I first noticed the signs when I was driving along Osage Avenue the other day, a familiar stretch along which I was simultaneously zoning out and talking to Sylvia about trucks and Halloween decorations. Yard flair is big this time of year, what with the seasonal launch of decorative holidays and the imminent election. Cobwebs and pumpkins loom large—the inflatable rooftop pumpkins especially so—and candidate signs march all along the sidewalks.
On one stretch, a handful of homemade signs were posted facing each traffic direction. Magic-marker bubble letters spelled out a single message on each piece of poster-board: “Vote!” They were clearly made by kids, maybe even rather quickly. I was impressed.
Granted, I have a fondness for scrappy homemade things made from art-drawer supplies. Since Theo requested a full suit of knight’s armor as his Halloween costume, I recently spent a lot of time with cardboard and duct tape, so I may be more impressionable at this particular moment. The thing is, it is time for me to look up from my projects, and the kid-made “Vote!” signs cut through the noise more effectively than the other last-minute political pleas.
They aren’t party- or candidate-specific, and maybe their value is in their most basic precision: Just, you know, ENGAGE. Take part. Fulfill your responsibility. Exercise your privilege. Take a deep breath. Take a step back. Take a few minutes to get the hell out of your house/car/cubicle and fill out a ballot.
The kids who made the signs likely aren’t old enough to vote yet, even though they may be paying more attention than many adults. Fewer than 64 percent of eligible voters voted in 2008—and that was the largest voter turnout since 1968. Non-presidential-election years generally reap about half that. Local elections, it goes without saying, are pathetic in terms of votes tallied. This probably would be shocking if apathy, complacency and cynicism weren’t the cultural norm.
Studies and court cases (and common sense) reveal that voter fraud is a non-issue, really, and disenfranchisement is a big issue. But maybe basic political engagement is the biggest issue of all.
According to census data, 18 percent of registered nonvoters in 2008 didn’t vote “because they were too busy or had conflicting work or school schedules.” What does that teach our kids? For all the gushing, proud-to-be-an-American TV-commercial soundtracks we love, precious few of us actually make time to fulfill one of our most fundamental national rights. Our excuse is just that we couldn’t make the time?
I am late to this conversation. And given the fact that a 20-second video of a four-year-old crying from political exhaustion has gone viral, I am aware that people are tired of all election-related conversations. What can I say? I was making cardboard armor until now.
It’s true that I don’t study the news as much as I did before I had children. It’s also true that I read The Economist starting at the back with the obituaries and book reviews and I rarely make it past these morsels. But I didn’t stop becoming an American citizen when I became a parent. And I’m not about to cede my obligation and prerogative to vote—or the opportunity to involve Theo and Sylvia early on.
There is no shortage of issues that affect parents, my kids and the world—natural, social, political and economic—in which they’ll grow up. Many of these are on ballots this election cycle, in the form of candidates and initiatives. It is my responsibility to think through them and weigh in. And not just on Facebook or with people who think exactly like I do. Although I am guilty of spending plenty of time in that latter echo chamber.
I understand how critical early voting can be, for voters and politicians. Theo took his first linked steps four years ago when I was volunteering at a call center trying to get people to vote early. Baby steps to political activism! I tend to wait to Election Day to cast my vote, however. I enjoy the ritual of participating in a national election on The Day Of. It feels solemn and celebratory, like collective civic ecstasy.
Because I will have Theo and Sylvia with me when I vote Tuesday, I likely will be distracted, dropping things out of the diaper bag right and left, and dashing out of line repeatedly to chase Sylvia around the gym of our elementary-school polling place. Because I’m good at tuning out tantrums and background noise, I’ll be able to focus on my ballot even so.
I’m confident these challenges will make me feel even more quietly triumphant than usual as I feed my ballot to the ballot counter—so much so that I’ll ask for an extra two “I voted!” stickers so I can give one each to Theo and Sylvia.
Finally, we’ll all go home, dress up like knights and acknowledge growing income inequality by playing feudalism while we watch the election returns. When I kiss my kids goodnight, though, I will be grateful that we live in a country where they will be able to take part in the political process. I will be proud that I voted with them in mind and in hand.
Dept. of Resolved Excuses: