoulder grass. (Carpooling is still a good thing. Husband and I are taking my mom to the polls again tomorrow!) Sharing the experience with my mother might seem like the polar opposite of the anti-parents mindset we were all supposed to have. But, aside from the fact that I got many of my freethinking ideals from Mom and Dad, the adult rite of voting was one that no parent's presence could spoil for any of us. When it came down to the wire, they had to watch us go into that booth with full adult voting power. Power they couldn't stop us from wielding -- even those parents that wanted to. Fortunately, my mom liked having her kids become adults, and liked being there for my excitement over my first national election. Derned good thing, when you're sharing an umbrella.
The wait was well over an hour. Might have been two. I didn't care.
OK, that's kind of a lie. The day turned out warmer than I had expected, so my oatmeal-colored wool sweater (which looked so good with my spice-brown bellbottoms) was hot and itchy. My hair was a frizzy mess. We stood in the warm drizzle under our umbrellas, watching our pants cuffs get soggy as they dragged along the puddle-pocked walk that wound its way up to the church's fellowship hall.
I fancied that the middle-aged suburbanites around me were miffed over these young hippie-types being able to vote. We could turn their world upside down, man!
Ha. We did no such thing. Nixon won by a landslide.
But that was yet to come. As I stood waiting to vote McGovern, all I knew was that my vote would count. And it was a vote I had considered seriously.
The line inched forward. Behind us, a 60-ish lady said to her neighbor, "Oh I do hope you're going to vote for Jesse Helms! His wife is one of my first cousins."
At last it was my turn. I remember being almost breathless over the importance of what I was doing. The booth's curtain closed behind me and I was alone, with America cradled in the palm of my hand like a fragile bird's egg. I read each name. I flipped the levers. I checked and rechecked my votes. If I hit the wrong lever and voted two names for one election, it could void my ballot. At last I was as sure as I would ever be, that I'd done it right. I pulled the big lever which opened the curtain and locked in my votes at the same time.
I'd done it.
The excitement has hardly diminished. Maybe it's part of my old Flower Power attitude, still hangin' in there. I grew disillusioned with the Democratic Party, with which i had registered, and in fact, with the parties in general. I was barely out of college when I switched my affiliation to "No Party." Many things have bugged me, or worse, outraged me, in US politics over the years.
But nothing has made me blase' about voting. It's still a big deal. Distance doesn't stop me. I made sure that my absentee ballot went in on time, when i was away at college. Weather doesn't keep me away. In 1994, the sudden implosion of my first marriage, a few days before election day, didn't keep me away.
How I wish that everybody could enjoy voting, the way I do! We talk about it as a civic duty, and mourn the low turnouts. They are a tragedy and should be mourned. But not just because we shirk our duty.
The real tragedy is that we've lost the feeling of joy and empowerment that it ought to bring.