Election Day Through My Ages

The first election season I have any memory of must have been in 1968, when I was 6 years old. That was back when I thought that “running” for president was literal, a footrace across the world and the first one back to America won. Maybe this wouldn’t really be any worse a way to pick a president, come to think of it.

There was a war going on that year, in Vietnam, and what I couldn’t figure out, at 6, was how the presidential contenders didn’t get shot while running through the war zone. I guess technically one of them did when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, but that was nuance well above my six years.

That’s really all I remember about the 1968 campaign: men running through a war zone to win the presidency. By the time 1972 rolled around, I was a little more aware.

My parents were always politically active. My mom, a registered Republican for many years, like her parents, chaired the successful state senate campaigns of one of my dad’s colleagues at Western Then State Then College. She then got involved in helping campaigns for Colorado’s Third Congressional District (these men were all Democrats), and I believe she can still say that every campaign she worked on resulted in victory for her candidate. My dad was quite active in our county Democratic party, even serving as the county chair late in his short life.

So I assume, although I don’t have an official memory, that when my fifth-grade class voted for president in 1972, I cast my first “ballot” for George McGovern. I assume my classmates did the same thing I did, voted for whoever their parents were backing. But I don’t recall who won Mr. Field’s fifth-grade election.

I do remember that our school gym served as the polling place for Precinct 9, and when results were posted right outside my classroom door, my dad had received a write-in vote or two for some down-ballot race, which impressed me no end.

I don’t recall the 1976 presidential race at all. I was a freshman in high school then, and the cause my family was agitating for then was the Equal Rights Amendment. I do remember arguing about this topic in English class one day, and the teacher being so impressed that some of us were so politically aware. She said she had never thought about politics like that when she was our age (which, in hindsight, had probably not been that many years prior — this may have been her first, and only, teaching assignment).

You would think, though, that I should probably remember the benchmark year of 1980, when I cast my first actual ballot as a registered voter. Here’s the thing: I cannot remember who I voted for.

There were three candidates that year. Actually, I’m sure there were many more — there were 21 candidates to choose from on my ballot this year, including someone with this name: Princess Khadijah M. Pres Jacob-Fambro. But in 1980 John Anderson was making a strong case for himself as a third-party candidate.

I do remember that he came to the University of Colorado-Boulder, where I saw him in my first months as a freshman, and I remember that my grandparents liked his candidacy. So I don’t recall whether I voted for him or Jimmy Carter. I guess it doesn’t matter; neither of them won.

Sometimes, in the decades thereafter, my vote helped pick the winner; sometimes not. When I must have been 24, because I think Tia was 18, our mom made us go to our precinct caucus because she was rustling up votes for someone. We also had a man who was laying out a vigorous and ultimately successful campaign to become county sheriff, and I have to admit I felt rather special when he made a point of coming to my house prior to the county assembly to talk to me and give me a packet of information about himself. (He was our sheriff for 24 years, and I anticipate his son will be a likely candidate for the job two years from now.)

While I never officially volunteered for any campaigns (all three of her kids, plus neighbors, were drafted by my mom to lick stamps and envelopes for the campaigns she worked on, and we threw bubblegum while in parades), I did start participating in the caucus process, a rather arcane process that intimidates a lot of people and — to my mind — aids the extremism causing so much polarization in our current political climate.

It’s not supposed to work that way. Any member of a political party is supposed to be able to come and take part in the very origins of the party platform, as well as selection of candidates from the local level up to the national. But I stopped going just a few years ago after the same officious man who always anointed himself in charge of our precinct refused to even consider a resolution I proposed. “No, we’re not going to do that,” he flatly announced — and I never went back.

[Intervention by another precinct member did get my proposal to the table, where it was defeated — such is democracy — and now that I am not in the 9th precinct for the first time in my voting life, I thought I would go back this year. But then I didn’t.]

Really, so far, I haven’t made much of a case for election night memories, but I do have one — actually two — that sticks out. It’s from 2008, the night Barack Obama made history with his first win.

First, as I watched the president-elect come out to meet a giant crowd of supporters, I wished that my dad was still around to see this. As both a professor and student of history, this would have meant so much to him, to see a man of color claim the highest office in our land.

Of all the election nights I have been through — there was also the one where I went to bed thinking Ben Nighthorse Campbell had lost the Third Congressional District race, only to wake up and discover the city of Pueblo had swung the race overnight — really the only moment I remember clearly is when the camera settled on the Rev. Jesse Jackson, with tears in his eyes as he took in that same historic moment.

He himself had run for president twice before, and it was not to be, and in my research this morning it seems as though he may have been rather dismissive of President Obama earlier in the campaign season, but to have a ringside seat as history was made . . . it overwhelmed that veteran of the civil rights movement, and that moment, for me, summed up everything the presidency was about.

It’s the work of a lot of people, starting way back with those like me, who went to their precinct caucuses, and those who voted in the primaries, and all those feet on the ground (and in your ear) who have believed in a cause worth fighting for. Maybe it’s a cause that took years, decades perhaps. Maybe it’s a just cause or maybe (like voter suppression) it’s a reprehensible one.

As we learned four years ago, and possibly again tonight although I deeply, deeply (deeply) hope not, it is not always the will of the people. But in most cases, starting with those little kids who licked stamps for the postcards their moms were sending out, the American system works.

Have a great Election Day, America.

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