Tag Archives: Rock the Vote

Raising a family of voters

Put me in charge of everything and I’d immediately mandate compulsory voting. In the 26 countries with compulsory voting, not only is turnout high (even when enforcement is weak), but a wider demographic of the electorate is politically informed.

For better or worse, I am not in charge of everything. I am, however, in charge of my children’s upbringing. While there are many dedicated nonprofits working tirelessly to register and turn out eligible young voters, nothing has more power than what is modeled at home.

My own parents voted regularly — my mother and her husband casting votes to the right of the John Birch Society while my father, at least once, voted for Comrade Gus Hall for president. My stepmom remains politically active and is currently precinct captain for the Democrats in her county.

When my boys were little, I took them with me to my polling station so they could see voting in action and become familiarized with how it works. But I didn’t stop there.

In 2003, when we moved to Akron, I packed up the boys, then ages 9, 6 and 3, and drove to Columbus. We met with our then-state senator, Kimberly Zurz. We also met with the legislative aide of our congresswoman, Barbara Sykes.

Intimate with the positions of their bosses, legislative aides allow politicians to be responsive to their constituents in a way no single person could do. Never refer to them as “just legislative aides” because the work of these public servants is invaluable to good governance.

In the fall of 2004, the boys and I spent several Saturdays in multiple Akron neighborhoods dropping leaflets for the Democrats. We also housed volunteers who came to Ohio from other states, including Oliver Moles, a man in his 70s from D.C. Moles grew up on Rhodes Avenue in Akron and for weeks the boys listened to dinner conversations either about politics or midcentury Akron.

In 2008, Akron Public Schools were closed, as is often the case, on the day of the November election. At the time, 11-year-old Hugo was the only one of my children who had the day off. Claude was at Akron Early College High School, which follows the University of Akron’s schedule, and Jules was at a private school. I worked in Youngstown.

Home alone, what did Hugo do? He walked to the nearby Obama campaign headquarters and asked if he could volunteer. They gave him a stack of posters to roll up. When Hugo told me what he had done, I could not have been more proud.

When they were in high school, the boys helped me canvas, seeking out registered voters at their homes to get out the vote. First-time canvassers are understandably nervous about knocking on strangers’ doors.

The day of the 2012 presidential election, 17-year-old Hugo went with me for a few blocks before I gave him his own list. With 3-month-old Lyra strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, doors opened easily for me. “Get in here with that baby!” more than one woman told me.

But a young man all alone? Hugo was sure he’d be met with suspicion, but when we reconvened, he was bouncing on his toes with delight. He’d had several engaging conversations and felt he’d made a difference.

When my children turned 18, I make a big deal about voter registration. With Claude and Hugo, who have winter birthdays, I pulled them out of school to visit the Summit County Board of Elections. Once registered, we went out for lunch before returning to school.

The first year Claude attended the University of Michigan, he mailed in an absentee ballot. Then in 2015, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted threw out absentee ballots that were not postmarked, even though the U.S. Postal Service cannot guarantee all mail will receive a postmark. Almost 900 mail-in ballots in Summit County were thrown out in that year’s November election.

Not only do I want every adult citizen to vote, but I also expect their legally cast votes to be counted. Since the presidential election in 2000, voter suppression, which had lain mostly dormant since the Civil Rights Movement’s successes in the 1960s, has raised its reinvigorated head across the country.

Waiting for our ballots at the Summit Co. Board of Elections

Jules turned 18 last June and rather than make a fuss over his registration, his brothers and I waited until his first election. After a delayed bus trip from Rochester and an Uber ride from Cleveland, Hugo arrived in Akron at 2 a.m. on the second Friday of early voting. Claude, who has been a weekend canvassing captain this fall, took the afternoon off from work. At home, the four of us again reviewed the ballot issues before driving to the board of elections.

“You didn’t ask us if we would come home to vote, you ordered us to,” laughed Hugo when I told them I’d let my college students know about our family voting early and in person for several years now.

Hugo’s correct; after Husted purged so many absentee ballots, I did tell them we could not trust the system unless we showed up in person. I told them to come home from college to vote. But I also didn’t “ask” Hugo to power wash the garage, help Leif put up Halloween decorations and polish a pair of my boots while he was home. And from that list of things I told him to do, he did zero.

But Hugo went out of his way to vote in person. For my kids, it’s second nature, and I don’t doubt they will be active citizens their entire lives.

It’s never too late to start participating in our democracy. If you’ve never voted, I encourage you to register and to support measures that make voting easier, not harder. The Summit County Board of Elections is open daily for early voting, including from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday. Go vote!

Christensen Early Voter Brigade Oct. 19, 2018

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 4, 2018.

Raising Voters

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).

Visiting our legislators in DC (and the Smithsonian).
Visiting our legislators in DC (and the Smithsonian).

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.

A family that votes together...
A family that votes together…

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.

imgresWhen 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.

With my newly-minted voter
With my newly-minted voter

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.