Recently, when talking about the next presidential election, several of my friends all said the same thing: People need to understand that voting is an obligation, like adhering to the speed limit or washing your hands after you pee. People should be told they must vote; it ought to be compulsory.
Their language, ringing of moral superiority, made me twitchy, and I responded by saying I didn’t think shaming others into casting ballots was a great move.
But in fact, many people I know and respect start their sentences with the same hectoring phrases: “They ought to,” or “He should,” or “You just need to.” This last one especially doesn’t sit well with me, but in truth, they all rankle.
My discomfort around these declarations is partly, I’m sure, because I’ve been guilty of uttering such obnoxiousness myself. My motives are no different from those of my finger-wagging friends: They arise out of a desire to help. Or, perhaps more honestly, to give an opinion about the “right” way to do something. This shows, I know, unattractive arrogance on my part and I’ve been trying to do better, to be better.
Imperative statements have long peppered political conversations, but unless you’ve been living in an internet-free Hobbit hole, you know that things have gotten more strident and divisive in the past couple of years. We’ve all become experts in what other people are doing wrong, and what they need to do to make America great again. Generally, this involves giving up their own beliefs and behaviors and thinking and acting more like us.
To me, voting is a right, but more, it’s a privilege that comes with democracy, a chance to have your voice heard even if it doesn’t always feel that way and even though institutions like the electoral college are completely wackadoodle.
Last spring, a San Franciscan friend suggested I get involved in the midterms. Note: He didn’t tell me I what I should do. A writer and tolerant soul, when Curt Sanburn finds himself uttering a sentence that sounds like a pronouncement, he adds, with the uptalk of a teenager, I think? He and a cousin started doing this years ago to keep from sounding like know-it-all Ivy League jerks.
Curt knew nothing he did would affect the outcome of elections in his decidedly one-hued area of the country, but offered that living in Spokane, I might be able to make a difference. So, I canvassed for a local candidate and learned a lot. Mostly, I was inspired by the high school and college students with whom I knocked on doors – young people as jazzed about politics as they were knowledgeable.
Then Curt decided he wanted to do something. So, he flew to Spokane to stay with his brother, hang out with me and for three days, set up his own little civics shop – a card table in front of the Brown’s Addition Rosauers – to help people register to vote. He chose the last full week before our state’s voter registration deadline.
A handsome and friendly guy, Curt would call out, “Excuse me, ma’am, are you registered to vote?” in a voice ravaged by the remnants of a cold and a bout with throat cancer. He’d ask unsuspecting shoppers, “Are you all set to vote?” and remind them the registration deadline was a week away. “Takes two minutes to do it!” shouted the aging preppy carnival barker of suffrage.
Several men told him they couldn’t vote – they were felons. “No, wait,” he’d say as they tried to slip past. He explained that the laws had changed and read to them from an American Civil Liberties Union pamphlet that spelled out Washington state’s rules.
Over three chilly days, coughing and shivering, Curt registered 30 new, lapsed, moved or ex-felon voters. He listened as people said things like, “I don’t care about America no more!”; “I don’t vote, I pray”; “I’m not voting. I don’t like Trump.”
“It does no good,” a small, despondent woman told him as she carried her bags to her car.
But he also said a common response to his barking was a firm, “Oh, yeah! I’m registered!” Women, especially, he said, displayed eagerness to fill in their ballots.
Curt had no interest in telling anyone whom to vote for. He didn’t shame or finger-wag. He simply educated people about how easy it was to register, and how easy it was to fill out their mail-in ballots (“No stamp required!”). He didn’t lecture about responsibilities or obligations.
Curt wasn’t working for a candidate or party, and he wasn’t interested in pushing any specific issue. He just made it simple for citizens who may not have remembered their high school social studies classes – or who felt generally dispossessed or disenfranchised – to do their civic duty. He showed them that there were people who cared about letting their voices be heard.
What mattered to him might sound corny if it weren’t so important, and so lovely.
My friend came to Spokane to work on behalf of democracy.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.