First of all, Sarah... big fan. Huge. I saw you speak in Cambridge at the release of Unfamiliar Fishes, and Assassination Vacation changed my life (or my travel plans, anyway). I am currently reading The Partly Cloudy Patriot. I realize it's one of your older collections, mostly by the essays focused on the 2000 election and the fallout of same. It's difficult to relive those dark days, but your humor provides the right amount of levity so I don't succumb to PTSD.
It's one of those essays that moved me to write. Dear Dead Congressman is a touching essay written to a congressman from your youth. I loved reading your story of developing your sense of civic pride. I too remember the thrill of my first election, the realization that elections happen every year and furthermore! The importance of those local elections. I had learned about the electoral college in high school and while I wished desperately that I could vote for Clinton in '92, I harbored no illusion that my single vote in a vast national sea would turn the tide (of course, he didn't need my help anyway). In the local elections though, that's where making it to the poll really counted. No year was this more clearly evidenced than in the off-cycle election in February, 1998 in Maine for the repeal of legislation banning gay discrimination. Really, let that marinate a minute. A special, single-issue vote was pushed through for the most bitter time of year in Maine with the single goal of taking rights away from people. It sounds ridiculous, which is why none of my friends voted. None. Even though every single person I knew or talked to casually was completely against this issue, it passed. Because people didn't vote. (Does it go without saying that I did?) As far as defining moments in a young girl's life goes, that one is a doozy. Up until then, I had voted out of duty. I got a thrill when I marked the ballot and proudly wore my sticker, but I voted because I knew I was supposed to. After February 10, 1998, I voted because I had to. I had seen what could happen if a citizen became lax.
And so things went until I moved to Boston two years ago. When I reached the end of your essay, the feelings of shame and embarrassment came flooding over me because you see, Sarah Vowell, I am about to tell you the most humiliating thing about me, something I don't think I've ever admitted out loud to anyone, choosing to instead change the subject or feign deafness... Sarah... I did not vote in my first election after moving to Massachusetts. But listen! At the very end of your essay, you ask, "what's easier than filling out a card with your address on it four weeks before the election?" This is in response to Nader's platform for election day voter registration. This is where the bloom came a little off the rose, Ms. Vowell, because you see, I am from a state that, while known to make egregious errors in judgment when it comes to human rights, allows its citizens to register to vote on election day. The very first time I voted, I signed up at the polls. Whenever I moved (which, as a young person, was often), all I had to do was show up at my new polling place and BAM! Registered and voted. This system made so much sense to me that I presumed it was the same nation-wide. I know I should have checked beforehand, and I'm not trying to make excuses for my lapse in civic duty (well, I guess I sort of am). I'm just saying that allowing people to register at the polls makes sense. First of all, voter turnout in this country is abysmal. Does anyone really believe that someone will try to vote twice? That kind of behavior is for budding democracies, not lazy old democracies like ours. Secondly, is it hard to complete a card four weeks before election? No, of course not. But how many people move districts in that window? How many are new to their states (ahem) and maybe have a lot going on (*cough*graduateschool*cough) in those fleeting few weeks? Sometimes it's all one can do to remember to carve out an hour on the first Tuesday in November, why should a potential voter be penalized for having a busy life?
The whole first election day that I couldn't vote, I walked around my new city under a cloud. I felt perhaps even more deeply shamed to be walking around Boston, a city steeped in history, where a person can hardly walk a block without stumbling upon a plaque commemorating brave souls who lost their lives to the revolution, the revolution freeing our country from the shackles of the monarchy, the revolution that culminated in the right to vote! (Let's ignore for a moment how long certain people had to wait to enjoy the same right, that's another letter for another time.) I felt like it was written across my forehead: Traitor! My facebook feed was full of people showing off their "I Voted!" stickers and arguing about issues. I felt left out. I felt unAmerican. If only Massachusetts allowed same day registration, I could have been spared.
Why should it be difficult to vote? I like what you say about suffrage, and that voting should cost something, be it time or gas or patience. But creating hoops to jump through makes voting seem an awful lot like a privilege, not a right. How many more people might be flexing their civic muscles if it were harder not to vote? What's the harm in making the process as simple as possible?
Thanks for listening and really, I love your work.
With love from your biggest fan,