Growing up in my family, voting in elections was just something you were expected to do. There might be questions about who you’re going to vote for, but there was never a question about if you were going to vote. Exercising your right to vote was a given.
My father was very active in Illinois politics. He sometimes hosted fundraisers at our home (favorite memory of one such party was our pet rabbit “Blackie” hopping by just as my dad was offering a guest another drink. The man was about to accept when he saw the rabbit pass by the doorway. Not believing his eyes, he said, “No, I think I’ve had enough.”). I remember being a small child at those parties and listening to the grown ups talk politics; it was as if they were speaking a foreign language that sounded familiar, but I didn’t understand any of it. I just knew that when they talked “voting,” it was something important.
When I was about 10, my father was working as a poll worker and I’d been granted permission to spend some time at the election site with him. I was so excited to be included in this very grown-up activity. However, a finger (mine) crushed in the hinge of a door while playing hide-and-go-seek with my baby sister that morning brought my dreams of being an assistant to the assistant election supervisor to an abrupt end. My mother decided I should stay home and keep my hand on ice until the swelling came down. My finger was crushed, and so was I.
I turned 18 and registered to vote. I had just missed the 1984 presidential election by a month, so it wasn’t until 1986 that I was able to vote in my first national election. It was a pretty heady experience getting to have a say in who should hold office. I have voted in every election since, often accompanied by my daughter, so she, too, could understand the importance of participating in our democracy. Plus, she really liked the “I voted” stickers.
She began casting her own ballots when she turned 18. We would often discuss the candidates and the issues at hand. While our choices sometimes differ, I was proud of the research and thought she put into making her decisions. When I moved my dad from Chicago to Atlanta to be closer to me, one of the first things he did was register to vote. Eventually he got to the point where driving was too difficult, so I would take him to the polls. No matter how long the line was, my dad was happy to be in it to cast his vote. I told him he could get an absentee ballot if it would be easier for him, but he declined. He wanted to be at the polls on election day.
Over 100 years ago, women in this country began demanding to be able to stand in that line and have their voice heard. It took them nearly 75 years of protesting, striking, being jailed and beaten to win the basic right to have a say in who should lead our towns and cities, states and nation. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was finally ratified in August, 1920. For Black women, the voting obstacles they faced in some states meant it would be another five decades before they could have their voices heard at the ballot box.
Voting is the single most powerful thing we do as citizens. It peacefully removes people from office; we speak to our values and our vision through the people we elect. Sadly, too many people turn their backs on their role in our democracy. They take for granted this ability to place into office the people and policies that will shape our towns, cities, states and nation. I wonder what those early suffragists would think if they saw our voter turnout numbers? Even in a hotly contested presidential election in 2016, some 100 million eligible voters stayed home. The turn out rate for local elections is even worse; ironic considering how much more influence local leaders have on our day-to-day lives than those who take up residence in Washington, D.C. The women who went on hunger strikes, were imprisoned and beaten would likely find any excuse we come up with for not voting to be woefully lacking.
I hope the reminder of what those women did and what they sacrificed will encourage others to vote. Standing in line for a few minutes or mailing in an absentee ballot does not compare to the hardships our ancestors faced. We owe it to them to never take for granted the right they secured for us.