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November 13, 2011

STEPHANIE SALTER: What I learned on election day

When I identified myself as a volunteer for the non-incumbent mayoral candidate, the woman on the other end of the line cut me off. “Save your breath, dear,” she said. “I voted for the other guy.”

OK. But is she still a “registered” Democrat? Yes, she said. I thanked her for taking the time to vote — and I meant it. That effort is way more important to me than party loyalty. After all, these days, no one seems keen on making it easier to cast a ballot.

Tuesday, I participated in Election Day as I never have before: I volunteered to phone bank for a candidate and pick up voters who needed a ride to their polling place. In 62 years, I’d not done such a thing because my entire, voting-eligible adult life was spent as a full-time employee of a newspaper or magazine.

Media haters don’t believe it, but mainstream journalists still take seriously the separation between work and political involvement.

News reporters and editors may vote, but they don’t write checks to candidates, put bumper stickers on their cars or aid and abet campaigns. It’s against the rules of all established publications.

Even for opinion columnists and editorial writers, it’s one thing to endorse candidates or issues in print with a reasoned argument that is open to rebuttals. Actually working in an individual’s campaign is another thing, and it’s verboten.

I no longer work for the Tribune-Star, so I’m just another independent contractor with an opinion to sell, free as a regular citizen to donate her time and money (or not) to a person or a ballot measure in which she believes. And so I did on Tuesday, learning some lessons in a long day.

One surprise was, a lot of folks who are called at home genuinely like to talk. Oh, sure, I got my share of hang-ups (or worse) when I phoned declared Democrats to ask if they’d made it to the polls or needed a ride to get there. But those were a minority.

Most folks recognized that a human being, not a robo-voice, was calling, and they were cordial. Many wanted to ask questions about my candidate, weigh in on his opponent’s pros and cons, or opine on the special duty that is voting in a democracy. “I haven’t missed an election since my first one,” a serious sounding man told me. And that was? “Kennedy in November 1960.”

More surprising, plenty of people just wanted to talk about some of the life issues they are up against here in 2011.

Health is a biggie, especially debilitating medical problems. One man and I spent several minutes comparing the skills of various local doctors, including the oncologist who’s treating his wife’s recurrence of cancer. I told the man the same doctor had cured my mother’s ovarian cancer in 1993, that she had lived until this July and didn’t die of cancer. The man’s voice lightened considerably, and he said that sure sounded encouraging.

I asked if he needed a ride to the polls or maybe someone to sit with his wife while he went to vote. He thanked me, but said he’d be able to slip out shortly. “I’ve been raking leaves,” he said, “and I look like a bum, but I wouldn’t miss voting.”

I heard the same thing from two women I picked up on the city’s south side and drove to their polling place at a nearby school. Mother and daughter, neither can drive anymore. Cataracts besiege the mom’s eyes; the daughter needs a cane to get around. On the way to their polling site, they talked about the struggle to keep their modest but tidy neighborhood from being pulled down by a handful of residents who don’t care to play by the old, traditional rules of good community conduct — such as keeping your grass mowed and your house in decent shape and just saying “hi” when someone says it to you.

Like most folks who accepted a ride from the campaign’s many volunteers that day, the women gave profuse thanks for being driven a few blocks to their polling place, then being driven home. All three of us commented on the good fortune of a warm, dry day.

But the sunshine wasn’t enough for another woman I was to pick up on the north side of town. Elderly and in her slippers and a housecoat, she was flustered and defeated when she opened her front door.

“I just can’t make it,” she said, her voice quaking. “I had a heart catheterization late last week, and I’m weak as a kitten. I’m sorry you drove all the way up here, but I can’t go.”

Her polling site wasn’t one minute’s drive up the road. I asked if she was sure, told her I’d make certain we went slowly and I’d hold onto her the whole way. She shook her head and looked so sorry. “I just can’t,” she said.

Backing out of the woman’s driveway, I thought about how, in a right and true democracy, legislators would be figuring out ways to ensure that any citizen who wants to vote can vote.

Rather than pretend there is an epidemic of voter fraud (or even a mild case of it) and pile on ever-more onerous identification requirements, lawmakers would go after the reality of voter alienation and disenchantment. Instead of cutting back on the number of days and satellite polls at which people can vote before an election, they’d establish pre-election and Election Day polls in places people frequent: supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, clinics and church foyers.

Despite tight economic times, legislators might even see the civic and moral value of funding an official Vote-Mobile that could be summoned to a frail old lady’s front door so she could exercise the Constitutional right granted to her on Aug. 26, 1920. For you younger folks, that was back when having a specific say in who governs you was considered good for the republic.

Stephanie Salter may be e-mailed at SalterOpinion@gmail.com.

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