I celebrated my 18th birthday in March of the year 2000 (I know, I’m ancient) and the turn of the new century felt like it was a blank page waiting to be written. That fall I began walking the hallowed halls of my sleepy upstate New York college campus. I had new friends, new classes, a new routine, newly sharpened pencils, and a new voter registration card burning a hole in my wallet.
I couldn’t wait to vote.
Laying the Foundation
I don’t recall my parents overtly talking to my siblings and me about the importance of voting, but I got to see the inside of a voting booth many times as a kid. Voting was just another part of adult life: my mom would get the oil checked on the minivan, call ahead to order a pizza for dinner, and swing by the high school gymnasium–us kids in tow–to vote for village comptroller before picking up that piping hot, family-favorite pepperoni pie and heading for home.
My parents are engaged citizens and have always voted. I grew up in a small village and when the ballot box was dusted off for an election, voting was something of a community event. Trailing along behind my parents, I’d watch them stop to chat with friends and neighbors before they cast their votes, a low hum of hopeful excitement permeating the conversations. Voting was what you did when you belonged to a community, like buying chicken dinner fundraisers or attending high school football games.
My First Election
It was with this attitude of civic responsibility that I voted in the 2000 presidential election (George W. vs. Al Gore). I gathered with girls from my dormitory to watch the results roll in well into the evening. It was a whole thing–a close shave election with a Florida recount–and I got a huge thrill out of being a part of it. My campus buzzed with political talk and I realized that, while my parents taught me that it was my duty to vote, who and what I voted for was something I was freely allowed to explore.
Political Engagement, Ongoing
And explore I did. I devoured my political science classes, joined campus clubs, attended rallies, traveled to see my favorite politicians and authors speak, decorated my first march sign, and continued to vote.
Each time I walked into my polling place, it was with more confidence and more resolve to be an active participant in our democratic system. This isn’t to say that my fervor hasn’t waxed and waned over the years, or that I haven’t taken missteps or grown complacent. I have, but I have also always cast my vote.
For a long while, it felt like enough to merely show up and vote, but then I had children.
Passing It On
With two small daughters looking to their father and me as role models, I have realized that the way we participate in politics has to be ongoing, inclusive, and heartfelt. We are their first example of civic engagement; when they watch us converse about topics we’re passionate about, canvas for candidates we believe in, and lift our voices in discontent, they will start to normalize all of it.
My hope is that they grow up equipped with a variety of tools in their civic tool belt, and that they will push up their sleeves and work for the changes they want to see. The first step? Buckling them into their car seats today and driving together–as a family–so that they can watch us vote, say hello to neighbors, and feel the crackle of excitement fill the air.
It’s Election Day, and we’ll see you all at the polls!