You’re Not Just Voting. You’re a Voter.

Joel Bellman

In my home growing up, my parents raised me to believe that voting was more than a habit. More than a tradition. More than a civic duty. It was something closer to a sacred obligation, a genuflection to the very ideal of participatory democracy.

My earliest election memories, apart from snowy black-and-white TV images of the 1960 Democratic convention, are of accompanying my mother to cast her ballot in one of the rickety little pressed wood voting booths set up in my elementary school auditorium. Squeezed into the booth with her, watching her methodically mark up her choices on the optical-scan ballot (the Votomatic punch-card system wouldn’t come into use until a few years later), I couldn’t fully grasp the mysteries of the process. But there was a kind of solemnity about the whole enterprise that impressed me deeply that something hugely important was taking place, which I was privileged to witness.

In 1965, Barry McGuire hit #1 on the charts with “Eve of Destruction,” whose immortal lines, “You’re old enough to kill / But not for votin’,” really resonated with this nine-year-old as the Vietnam War was just gearing up. By the time I turned 18, I was old enough to kill and for votin’, and the war still dragged on. By then, registering to vote suddenly seemed like even more than a sacred obligation—it was an existential assertion of personal autonomy and political power on which my very survival might depend.

All of this is to say that I have an almost mystical attachment to exercising my voting rights, one that I’ve tried with mixed success to pass on to my two sons—one ignores me and refuses to vote, the other graduated college in politics, follows it avidly, and has never missed an election. Our own voting ritual has usually included a family visit to our neighborhood polling place, followed by a pancake breakfast before I headed off to work and the kids headed off to school.

This year was different. I’m now retired and the kids, long past school-age, have grown into men. In the County of Los Angeles, at least, Election Day has lost some of its cachet; it now only marks the end of an 11-day “voting period.” No more polling place in a neighbor’s garage or elementary school auditorium; those three or four thousand sites have now been collapsed into just under a thousand “voting centers” scattered throughout the county, and voters can cast their ballots from any voting center wherever they happen to be, not just their own. No more optical scanning. No more punch cards (or, thankfully, hanging chads.)

All is not lost, however, and there’s good reason for hope. Under our registrar-recorder, Dean Logan, our county is second only to Marin in its voter registration rate among California’s 58 counties—89.91% of our eligible voters are now registered, and we posted the largest numerical increase in registered voters, adding nearly 760,000 new voters since 2016.

As I write, our California primary and Super Tuesday are still ahead, and I can’t predict the turnout. But it seems to me that Logan and his team are doing everything they should to get the word out to potential voters. It’s always a challenge because too many voters tend to procrastinate and don’t bother to check their mailed materials, do their research, and make their decisions until the last minute. With all the information online, including the ability to register and the voting period stretched out over 11 days, voters have less reason than ever to miss casting their ballots.

Our voting experience this morning was a breeze. Earlier, we had already gone to the county’s elections website at lavote.net, found our nearest voting center (a local senior center barely a mile away), looked up our sample ballots, marked them up online, and the software generated a scannable QR code with our choices that could both be read from our smart phones or printed out. At the voting center, the staff greeted us, checked us in electronically, demonstrated the new digital voting machines, and stood ready to assist while we used them. We fed the paper into the console, scanned in the QR codes from our phones, and our ballot popped up on the screen so we could ensure all the entries were correct. The console printed out the ballot on a blank sheet, and after inspecting it once again, we fed it back into the console and confirmed that it was received and tallied. Within minutes, we were done.

On our way out, a couple of radio producers requested an interview for a neighborhood podcast they were hosting. What could I say? For old times’ sake, I miss the punch cards, pressed wood polling booths, and pancake breakfasts—and I miss voting with my parents, now both gone. But as my son, who interned with the League of Women Voters (where his grandma was also a lifelong volunteer) reminded me, the League taught him that it’s not just about voting: it’s about being a voter.

Here in Los Angeles County, we are voters. And for now, democracy endures.

 

Joel Bellman
Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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