Before I Could Vote

Every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a presidential election takes place in the United States.  Voters are filled with hope on that day.   Their hopes are centered on their favorite candidate and the realization – or the failure – of that hope is what makes presidential election years so memorable.   Most voters are able to remember what was important to them at different times in their lives by recalling who and what they voted for in certain elections.   Even those who weren’t yet old enough to vote can recall the cultural mood of the day by remembering how others around them acted before and after presidential elections.

I wish I could say that I remembered November 8, 1960, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president of the United States of  America. His election marked the beginning of a short era known as Camelot and he brought a new kind of hope to the nation.

Although I have no specific memory of that Election Day, I do know that it took place two days before my sixth birthday and that the little house I lived in with my mom and dad and brother Randy in Springfield, Oregon, was quarantined by the health department because I had scarlet fever  and no one other than the people who lived there was  allowed to come inside our house.

I don’t recall my parents leaving me to go vote that day, but it was the first presidential election that my mom was old enough to vote in, and I’m pretty sure that my parents figured out a way to care for me so she could perform her civic duty .

I was almost ten years old when the next presidential election took place.  President Kennedy had been assassinated the year before and his vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, took over his presidency.  Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona ran against President Johnson in that election.

I clearly remember that Election Day, because my mom got mad when I came home wearing a Barry Goldwater button pinned to my Girl Scout uniform.   My scout leader had given me the button and told me Goldwater was going to be our next president.   I believed her, and was proud to wear the button –even though I liked President Johnson.  He was our president. I’d even named our new family cat LBJ in honor of him just a few weeks earlier.

Walter Cronkite was on television telling America that President Johnson was winning the election, yet I still tried to convince my mom that Senator Goldwater was going to be our next president.  That’s what my scout leader had told me, and as far as I was concerned, she knew everything and couldn’t possibly be wrong.

She was, though.  President Johnson carried forty out of fifty states.  He won by a landslide.

Violence over issues like the Viet Nam War and ending school segregation in the South brought a lot of fear to the 1968 presidential election, when former Vice President Richard Nixon battled against Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.

The prior assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Senator Robert Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. had left the country in turmoil.  Race riots erupted in the nation’s cities, and demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam were common on college campuses throughout the country. Senator Nixon promised to restore law and order to those places if elected president.

I was almost fourteen years old, and I remember how grim grownups looked when they arrived at my school to vote.  Our country was in serious trouble, and they carried the burden of fixing the country into the voter’s booth with them that day.

Richard Nixon won.    Demonstration against the results of the election erupted on university campuses across the country that night, and  I remember my parents’ dread and my interest as the news spread that a group of radical protesters were gathering on the nearby University of Oregon campus.   I sympathized with the protesters, even though I didn’t really understand what they were protesting, and  if I had  been a  little older I would’ve slipped away from my parents and joined them.

The election held on November 7, 1972, when Senator George McGovern of South Dakota ran against President Nixon, is an event I sorely remember.   McGovern opposed the war in Viet Nam and was very popular with people my age.  The 1972 election was the first election in which teenagers  were allowed to vote, and young people like me were hopeful that with so many of us behind him, Senator George McGovern would become our next president.

 I wanted to vote for Senator McGovern, but  I missed my chance .   The election was three days  before my eighteenth birthday, and it was a real blow to me that I couldn’t vote in the election.

Even worse than not being able to vote that year was the way the election turned out.  In  spite of having the support so many young voters, McGovern lost to Nixon by one of the biggest margins ever seen in a presidential election.  For Senator McGovern’s supporters, it was a disappointing moment in time. Our hopes were dashed.  It seemed  that with the election of Richard Nixon, the hard-earned right of young people to vote meant nothing and that our voices were silenced in that election. Thankfully, though, that feeling of defeat didn’t last long, and we demonstrated and protested against injustice and war until  schools everywhere were segregated and the war in Viet Nam  finally ended.

Yes, for me, the results of the 1972 presidential election were very disappointing.  But it was a memorable time and I recall that election – the one I missed voting in by three days – every time I go to the polls to vote .


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