In the small, rural, northern Pennsylvania town where I grew up in the 1970s, voting was a community activity. Every autumn and every spring, as far back as I can remember, Election Day was an event in our social calendar that was as certain – and as observed – as Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.
On Election Day our tiny wooden community center, built in the early 1800’s on the edge of the old town green, was converted into a voting facility. Portable wooden voting stalls were erected in the small galley kitchen where, at other times, dinners were prepared by women’s groups for town celebrations and funeral suppers. Brightly checked handmade curtains hung over the doors of each stall to provide privacy, and long, low tables were lined up on the side of the main room where voters signed in, gathered their ballots, and deposited them in a sealed box after voting.
Our neighbors served as election officers, and every year my mother volunteered her day to call voters and arrange to drive anyone who needed a ride to the polls. In those days, many families in and around our blue-collar village only had one car, so stay-at-home moms needed rides, as did house-bound senior citizens. When I was still too young for school, I rode along with Mom, as she delivered these voters to the polls and took them back home. Later, when I started school, I would accompany her as soon as I got home. It was an exciting, community event, and I wouldn’t miss it. She always had a stack of sample ballots along so that her passengers could review their choices ahead of time, and though she was under strict instructions to remain non-partisan, she could answer questions and explain the ballot to anyone who needed help understanding it. An avid backseat listener, I also learned a great deal about political offices, parties, and the voting process.
Once we arrived at the polls, people greeted each other, joked with the election officials, and visited with fellow voters. Especially for older people who lived well-outside of town and who didn’t get out often, this was a social occasion, and there was always a large, industrial coffee pot going with free coffee for everyone. The building itself was a dark and cozy space that smelled of old wooden beams as well as books because it also doubled as a miniature lending library. As I waited for the voters we had delivered to cast their ballots, I would look through all the books, reading some while I waited, and selecting several to sign out and take home. From the start then, for me, reading and voting went together, and once I could read by myself, at the end of the evening when the polls had closed, I was always allowed to take a sample ballot into the voting stall and “cast” my vote. The election officer would solemnly collect my carefully folded ballot and tuck it away.
Today, as I see many small communities mobilizing to increase voter turn-out, I think back to these early experiences with elections and realize that as rural and quaint as my community seems through the haze of memory, we were, in many ways, at the forefront of the democratic process: a process that is and should be essential, communal, and accessible. Though I didn’t realize it then, of course there would have been vast differences in our neighbors’ political views, but the act of voting brought everyone together as a community. It was the privilege and imperative of voting that superseded these differences ensuring that each citizen could participate and be counted.
Tami S. Carmichael