My Youth in The Booth

Happy voting day, everyone!

My state has mail-in ballots so voting day is more of a deadline than a day. I kind of miss going to my local polling place and voting, but I am totally down with how easy it is when my ballot is mailed to me way in advance and I can fill that puppy out in my own time, while eating bon bons in my jammies if I so choose.

I remember tagging along with my folks for voting when I was a kid. I adored it. It took place in the gym of the local middle school and the polling ladies were all over 60, with set hair and foul mouths and smiles and a working-class Mrs. Roper-ish style. My mom knew all of them and while they chatted one of them usually slipped me a piece of gum. I loved those ladies. I’d go in the booth with my mom and watch her pull the lever. I had parents that usually let me do the exciting-for-a-little-kid things like push the button in the elevator or lick the stamp for the outgoing mail, but I never got to push any voting machine button. It was made clear to me without them saying it that this was Grownup Stuff, and that I could have the privilege when I was big.

Then there were the times when we would be back to the homeland during an election. Fiji only gained independence in 1970, so voting was not a joke when I was there. No one was jaded about it, no one I knew had anything but respect and seriousness about it. The thing I remember most was one time I was talking to my cousin Veneeta when I was about 10 years old on election day there. I asked her who she had voted for to be the next prime minister, and she scolded me HARD. “That’s private!” she said. And then lectured me. This struck me as so odd, and so upside down. If there was one thing I knew about my relatives in Fiji, it was that “private” was not something that they referred to often. Hell, ever. I never heard anyone use the word private there in my life. As much as I loved going there, the thing that was often the hardest for me to adjust to was the sheer lack of privacy, about everything. People asked you all about your business. No one had their own room, no one had their own stuff. People shared everything. Solitude was tolerated if you were outside, but going in a room and shutting the door (unless it was the bathroom) was just not done. So, if you want to be alone, you go for a walk along the beach. You don’t sit in a room by yourself. No one lives alone there, not that I ever saw. I don’t even know how you would do that- the society just isn’t set up for it. It’s communal, in a very real and true way, and for all the upsides to that (and there are a million), one thing you don’t have is privacy. And that was and continues to be a hard thing for me, the American cousin, to get with.

And so what was this thing about voting being private? It wasn’t like politics weren’t talked about and debated. I had seen too many late-night beer-soaked debates among my relatives about politics to think that this was anything to keep quiet about. People would let their opinions fly, no problem. But my cousin, open and un-private as the rest of my family on just about everything, was drawing the line about asking who she had voted for. And she wasn’t the only one. It seemed universally agreed upon, this secret voting thing. They would talk all they wanted before voting, but when it came to each person in the voting booth, that was between them and their conscience. Period.

I would like to think that, had I only grown up in this country and not spent so much time in Fiji, that I would have gotten this same message about voting somehow. When I would go to vote with my mom, it was back in the day when there were still little curtained-off booths for each person to vote in. No one ever verbalized to me that there was a reason for the curtained-off booth, that there were places both here and abroad that made that secrecy extremely necessary and that we shouldn’t forget that, ever. I think I would have absorbed that message from the booth. But I am still glad that I had cousin Veneeta to tell me off so that it really hit me hard and made me think, if not when I was 10, at least later on.

Now that we (at least in my state) have done away with the secret booth for voting, I wonder if anything is being lost? Overall, I think the benefits outweigh the costs, since I think more people are able to vote this way that would be disenfranchised if they had to make it to a polling place on a particular day. (Although I haven’t looked up evidence to support that thought, so I could be talking crap again). But I hope that kids that grow up in the current era where we don’t have voting booths anymore have some way to connect viscerally with the individual dignity of the act of voting. That’s all I’m saying. And I love eating my bon bons in my jammies while I fill in the bubbles as much as the next person.


  1. Is it horrible to say that, as intriguing as I found the topic of privacy and loss of secrecy, the most compelling emotion in my mind right now?Why can't we have mail-in ballots?Yes, I am that sad. It was really cold walking to the polls!

  2. Wow, what great thoughts here, all wrapped up in a vignette of the past and far away. Great reading, LG. You pinned the tail on one of my favorite themes: what we lose and what we gain when we trade community away for something ostensibly better. I think convenience is an upside only in that it may result, as you say, in more turnout. But it may not, too, precisely because it's just more junk in the mail now. There isn't that trek (in the cold) to a particular place. Remember how strongly humans are wired to resonate with "place". It's huge. The fact that you once had to trudge out there TO THE VOTING PLACE served to elevate the event to a reverence that it will no longer have. It was the inconvenience that drove home how important it was. Sorry for the spittle. I get excited.

  3. Journeyman Matt- I hear you. I think I could get way more behind keeping the polling place if we had, like many other countries do, mandatory time off of work so that people can have the time to get to the polls. Or a week-long voting period, instead of just a day.

  4. With five little ones in the house and our garage being a precint, I love that my children about what all those people are doing out there in our garage. My four year old would cheer for Obama, recognized his voice on npr and now he "knows" Jerry Brown. In our cookie cutter neighborhood, it is the ONLY time of the year when grown ups (and children for that matter — Halloween not counting) out and about. SO, even though I'm a register mail in voter, and do my bubbling with my magnifying glass in the comfort of my bed, I truly appreciated voting as a place. I guess…sort of, libraries as a place..

  5. We still have the private voting booths in Texas – very private, no one utters a word who they vote for. But believe me, they sure can complain when things go wrong! I always remember how intriguing it was and thought it was some secret society when my parents went off to vote. I was a jealous little kid…

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