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The Thrill of the Vote

This post first ran on election day in 2008.  My feelings on the subject haven’t changed:

It’s election day in Chicago.  I just walked home from voting for a new mayor and a new alderman–and I miss my old neighborhood.

For ten years I lived in South Shore:  a white graduate student/small business owner/writer in a neighborhood dominated by the African-American middle class.  My neighbors were police officers, schoolteachers, fire fighters, electricians, and social workers. We didn’t have much in common most of the year–except on election day.

As far as I’m concerned, voting is thrilling.  My South Shore neighbors agreed.  Voting in South Shore felt like a small town Fourth of July picnic.  Like Mardi Gras.  Like Christmas Eve when you’re five-years-old and still believe in Santa Claus.   No matter what time of day I went to vote, my polling place was packed.  Voters and election judges greeted each other–and me–with hugs, high fives, and “good to see you here, honey”.  First time voters proudly announced themselves.  Elderly voters told stories about their first election.  People made sure they got their election receipts; some pinned them to their coats like a badge of honor. An older gentleman sat next to the door and said “Thank you for exercising your right to vote” as each voter left.  The correct response was “It’s a privilege.”

Except for occasional confusion when the machine that takes the ballots jams, my current polling place is low key. Election judges are friendly and polite, but hugs are not issued with your ballot.  When the young woman manning the machine handed me my receipt, she told me to have a good day.  I said “It’s always a good day when you get to vote.”  In South Shore, that would have gotten me an “Amen.”  In politically active, politically correct Hyde Park, it got me an eye-blinking look of surprise and a hesitant smile.

I started home, thinking maybe I was the only one in the neighborhood whose pulse beat faster on election day.  A block from the polls I ran into a young man walking with a small boy, no more than six years old.  The little boy stopped me, with a grin so big that he looked like a smile wearing a wooly hat.

“Did you vote yet?” he asked.  “My dad is taking me to teach me how to vote.”

“It’s a privilege,” I said.

He gave me the highest five he could manage.

*   *   *

So tell me, did you exercise your right to vote?

You can’t vote because…

[Suffragists in parade] (LOC)
Photograph from the Library of Congress

From sixth century Athens on, who has the vote and why has been a touchy and evolving subject in democracies.  People who already have the vote have hesitated to extend it to others for two basic reasons.  Those with the vote don’t think those without the vote have the capacity to make good choices.  Those with the vote fear they will lose power.

Over the centuries, people in power have come up with plenty of reasons not to extend the franchise to those who don’t yet have it.  Here are a few of the classics:

You can’t vote because

  • You’re a slave
  • You’re a woman
  • You don’t own property
  • You don’t own enough property
  • You don’t practice the right religion
  • You are the wrong race or ethnicity
  • Your father or grandfather couldn’t vote

The United States presidential election is next Tuesday.  If you’re lucky enough to have the vote, use it.

Mankind: The Story of All of Us

I hope you will indulge me in a bit of blatant self-promotion. The book I spent much of this last year writing, agonizing over, and swearing about is finally out and I’m pleased as punch. In fact, I don’t much like punch so I’m pleased as a good bourbon at the end of a long day–and I don’t get much more pleased than that. To celebrate I’m giving away a copy of the book. All you have to do is leave a comment on the blog. (Sorry, comments by e-mail don’t count.) My Own True Love will draw a name out of a hat on November 13.

Why November 13? Mankind: The Story of All of Us was written as a companion to a History Channel series of the same name.* The first episode is scheduled to air on November 13.  Enjoy the trailer:

Watch the show. Leave a comment (but don’t wait until you’ve seen the show or you’ll be too late to win a copy of the book.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think do the happy dance up and down the hall.

*There are also graphic novels dealing with the same material. Too cool.

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