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Category: Feminism, Politics

Voting—Without the Girdle

| October 30, 2008

The journalist and author of a forthcoming play on suffragist Susan B. Anthony explains why not voting should never be an option. A large turnout is as important to the nation, says Lynn Sherr, as any policy choice of the winner.

Some things are sacred. For me, thanks to my family, one of them is Election Day.

My father, a hunky former basketball star and savvy attorney who seemed destined for elective office, learned the ropes as a ward heeler who regularly turned out voters in our Democratic South Philadelphia neighborhood.

My mother, who distrusted politicians of any stripe and moved us to the Republican suburbs as soon as the budget allowed—where she sweetly redirected my father’s political ambitions—nonetheless regarded voting as, yes, a sacred rite. She always dressed for the polls in her Saturday night best: girdle, stockings, heels, suit, hat (usually with a veil) and matching gloves. She never missed an election.

I’ve downgraded the uniform—and look forward to someday voting at home electronically in my pajamas—but I take the ritual equally seriously. Make that ferociously. Truth is, I think voting should be mandatory, and that people who don’t vote should have their toenails pulled out. Or at least should be slapped with a fine, as they are in Australia.

As a student of women’s history, I cannot understand how any female who knows what Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul and all the others endured to get us—us!—the right to vote, can stay home on election day.

As a reporter during the Civil Rights movement, I cannot understand how any African American can turn down the right won so valiantly at such sacrifice.

And as an American whose grandparents traveled here from Eastern Europe in search of a better life for us—us!—I cannot understand how the descendant of any immigrant can squander the opportunity they sought.

I think that covers just about everyone.

Our record as a nation is abysmal. From 1972 until 2000, almost half the eligible voters stayed away from the voting booths during presidential elections, meaning that in some cases, only about one-quarter of the citizenry decided how the other three-quarters were governed. That keeps us parked towards the bottom of a global list of election turnout, behind Italy, Cambodia, New Zealand and Mongolia, just to name a few.

The 2004 U.S. numbers were more encouraging—some 60 percent of eligible voters turned out. Still, 78 million people who could have voted, didn’t. In Florida alone, nearly 400,000 voters under 30 were registered for the first time; 63 percent of them neglected to show up. As James Carville once said, “You know what they call a candidate who’s counting on a lot of new voters? A loser.”

But this year, “You can also call him Barack Obama,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, pointing to the record high turnouts of young people—and everyone—in the endless primaries. The signs are hopeful, with voter registration soaring and public interest in the campaigns at least boosting the careers of Jon Stewart and Tina Fey. Will viewer turnout finally translate into voter turnout? Will those enthusiastic citizens of the next generation, who have traditionally treated politics as a spectator sport, show up for their Election Day experience?

And what about the 20 million unmarried women who comprise the largest single bloc of nonvoters? Republican Pollster Kellyanne Conway warns that female voters, who decide much later than men, are turned off by negative ads. “First, they want to punish the subject matter,” she told me. “As in, ‘Oh my goodness, did McCain do that?’ Then they want to punish the sponsor. Especially if there are too many ads. As in, ‘I’m sick and tired of having Steve Forbes in my kitchen.’” So many don’t vote.

Please note: this is not a partisan plea. Sure, I support one side over the other. But—and this will infuriate some of my more committed friends—I care as much about participation as about policy.

And yes, I know all the arguments: that nonvoters have rights too; that people who aren’t informed shouldn’t be encouraged to go to the polls; that you have a choice not to vote; that not voting is a strike against a corrupt form of government. So who are they besides, famously, Gore Vidal?

Nonvoters have generally been younger, less educated and less apt to be married than the rest of us. Less wealthy, too, but then, that would make us all nonvoters these days.

Their excuses range from the legitimate—personal or business crises, last-minute travel—to the lame: I didn’t have time to register. I didn’t know enough about the candidates. I didn’t know there was an election. And, of course, my vote doesn’t count anyway.

Oh no?

Nashville. August, 1920. Thirty-five states had ratified the proposed new Nineteenth Amendment; one more would win the three-fourths majority to amend the U.S. Constitution, giving all American women suffrage for the first time. It came down to Tennessee, where the Senate had voted yes, but the House seemed deadlocked. The chambers were packed; the atmosphere tense. The lobbying—pro and con—had been bitter. A 24-year-old Republican named Harry Burn, a presumed anti-suffragist who had risen from his sickbed to attend, quietly cast his ballot for the amendment. It broke the tie and the amendment quickly passed. Representative Burn later revealed that he made the switch because of a letter in his back pocket urging him to “vote for suffrage.” The letter was from his mother.

My mother was 17 at the time. Four years later, she could vote in her first election. She and my father both understood that it was not only a privilege, but a responsibility. And that one vote can make a difference.

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