I had my first experience voting when I was in second grade. The year was 1980, a presidential election year, and my teacher carried out a “mock-election,” as per the instructions given in our scholastic news leaflet, which was an adjunct to our social studies curriculum. I remember that there were 3 candidates shown, including a picture of each, a short bio, and a very vague description of what they hoped to accomplish as president. Politics were not really discussed in my home, and I didn’t know any of the candidates. I remember wondering why there were no women choices, or why there were no other races represented. Nevertheless, I chose the person who had been a peanut farmer, because I thought being a farmer was cool, and I think I liked the idea of a farmer being president.
The votes were collected, and my choice was severely defeated. I remember feeling a little embarrassed as my classmates crowed that they had chosen a winner. I had clearly chosen a loser. Yet, I didn’t exactly regret my decision … I felt like I was forced into making a choice between only 3 people. I wondered who came up with those choices to begin with. I remember thinking that a movie star probably wouldn’t make a good president, even if he was popular among my classmates. I thought farming was a noble pursuit. What happened in my classroom was a small microcosm of what would happen in the general election; Reagan defeated Carter, and won the election by a landslide.
There are so many things about this experience that would resound in how I viewed voting and politics later in my life. I was a weird child, no doubt, but I really did wonder why there were no women or men of different races when I first learned about the presidents of the United States. I really did think about the implications of what it meant to be told that you can choose the president, but you have to choose among these specific people. Perhaps this also speaks to my later radical, feminist, democratic socialist leanings, or even my tendency toward championing the underdog, but I wished I had better choices, and I still thought that a farmer would make a good president, because I loved the earth and I loved helping my grandmother in the garden. There was nothing glamorous about Carter; he looked sort of humble, and part of me thought that he would make a good president because he looked like a regular person – one of us. (Interestingly, Carter did an amazing amount of good things for people outside of politics, after his presidency and throughout the rest of his life.)
Of course, if you know anything about Reagan’s presidency, you know how that worked out. In the next two elections, Reagan, then Bush, won. I was disgusted by what these people stood for, and I didn’t think they represented me, much less the majority of people in America. I was still not able to legally vote, but my feelings about the whole process didn’t change all that much from what they had been when I was 7 years old. By the time I was 18, I was already jaded by the whole process. I don’t consider myself a political person. I used to think that I was an idealist, which seemed to be at odds with the business-as-usual game of politics. Nevertheless, in 1992, I was caught between “rock the vote” and the same 3 choices … I registered to vote during Lollapalooza under a festival tent, declining any party affiliation, because I saw Democrats and Republicans as two sides of the same coin. Of course, there are other parties to choose from, but everyone knew that the final race would be between Democrats and Republicans. I had learned from the time I was child that “you lucky Americans are so free that you get to choose your president! Here are your choices, pick one!”
That year, I also learned a bit more about party affiliation and primaries when I went with a friend to vote in the Democratic Primary and neither of us could vote because neither of us were registered Democrats. I had been swept away with voting fever, my past cynicism temporarily quelled, thinking that the primary held some key to the choices given on election day. Still, there was gender and racial bias, but that was America, right? The system can’t change overnight! Jerry Brown seemed better than Clinton, at least, or so I thought at the time. But being locked out of the primary, even willing to overlook all the things I had learned about how insidious the whole thing was, I saw how deeply our choices were already made. Who chooses the president really? How can you win the popular vote and not the electoral vote? What the hell are delegates anyway? What is the role of money and corporate sponsorship in terms of who is allowed a voice? Do votes by the people actually count?
Again, if you know anything about the 1992 presidential election, you know that Clinton won, not only the democratic primary, but the presidency. I voted for Clinton, but it was a begrudging vote. I wanted to vote. I wanted to exercise my right. Yet, anyone who said that they smoked pot and didn’t inhale was a major bullshit artist in my book, and I didn’t trust him. Nevertheless, the long standing Republican agenda of being against abortion, against welfare, pro-gun, and essentially pro-capitalist in every sense of the big money corporate world did not agree with me. I was simply voting against something, not for something. I didn’t have a political party to stand behind and support at all costs, even blindly. And honestly, I didn’t think my vote even mattered in the long run. I didn’t see that a single president, either Republican or Democrat, could affect the kinds of promises made during their election bids, or the kind of change I wanted to see. There are other aspects of the government to content with – the senate, the house of representatives, etc. This isn’t even getting into the lobbyists and corporate interests lurking behind everything in American politics. No single person holds that much power. I feel that the president is a kind of figurehead, to tell the truth.
However, figureheads, even symbolic and ideological figureheads, are important. They represent us as a country. They represent who we are; they hold a mirror to ourselves, and to the rest of the world. That is why by the year 2000, I was caught up in voting fever again. I was so thoroughly against Bush becoming president, I voted while in labor with my second child. That night, I went through triage with the election results on televisions in the hospital. My daughter was born a little after 10pm. My mother visited me a little after midnight, and I asked her who the president was. “We don’t know,” was all she said. “What?!” This was a situation unheard of in my lifetime. We simply didn’t know, because all kinds of shit was going down in Florida, which happened to have Bush’s brother as governor. What happened in the 2000 election that left the American people without a president for several weeks, as the votes in Florida had to be recounted because of an outcry that the voting system was being rigged?
How exactly did so many voters disappear from the rolls – mostly young people, Democrats, “minorities”, and people with low-incomes? How many polling places had machines that didn’t work? How many opened late, closed early, or didn’t open at all? What about entire ballot boxes from “certain” areas that simply disappeared? How did Bush become president when Gore had won the popular vote by a half a million votes – yet they each needed to win Florida – Bush’s brother’s territory – to officially win? This was so outlandish that it could not be hidden. Even when the numbers came in, they didn’t add up. The election was rigged in Bush’s favor in front of the eyes of the entire country, and no one could do anything about it. Besides Florida, voting irregularities in the 2000 election were reported across the entire country, and it is estimated that between 4 to 6 million votes were left uncounted.
The same thing happened in 2004. And it happened again recently, during the primaries for the 2016 election – in Arizona, in New York, and in god knows where else, because we only hear what the media reports. A few thousand here, a few thousand there … these votes go relatively unnoticed. A few weeks ago, it is estimated that 126,000 voters were purged in Brooklyn alone. At first, people were outraged. People were demanding answers. What answers have been given? It’s been a few weeks, life goes on. There are no answers. There will be no re-vote. We’ve accepted that Clinton won the Democratic primary in New York, even though it put Sanders at a serious disadvantage in winning the nomination going forward. But wasn’t that the point? Right, we get it. Politics as usual. We’ll fall in line. We are a nation with A.D.D. We are a country with selective memory. We blink and the issue is in absentia. We have other things to worry about, things we can control, or at least, we perceive that we control far more than we actually do. There is rent to be paid, mortgages to manage, bills, insurance, utilities, etc. We have families to take care of. There is work to be done, we need that almighty paycheck. That’s America, where roughly less than 1% of the population hoards most of the wealth, and the rest of us are millions strong, struggling every day.
So here we are again, 2016. It’s an election year. My 7 year old self would be happy to see that we’ve had an African American president, but my conscious self knows that he was a figurehead put forth by the Democratic party; nothing has truly changed. My 7 year old self would be happy to see a woman running for a chance to be president, but my conscious self knows that gender is not a definitive issue; Clinton is a politician’s politician, she’s had her hand in every pocket she could put money into, and she’s bought her way this far. I see her as a person who is both power-hungry and untrustworthy, a person who will say anything she thinks the person she is talking to wants to hear while taking care of her own agenda secretly. My 7 year old self would not be so surprised to see Trump doing so well … I saw how people loved Reagan, how Americans worship their celebrities, how fear controls the American people far more than love. My conscious self remembers the 2004 election, when I sat on the couch and cried, watching the map of America bleed red from the center, ice-blue around the edges, barely containing the whole of it. My 7 year old self would have chosen Sanders, the one who appeared to be one of us. My conscious self wants to choose Sanders, knowing that he may not even make it that far, because I want to see America as a country I can be proud of, a country who has stayed true to its roots, a country whose founders wrote the constitution on the wings of revolution and hope, and who would be dumbfounded to see what we’ve become.
I don’t consider myself a political person, but perhaps I am more political than I think. I refuse to accept business-as-usual politics, because this is not the way things have always been in this country, and I do not believe that is how things should be or how they need to be. The past 16 years have seen a growing number of unprecedented abuses in our voting system, as well as in the system itself, carried out in full view of all, and it is amazing to me that Americans can stand for this. We are a country founded on the tenets of revolution – together we stand, divided we fall. If we stand together, we can accomplish things we can only dream of. I still believe that this can happen. I believe that the foundation of this country is our people, not corporations, not the corporate interests of those in power and those who hold the wealth. This country belongs to all people – no matter what their race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic level happens to be. And I think that we need to care for each other. It seems odd to me that this is a radical, revolutionary idea. It just seems like common sense, but perhaps I am still an idealist, after all.