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Archive for Monday, May 27, 2002

First votes deserve fanfare

May 27, 2002

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If democracy is America's civic religion, then voting is the sacrament of Communion, the lighting of Hanukah candles, the fast of Ramadan rolled into one. It is the ritual we all can share.

As in any regular act of devotion, there's a pleasant, predictable sameness to the experience.

I walk to my polling place on a crunchy blanket of November's leaves, or if there's a primary, under the graceful boughs of spring trees. I wave to a neighbor or two, perhaps stop for a few words, then glance at the campaign literature cheerfully thrust into my hand.

The poll workers check my signature. "You're number 47," they say. Or, in the evening, 289.

Corny as it sounds, the wonderment I first felt on entering the voting booth returns each Election Day. I am stepping onto the pitcher's mound of democracy, and for a brief moment, I get to throw the ball.

When my children were younger, I'd insist they partake in this ceremony of civic life, but it became harder to corral them the older they grew. Then, on Tuesday (primary day in Pennsylvania), my oldest daughter was eligible to vote for the first time, and I had a powerful, disturbing revelation:

Almost no one made a fuss.

Oh, the poll workers, bless them, clapped when they learned this was her initial venture. But society did nothing else to encourage her to vote or to mark the occasion.

Consider: This central act of citizenship, this powerful tool that millions died to achieve and maintain, is greeted for the first time by a collective yawn.

No wonder that, in the crucial 2000 presidential election, only 26.7 percent of 18-year-olds reported voting. No wonder that at my polling place during the last election, of the 201 newly registered voters, only two cast a ballot.

Other rites of passage are accompanied by great fanfare. We spend hundreds on prom dresses and thousands on bar mitzvah parties. We capture the first step with documentary-size videos, and catalogue every win at soccer. We swoon over the first boyfriend, fret over the first driving test, and all but break a bottle of champagne over the first car.

And yet the first Election Day is welcomed as enthusiastically as another baseball road trip.

I propose that between now and the next Election Day, we parents, that is, and teachers and coaches and other caring adults create our own First Vote ritual for our newly minted voters. I imagine something with the feel of an Aaron Copeland symphony, a Frank Capra film, a poem by Maya Angelou.

If your 18-year-old is in the Army or away at college, send a celebratory package. If she's home, take her out for coffee, buy her flowers or a keepsake book.

High schools should laud students who voted. Employers should offer them time to participate. Neighbors should shake their hands. Those blustery radio stations my kids listen to incessantly should read off the names of first-time voters. Applause, attention all that is due them.

"I hear America singing," Walt Whitman wrote in the slim volume of poetry I gave my daughter to commemorate her First Vote. Touched as she was, I don't pretend that she'll run home every day to read it. I don't pretend, either, that 15 minutes on a brisk Tuesday morning will mark a turning point in a young life. I'm just glad she was awake.

But I do believe that one day, she'll open the pages of Whitman's extraordinary celebration of American life and understand the connection.

When he heard the "varied carols" of America singing the mechanics and masons, shoemakers and sewers, "singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs" I am certain he heard the sounds of a people who cared enough about their destiny to spend a few minutes once or twice a year in a voting booth.

And cared enough about the next generation to celebrate their First Vote.




Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is jeisner@phillynews.com.

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