Have you ever had your right to vote denied? I mean put in a position where your legal right to choose a president, a congressman, a senator was taken away from you? How would you feel if that happened, and just as important, how would you respond when that right was restored?
The year was 1964. Somewhere in the archives of the Washington Post is a picture of my wife, our daughter, and me, as we exited the polling place where we had just voted in the presidential election. (The advantage of having a beautiful wife and fetching daughter: photographers take your picture.) The reason the Post photographer was there was because this was the first election in which citizens of Washington, DC were able to vote for the president.
I had moved to Washington as a student a decade earlier, and until I became a full-time resident, I could cast absentee ballots in my home state. Once I was a full-time legal resident, however, I gave up that right, as did my wife when she moved to the city and we married. On election day in 1964 we went to the polling place for our precinct, stood in line, had our registration verified, and proudly cast our votes as full citizens. Well, not quite. The District of Columbia still didn’t have a voting representative or senator, but at least we could express our choices for the town’s highest authority. It was a day we have never forgotten.
There is something very special about being a citizen, with all the rights and privileges thereof. Even though you may not be a supporter of the eventual winner, you at least have had a say. (Unless your vote ends up in the hands of nine justices, of course.) Still, you know that regardless of the outcome, in four years you will have the opportunity again. It is precious, it is an unbelievable gift that not everyone has, not everyone can attain, but everyone should be willing to put themselves on the line for. It isn’t just your right, it is your duty. If you don’t exercise it, if you fail to carry out your responsibility as a citizen, then when any political discussion starts, you need to excuse yourself, go sit in the corner, and be ashamed.
This week I will report to the firehouse at 5 AM, take my place along with several other neighbors, and spend a long, often boring but never irrelevant day talking to as many of the 70 or so voters registered in our precinct who show up, help make sure their right to vote is not abridged, help count the votes, certify the results and go home sometime after we close the doors at 7 PM. It will be a long day, but you know what? I don’t mind at all. It’s not just a right. It’s a privilege.
Voting in 1964 was like having my citizenship restored.