Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Today, I made history. I voted!

Well, maybe not a lot of history, but it's cool personal history. Here's the long, sordid tale...

When I was 18 years old, I lived in Montana. On my 18th birthday, I filled out my voter registration application and mailed it off. It was a rite of passage for me, and I was so tickled that I'd made it in under the deadline for registration for the next election.

But as the election approached, I still didn't have my registration card. I followed up, and it turned out that there was no record of my application in the county registrar's office. And, they gave me a lot of attitude when I tried to figure out where my application could have gone. It looked like I'd miss voting in the first election of my adult life.

As luck would have it, my grandmother's stepdaughter (technically step-aunt?) worked for the Secretary of State's office at the time, and remembered seeing my application come through. She had even called Grandma to say I'd registered. After a few phone calls, a sworn affidavit from Shannon that she had indeed seen my application before the deadline, and some very grumpy Yellowstone County election staff, I was able to vote.

And, you can bet that I made sure to vote as a Montanan through college because all of that was just too much hassle to go ahead and change my registration willy-nilly.

But, when I graduated and decided to stay in Illinois, I figured it was time to register to vote there. It was much simpler than my first ever voter registration.

While registration in Illinois was easier, voting was a little trickier. Although much of the "Democratic Machine" that has run Chicago for eons is dismantled, it's still a major driving force there. I remember when they did away with the "straight Democratic ticket" where you could punch one line and vote Democrat in every race. Hah!

As of my last voting experience in Chicago, the following machine-like vestiges were still in place. Friendly "neighbors" stand the legal distance from the polling site and hand you "information" about some of the more obscure races on the ballot. And you always get a "receipt" when you vote, apparently so that you can prove to the appropriate persons that you did indeed do your civic duty. Knowing even a little of the history of voting in Chicago made it a thrilling experience every time.

Almost exactly four years ago it was primary time in Chicago. I pushed Elise's stroller (through slush if I remember correctly), and was met near the polling place by a man with information about the candidates for the water board. (This was before the US started using "waterboard" as a euphemism for torture-it had to do with water regulation rather than human rights violations.) I knew how I wanted to vote in this race, but had not been able to find which candidates represented my position. This guy made it easy-just vote for the candidates not on his list. I was so pleased.

Slightly less pleasing was the fact that ramp access wasn't immediately apparent at the polling site. I know now that it was there (the neighborhood association has a potluck there every year and we used the ramps all the time), but at the time it looked like a lot of stairs for a sleep-deprived mom pushing a stroller. About four burly looking guys were lounging about in the entryway, talking quietly and with unlit cigarettes hanging off their lips. These weren't neighbors, they were party men. It was clearly their job to make sure that people were getting in to vote.

So, they made a huge show of 3 of them carrying my stroller (and child, apparently a "cute little guy") down about 5 steps. I said, "Thank you." One of the guys said, "And I hope you'll remember Dan Hines when you vote." To their credit, the other guys shushed him, but wow. Hines was the establishment candidate in the senate primary. That's the one that Barack Obama won. I think it's ironic that just this weekend I heard a news story on the radio that included Dan Hines getting out the vote for Obama. The Chicago Machine knows how to mobilize for its favorite candidates, that's for sure.

And just how is it that I made history today? This was my first election as a registered voter in California. I got to vote for the Senator I helped elect back in Illinois, but this time as a candidate for president. I got a taste of California ballot initiatives. I don't like these propositions, but they are the way things are done here so I hope that I'm doing a good job figuring them out in spite of what I consider to be their dubious constitutionality. I have now been a registered voter in 3 states in my adult life, and it's always an interesting ride.

The nice man who put my ballot in the box this morning told me that he came to California a long while back. He was in the service and didn't want to go back to New York when he was done. This very weathered old gentleman stayed here and picked peaches and apricots, and he worked in the cannery that is across the park from where I now live. That cannery that is now being converted into lofts. I wish I'd had the whole morning to sit and listen to his stories, because I bet he's got some great ones.

When I think of politics I find it easy to get disheartened and to feel like what I do is of limited importance. But then, I walk to my polling place and cast a vote. That act keeps me connected to my community. It acknowledges the past and demonstrates a commitment to the future. The "system" as we know it is full of problems, but that does not change the fundamental nature of voting as a connection to community. So get out there and cast a ballot for democracy when it's your turn to vote.

I'm Heather Steingruebl, and I approve this message.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make me proud to be your Dad! I am so happy that you are civically involved and teaching that to my grand daughter.

You will be gald to know that, despite some misgivings, I have pretty much decided that Barac is my candidate.