As a mother I sometimes parent by fiat, with no negotiation. There are small things–such as We never, ever buy items displayed in the check out line at the grocery store. But most are big things related to how we treat others and the earth. If I were put in charge of the United States, I have another small list of items that mirrors my mom-as-dictator list. Most of these items are civil rights issues. For example: treat all humans equally and, in the case of criminals and drug addicts, work for rehabilitation and not simply punishment (while also recognizing that certain crimes and criminals necessitate life in prison). But also near the top of my list would be compulsory voting as voting is inarguably an essential component, if not the most essential component, of a healthy democracy. Since 1948, the highest turnout of eligible voters in the United States for a national election was 65%. That was in 1976 and since then, the numbers have been under 60% except for 1992 (61%), 2004 (61%) and 2008 (63%). In non-presidential election years, the turnout hovers around 40%–far lower than the turn out rate in most other established democracies. This is in spite of a number of non-profit organizations working tirelessly to increase voter turnout. One such group, Rock the Vote, is a non-partisan organization that for over twenty years has worked to get young people registered and committed to voting. Their current work targets the so-called millennial generation, or millennials, the largest generation in the history of the United States (yep, bigger than the boomers).
I do not know who reads this blog, but given that I write largely about family issues, including raising one child who has Down syndrome, I suspect a number of you are parents. So for those of you with young children, let me tell you this: You have far more power to influence your children to vote than any non-profit does, no matter how many cool young celebrities they employee to talk, sing and dance in their commercials. But, like pretty much everything else, you have to model the behavior you wish to see. Yes, I often took my kids with me when I vote on Election Day at our polling station. Due to progressive (read: excellent for democracy) changes recently in Ohio voting regulations, I generally vote at my county’s board of elections in the weeks prior to Election Day. But in many years voting is not an annual one-day event; it is the culmination of weeks, if not months, of work on all our parts. In both local and national elections, my children have gone with me on leaflet drops, canvassing for candidates and Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns. When they were younger, I never asked my kids if they wanted to join me, I just packed them up and brought them along. (Truth be told, as a complete stranger it is easier to get someone to open their door when accompanied by children.)
I know going to the doors of the homes of complete strangers is not something that everyone is comfortable doing. Heck, I’m not comfortable doing it, but I push past my comfort zone and walk up to houses in neighborhoods where I know nobody. Like any positive endeavor that causes a little nervousness—public speaking, asking your boss for a raise, giving a heartfelt apology—the feeling when finished is satisfaction. And when they join in the effort, even passively, that satisfaction is not lost on the children.
In the general election of 2008 Akron Public Schools were closed on election day because many of the polling stations were located in the schools. As a result, my son Hugo, who was 11 years old a the time, was home alone. I worked at my job, my eldest son, Claude, was at the University of Akron and Jules was a second grader at the Waldorf school. “I’m going to the Obama headquarters today,” Hugo told me over breakfast. A few blocks from our house, Hugo walked himself to the headquarters and was promptly put to work rolling posters. I cannot tell you how proud I am that Hugo worked on that historic day for our soon-to-be president, particularly because it was his own idea. And in recent years, as they have become young men, my three oldest boys are civically engaged. Claude regularly works on local campaigns when he is home from college (and grouses with me about our deep dissatisfaction with the leadership in the Ohio Democratic Party, which despite having replaced the chairman after last year’s series of bone-headed mistakes seems to remain same-old, same-old. Shouting out for younger blood and fresh ideas, O, party of ours!). Hugo worked with me on GOTV on Election Day 2012 and we were giddy with the positive reception we received. And Jules travelled with me in the winter of 2014 to Washington D.C. where we met with our senators and representatives to encourage their support for the ABLE Act, which subsequently passed ten months later.
For most of their lives, I believed that when each of my children turned 18 I would march them straight to the board of elections to register to vote. And with Claude, I did. I plucked him out of school, took him to the BOE, snapped a picture of him with the county worker who helped him with his form, and then took him out for a nicer than usual lunch. Last November, Hugo turned 18 and while I could make many excuses, the fact is I did not prioritize getting Hugo registered. I deeply regret this because next week we have a special election in our county with just one question on the entire ballot: Do you support the levy for our county library system? Yes or no? With the decline in housing prices due to the recession, the funding for our library system has commensurately dropped. Yes, this is a local issue, but supporting library systems is invaluable nationwide. Carl Sagan once said, “Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.” Today, however, libraries also have become de facto public after-school programs for latchkey children nationwide.
When Hugo was in middle school, he walked most days down a hill to the adjacent library in a transitional neighborhood (the direction in which it was transitioning was not clear). I had three kids in three schools all far from one another and because he was safe in the library, I picked up Hugo last. Filled with children from 2:30 until they closed at 6 p.m., I saw librarians taking their non-funded mission seriously, providing extra programming, leading book clubs, holding craft events, game days and, once a week, showing a movie. Today, our county library system works with the local food bank to provide nutritious snacks for the kids, some of whom eat their school lunch at 10:30 in the morning. If our levy does not pass next week, this phenomenal public resource will cut its staff in half, from 400 to 200 employees countywide. Hours will also be slashed. They start with the weekend hours, but with such drastic cuts, I imagine after-school hours and programming will also shrink.
In our family, we do not passively observe and discuss government. Sure, we talk about what we do and do not like in local, state and federal government. But then we work for the values we hold important, particularly equal rights. Because I have seen too many elections, especially in the spring, decided by just a handful of votes, I deeply regret my inaction. Even though I long ago learned the library levy would be on the May ballot, I failed to have Hugo register in time to be eligible to vote in next week’s election. Instead, he accompanied me to the board of elections earlier this week. I voted; Hugo registered and we had lunch at a restaurant across the street from the main library in downtown Akron. Mea culpa, by complacency, I screwed up. And so, dear readers, if you have an election next week, please vote (yes, Democrats and Republicans alike, go and vote). Readers who live in Summit County, Ohio, the jobs of two hundred people in our community depend upon your vote. As do all the citizens served by our libraries, including the children who safely work on their homework, play games and read books after school when nothing else is available.