What Makes Voting Joyful?

For the past month, I’ve been sharing Grand Forkers’ favorite memories involving voting. When the project started, I reckoned it would interest local residents mostly. But the stories have spread around the globe; they’ve been read in twenty countries. Why? Perhaps because the tales artfully reveal the things that make voting joyful.

Voting is joyful when it’s meaningful, when it’s a practice imbued with purpose. That’s why so many of the stories concerned “big things” like community, family, history, self-awareness, and, yes, sometimes partisanship. Viewing the matter in this light illuminates why voter suppression is so odious–it divests lives of meaning, which is one of the building blocks of happiness. It also shows why many people, and especially younger ones, don’t vote. Most non-voters struggle to see why casting a ballot is meaningful. And the act’s significance can’t be imposed by others. Folks must make those connections themselves. In other words, you probably can’t badger indifferent individuals into voting. But you can encourage them to identify issues that matter to them. In fact, helping them find just one issue might do the trick. Once someone specifies something that’s important, the bond between their life and their ballot will be established, probably never to be broken.

It also helps when voting is fun. Inaccessible polling stations, long lines, and confusing requirements for casting a ballot divest voting of pleasure, which is the other building block of happiness. By contrast, in some areas, the polling station is not merely a place to hurriedly exercise the franchise but rather a community hub where one can while away the day delighting in camaraderie, coffee, and crumb cake. Even when that’s not the case, individuals find ways to make voting festive. Heading to the polls with kids, siblings, parents, friends, or co-workers is one popular practice, and there are countless others. Within our imaginations resides the kindling for joy.

I was struck by how some people, upon entering the voting booth, experience a transformative sensation, an exhilarating realization that, for one moment, they are the equal of all others. When the lever is pulled, when bubble is filled, when the screen is touched, the usual distinctions in society—between the rich and the poor, men and women, young and old, black and white, employer and employee—they all recede. Of course, this isn’t entirely true: thanks to the Electoral College, in presidential elections the vote of a person in Laramie, Wyoming counts more than that of their counterpart in Grand Forks, North Dakota. But otherwise, it is a magnificent fact that the ballot is no respecter of persons.

In conclusion, I want to thank Citizens University for funding this project and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota for helping bring it to fruition; the thousands of people read, shared, “liked,” or offered positive comments about the posts; and, most of all, the Grand Forkers who penned their tales. It’s been an honor and thrill—a joy, really—to share their stories.

Eric Burin

The Silence

I remember a few years ago, most likely in the midst of the Clinton-Trump election, I was at my Grandma’s house, conversing over some coffee and kuchen. As I skimmed through the heaping pile of newspapers that always sits on a chair near the dining room table in her house—reading the endless headlines of the campaign– my grandma started to tell me a story of another pivotal election in American history: the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960.

My grandma told me of the day that her parents—my great grandparents—voted. My great grandparents, Walter and Ann, experienced a very traditional upbringing common amongst rural North Dakotans in the early twentieth century. Walter was the leader of the family and expected Ann to follow his lead. My grandma pointed out that although Ann was an independent thinker, she did what she was told by her husband.

Walter and Ann were both politically active and civic-minded: sitting on school boards, engaging in community activities, and being aware of elections and politics. They considered themselves Democrats, but the party was quite conservative and moderate in North Dakota during the 50s and 60s.

Of course, the duty of civic and politically active people is to vote. Although a Democrat, Walter was going to vote for Nixon and wanted his wife to do the same. Perhaps swayed by Kennedy’s charm, the fact that he was Catholic, or because of his “Democrat” label, Ann did not find Nixon as appealing. My grandma also recalls that her mother was quite enamored with Jackie Kennedy.

As the family was eating supper on election day, Walter wanted to know if Ann did what she was told. Walter was sitting at the table while Ann was as the sink when he asked her, “so, did you cancel my vote today?” My grandma remembers Ann getting quiet and never actually answering the question. But, I think the silence was all the answer Walter needed. As my grandma puts it, he didn’t take it “too keenly,” mostly because he did not like to be wrong. But this was the first time my grandma remembers her mom showing independence from her husband.

As I reflect on the story I am struck by the power of one’s vote, not only in the grand-scale national sense, but in the personal as well. Ann could use her vote to speak to her individuality and her own opinion in the secrecy of a ballot, all while influencing the course of history. I am also inspired by my grandparents’ civic activeness to be engaged in elections and political happenings so that I can use my vote to effect change where I see fit.

I wish I could have witnessed the scene of my great grandparents actually finding out the results of the election. Maybe they discussed it further or maybe they just sat in silence, or perhaps Walter would have complained as he read the headline of KENNEDY WINS ELECTION while Ann sat across from him, listening with a quiet smirk on her face.

Emily Sears

A Sense of Belonging

It was only six blocks from the house where I grew up. For me, a little off-orange,
nearly pale peach, painted house at the corner of 4th and Wyandotte represents democratic participation. The humble one-story house had pine siding and probably was filled by six rooms, plus a covered porch walled in to create extra living space several years before I first saw it. Certainly livable; absolutely characteristic of a modest, lived in, working class family home. It smelled of mustiness, that faint but discernible odor created by antiques and years of closed-up windows. The walls had knickknacks in the front room, the only room I ever saw. In my mind, the steps to the front door were not poured concrete…odd, since its first owner likely worked at the concrete mix plant that closed the same year I was born, about two miles out of town, right on the Katy Railroad tracks. Instead, there were stacks of cement blocks, six rows in total in a pyramid, shaped like steps.

The grass grew in the summer and was mowed regularly, complementing the home.
Even though it was mowed, the grass was rarely trimmed at the sidewalk, curbs, or driveway; the latter was formed from crushed gravel. At the comer of lot, a flagpole was placed on which I would see, nearly every day as I walked to school or rode my bike on the way to the drug store or baseball practice, a United States flag.

I do not know the homeowners’ names nor do I know if I ever met the occupant. I
remember it not because of its appearance – except for its color, it looked like so many other houses in my childhood neighborhood. Some of my friends lived nearer to the house than I did, but the relative proximity to others’ homes is not the reason, either. The reason I remember it now, 20-some-odd years later, is this house was the polling place for the ward and precinct where we lived, the only neighborhood I knew before I went to college. The first time I cast a vote was in that house, for my mom for school board. The second, and final, time I voted in that house, I cast a vote for Al Gore, in the Democratic Primary on Super Tuesday, 1984. Unlike the peach colored house, Gore continued to be in my political life, for I had the chance to help reelect Senator Gore while I was in Knoxville for grad school, to vote twice for him as Vice President, and most recently to cast a vote for him in the presidential election of 2000.

Every other time I have voted, it has happened at a school, library, or public building, a place that is, well, not someone’s home. The American Legion hall where we now vote has different smells, an industrial entrance, and a large parking lot. The hall, a place for veterans to interact with one another, has a symbolism that never could be approached by private home. Its spacious, voting day accommodations and the rows of folding tables cast a different ambiance, a less intimate environment, than the wood-paneled living room.

I am a parent now. Each election day, we take a family trip, children in tow, to vote at the American Legion hall. The ritual of voting is important, and it seems that the older child is developing some understanding of the importance of the exercise. Her knowledge is congruent with her understanding that there are multiple states in the United States, that the country is represented by what she calls the “states flag,” and that some of her daycare classmates are from other countries. As meaningful as all these influences are – voting, the American Legion, my children and their budding understanding of democracy – I still reflect, each time I cast a vote, on that house, that house on Wyandotte Street. That house conjures up memories that ground my political awareness, memories of the influences I have had in my life. I recall images of citizens filing in to vote, of community, of neighborhood affiliation, and of the gift and rights of democracy.

Jeffery Powell

Feeling Good

I don’t have a specific joyful memory of voting, but I do know that every time I vote I leave feeling good about myself and my country.

Lorna Berg

Hustle Back to Spain

The first time I voted was for the 1972 presidential election. Fresh out of college (‘71) and equipped with lessons gained from Lloyd Omdahl’s UND political science classes, I was ready to help change the world, or at least participate.

The late 60’s and early 70’s were troubling times to say the least, with the Vietnam Conflict (first-ever televised war), the anti-war movement, friends being drafted by a lottery, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, My Lai massacre, Kent State shootings, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate, to name just a few. All of these events framed my political persuasion.

Enter presidential candidate George McGovern and Sargent Shriver on the Democratic ticket. McGovern was a WWII hero, an idealist; Shriver, former Director of the Peace Corps. Both had many admirable credentials, but most importantly they were a couple of really decent guys who promised to end the war and bring the troops home, something Nixon had promised but never delivered. They were my candidates.

I left for Europe with friends that August, but not before arranging to have absentee ballots sent to us c/o a youth hostel in Spain. We actually had no idea where we’d be but needed an address, so Spain it was! When October rolled around, we found ourselves In Corfu, Greece. We knew we had to catch a ferry to Italy and hustle back to Spain… IF, indeed, we wanted to cast our votes. And we most certainly did!

Sadly, my candidate lost. Nixon won by a landslide. But I never regretted our efforts. The point is this: If you don’t participate, then please don’t bother to complain. Voting is both a privilege and a responsibility. I didn’t take it lightly then, nor do I now. Learn about the candidates; study the issues. And If you haven’t already done so, please remember to vote!

(A final note: If you’re new to voting and are unfamiliar or undecided with any candidates or issue, please leave that option blank. You may vote on as many or as few options as you choose).

Merrie (Satrom) Rolland

Making History

I was privileged to be an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2016. I will never forget the excitement I felt when I officially cast my vote for Hillary Clinton! I had a hand in making history as HILLARY was the first woman of a major political party to appear as a candidate for President!

It Took a Lawsuit

I first voted in 1987, but I had to have my day in court before I did. I cannot remember the technical reason why I wasn’t permitted to submit an absentee ballot, but my 18th birthday fell between when I first moved into a college dorm and after the absentee ballots were due. New York was one of only two states that prohibited dormitory students from voting in their college towns (the other one was Alaska), so I was out of luck, and I was angry about it.

It turned out that I was not the only one. Student voting rights was a key issue for the independent student union SASU, the Student Association of the State University of New York. A lobbying and activist group that sought to represent all the students in the 64 campuses of the SUNY system, they knew that New York students would only have a meaningful say in university policy if they could vote. Again, I don’t remember if I found SASU or if they found me, but by the time my first October rolled around at Plattsburgh State, I was a named plaintiff alongside Jacqueline Cianfrocco, the then student government president. We were suing the Clinton County Board of Elections for our right to vote.

The court date was uneventful. There was no drama; there were few people there. Jackie and I testified as did the commissioners of election and then the court ruled that we could vote! Well, sort of. Every student in the dorm had to fill out a questionnaire proving that they are in “economic support of the community,” and those who weren’t, wouldn’t be allowed to cast a ballot. It was a classic economic test, the same sort of thing Jim Crow used to disenfranchise black voters, and it was unconstitutional for sure. But we didn’t have the money or the lawyers to take the issue further, and the 1987 primary was looming. They claimed we could vote, but of course, we couldn’t. The economic test was a lie and a power-move. We could vote de jure, by law, but we could not vote de facto, in fact.

Bizarrely, though, the court ruled that I could vote without filling out the questionnaire. Just me, not Jackie. Again, I don’t know why. This would become a pattern in my life, people offering me a symbolic token to shut me up. It rarely works and back then, I did what every young activist would do: I used my circumstance to call attention to the problem. I offered up my vote as a symbolic gesture to the campus. We held a mock election for all the students and I promised to vote for whomever they did. New York has a closed primary system, so the choice had to be within my registered party, but there were still a few candidates to choose from, and I let the students decide.

They did and I went to vote. Television news was there as was the newspaper. I made a statement to the press wearing my motorcycle jacket and Doctor Martens boots, and everyone took this young punk from New York City seriously. That still amazes me. Then, I went into the voting booth and pulled the lever.

At the time, New York had the old-fashioned Myers Automatic Booth lever voting machines, the kind with a big handle to close the curtain and the little pull-down levers that marked a big X on the ballot. The machines were sturdy, made great noises, and were impressively romantic. They felt like democracy: clunky and mechanical, yet full of history and promise. They represented political liberty and that day in the voting booth was the first time I think I ever really experienced true existential freedom in and of itself. When the curtain closed and no one could see me, I knew that I didn’t have to keep my promise. I understood that no one would ever know who I voted for. I holistically grasped that I could vote for the person I promised the students I would, or I could vote for the person whom I really wanted (not necessarily the same one), or I could vote for others. I could write in my own name, or Groucho Marx’s, or anyone. No one would know, ever. This idealized interplay of freedom and liberty has tugged at my heart since, and that moment in the voting booth still feels raw and powerful, maybe because I can think of few other instances in my life when I felt as free.

Political scientists tell us that the key dynamic in any democracy is not the confidence citizens have in their government, but the trust that people have for one another. When we are suspicious of our neighbors, when we doubt the integrity of those with whom we share our fate, when we see citizens, immigrants, refugees, and visitors as the enemy, we undermine civil society and move self-governance towards injustice.

I didn’t know the theory back then, but I understood it pre-theoretically, perhaps pre-cognitively. When I finally pulled the curtain open again and walked out of the booth, I felt deeply what it meant to be a citizen and I accepted the brute reality that all anyone else had to go on was my word. That, in the end, may be the key element of citizenship. To say so may be even more old-fashioned than the New York voting booths, but on that day and each day since, I have understood my roles as citizen—and as person—as being deeply rooted in personal integrity. Democracy is and should be the acting-out of one’s honor. That includes enlarging, not restricting, people’s right to vote, and fighting for the disenfranchised when they don’t have the ability to do so for themselves. I was fortunate enough to have people stand beside me when I was silenced. Many, if not most, are not that lucky.

Jack Russell Weinstein

Envy

I remember voting for the first time two years ago in the 2016 election, just days after I turned 18 years old. I was experiencing a lot of different emotions. Anger. Excitement. Passion. Those emotions did stay with me, in varying degrees, throughout my journey in learning more and more about the importance of participating in our democracy. What stayed with me more than anything else, however, is how easy it felt to vote in North Dakota. I did not have to pre-register. I did not have to attain additional identification beyond what I already owned. There were multiple polling locations, the lines were not awfully long–the voting locations were generally accessible.

Though I had a generally positive first experience at the polls, I cannot speak to the particular voting experiences of others in North Dakota. Maybe the lines were longer at some points in the day. Maybe a few poll clerks gave inaccurate answers to questions. Maybe some folks’ identification was outdated or forgotten at home. What I can speak to is that my experience with voting is not universal. Aside from some of these smaller hurdles in voting, thousands of our fellow Americans hold vastly different relationships with voting. Every state other than North Dakota forces people to undergo some form of registration. Beyond navigating the process of registering, and all the convoluted rules that can go along with it, the simple logistics of voting––countless instances of poll clerks turning people away, voter rolls being inaccurate or purged, even the inconvenience of voting felt due to responsibilities at work, school or other life obligations––all play a role in discouraging people to vote.

Even further than the logistics of voting, there are ever-present efforts to stifle our democracy as opposed to bolstering it. From Georgia’s voter roll purges and absentee ballot throw-outs, to a last-minute rule change in our own state, the accessibility, convenience, and basic right to vote is seemingly in perpetual jeopardy. Many of these efforts are deemed “just part of the law,” or are upheld by various courts, and so are not always pushed back against. However, as history has taught us time and time again, something being “legal,” doesn’t always mean that it is right. Especially when these efforts to stifle our democracy aim to impact particular communities and groups of people.

Watching these efforts to suppress, or even disenfranchise voters has been incredibly frustrating. Heck, since coming to college here in New York, I have seen how much of a chore voting can be, even without facing an onslaught of attacks on my right to vote. Voting as an absentee can be, frankly, inconvenient, especially in the midst of exam season when my mind is on plenty of other things. Regardless, voting here has forced me to acknowledge how much easier it appears to vote in North Dakota than other places in our country. Each time I explained how accessible it felt to vote in North Dakota, my classmates could not believe it. They are shocked, surprised, but more than anything else, envious. Envious that it is supposed to be easy to participate. Envious that our system was built to be easy for our voices to be heard, particularly since the voting booth is the one place where our voices can actually mean something. And to know that there are efforts to make this apparent gold-standard for voting harder for people? That is truly disheartening.

More than anything else, I truly believe that Americans are starting to realize how important it is to fight to preserve and spread the right to vote to as many people as possible. As frustrated as I am to see the right to vote under jeopardy, I am even more encouraged to see and hear all the diverse and impassioned voices rising to defend our fellow citizens’ right to contribute to our democracy. And that encouragement, and that hope, is why I am so excited to vote this November–and why I hope you all will not only join me in voting but also in using our voices to continue to fight and protect the right to vote for everyone–no matter what the law tells us.

Vote, vote, vote!

Prem Thakker

 

Voting – In Hoc, Sumus Pares [In this, we are equal]

Being a student at UND has granted me a unique position in terms of voting. On the one hand, I have enjoyed the privilege to attend a prodigious university and take classes from many commendable professors here in North Dakota. On the other hand, I am still a resident in my home state of Minnesota. I take pride in voting and I realized after high school that, although some believe one vote does not make a difference, my vote is my voice. Instead of voting in North Dakota, I took part in an absentee vote for Minnesota and my home county of Isanti. I felt it was necessary, in good conscience, to vote for candidates I have a better familiarity with.

Voting gives me an opportunity to have tangible and lasting impacts on my community back home. Through an absentee vote, I can still be represented in Minnesota despite living in North Dakota. Receiving my absentee voting package in the mail was an exhilarating and new experience for me. I filled out my vote, enthusiastically sent it on its way back to Minnesota, and slapped my “I voted” sticker on my chest. In that small moment, I felt proud to be participating in the voting process. My vote matters—and so does yours.

Wyatt Atchley

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