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