A Grandmother On The Making -- And Almost Breaking -- Of An Election Junkie


"Healthy democracies depend on unwritten rules. The Republican nominee has trampled all over them." -- The Economist, October 15, 2016

Like most of us, I woke up last Thursday relieved that the debates are over and the end of the most corrosive presidential campaign I have ever witnessed is a growing light at the end of a dismal tunnel.

But I remain dismayed and troubled: On top of the lack of civility by partisans on all sides and the Republican nominee's appalling civic ignorance exacerbated by the hate-filled, misogynistic, xenophobic, fear-inducing name-calling that marks his campaign, his recurring mantra that the election is "totally rigged" attacks the profound lessons about our democracy I've learned over what will be nineteen presidential cycles this November 8.

Nov. 7, 1944. "Quietly." Miss Challis's fifth graders at Phelps School in Springfield, Missouri, filed into the school lobby and sat cross-legged on the floor. The polling booths were lined up across from us. Voters arrived -- our parents and neighbors, dressed for the occasion -- chatted quietly, were given ballots and disappeared behind the curtains to mark them. Our class stayed a while, left as quietly as we came, and another class took our place.

That morning -- as a ten-year-old witnessing the communal act by which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was re-elected to his fourth and final term -- I was introduced to the majesty and responsibility of We the People choosing our head of state and commander-in-chief and to our trust in the electoral process and the peaceful transfer of power that follows. And I took my first steps down the road of becoming an election junkie.

Nov. 2, 1948. In Westchester County, New York, after a Fall of Harry Truman's flat Missouri twang excoriating the "Do Nothing Congress" and Aunt Gertrude's rooting for Tom Dewey because he looked like the groom on the wedding cake, our family huddled around our radio (no TV then) until the wee hours following election results. We staggered to bed anticipating, as everyone had predicted, President Dewey only to wake up, surprise, to President Truman. We ex-Missourians were elated; our Westchester County neighbors were deflated.

And I continued to absorb the central but unwritten rules about the essence of American democracy: We take sides, argue, disagree, even throw mud, but then we vote and -- expect the outcome or not, like the outcome or not -- the loser concedes and we accept the will of the majority.

Nov. 8, 1960. Finally, at twenty-six, after moving from the then-disenfranchised District of Columbia to Virginia and being required to pay a poll tax to register there (a registration that's still valid; the poll tax was repealed in 1964), I cast a presidential ballot. Absentee. We were on our first US Foreign Service assignment, half a world away in then-Malaya. We missed seeing the first-ever TV presidential debate between five-o'clock-shadow Nixon and fresh-faced Kennedy. And hearing Nixon's gracious concession: Even though there had been possible voting irregularities that could have changed the outcome, he chose not to challenge the results rather than putting the country through the trauma of a contested election. Whether our ballots were received in time to be counted we never knew. But we voted. And I have not missed an election -- local, state or national -- since.

Three years later, we moved back to the States shortly before JFK's assassination: Our older children's introduction to a change of presidents, simultaneously traumatic in the cause yet orderly and reassuring in the way power and responsibility were immediately transferred.

Nov. 3, 1964. A three-year old pulls petals off a daisy. A man's ominous voice in the background: "Ten, nine...." An atomic explosion. "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high to stay home."

The Daisy ad focused the Johnson-Goldwater campaign on Goldwater's cavalier attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons. Goldwater lost in a wipe-out. Yet he conceded with grace and support for "our president" while promising that the Republicans would remain a party of opposition also working to solve the problems facing the nation.

Nov. 4, 1968. Our second election (of four) abroad I answered lots of questions about the confusing way American democracy works: Presidential elections are administered by the individual states, not centrally managed. We vote for members of the Electoral College who actually elect the president. And, in 1968 (a tumultuous year of assassinations, riots outside the Democratic convention, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations) explaining in my rudimentary Indonesian the effect of a significant third party candidate, George Wallace, on Richard Nixon's defeat of Hubert Humphrey after Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election.

And yet, even that messy year, I remember underlining that Americans accept the result and the government continues to function. If some of us don't like the outcome, we politick for change the next time. Which is the special dignity of our democracy in action that others often envy.

Many years later, in another country, I observed a real attempt at election rigging and actual voter fraud first hand. So I know what that can look like and how it's done. And that it can lead to revolution.

Nov. 8, 1988. Soon after we settled back in the States permanently, I became an election official in Fairfax County, Virginia. With Bush-Dukakis my first presidential as Chief, I ran a poll almost every election for twenty-five years. My colleagues and I knew which of us were Democrats and which Republicans, but when we walked into the polling site, party affiliation dropped away. Like citizen election officials across the country we took pride in ensuring that voting at our poll was free, fair and accurate. And we worked with party-designated poll watchers so that everyone acknowledged it was properly done.

I know from experience that walk-in fraud is beyond rare in America. And that, given our decentralized system, rigging a national election is impossible. If there is fraud or rigging currently, frankly, it is gerrymandering and serious attempts to limit access to the franchise carried out by, I regret to say, mainly Republican-controlled state governments to maintain their party's power. Changing that is urgent unfinished business and a challenge for us as voters and elected officials in both parties across the country.

But that is not the point. Encouraging vigilante poll watchers is in effect encouraging voter intimidation. Even though it has been an awful, venomous campaign with one candidate sinking from low to lower that has left me heartsick and empty, and even though many of us find one or perhaps both the major choices we face unpalatable, for one candidate, because he faces losing, to cry "The election is rigged, the election is rigged" is beyond unacceptable. Repeating that mantra ad nauseum completely undercuts the essence of our democracy, fracturing our already fragile faith in our self-government. Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes truth.

That the Republican candidate is doing this repetitively makes me truly angry. Like most of us, I have invested too much of my life, for too long, actively participating, representing, protecting and implementing, winning some, losing some, not to shout: Wrong.

As a nation, we have profound, legitimate disagreements about governing, our future and solving our all too real problems. Many of us on both sides believe that the "other guys" will destroy our country as we know it. And to a degree, we are all correct. The country of my childhood, of my children's childhood, even my grandchildren's is in flux. Our "face" has changed. Too many of us across the board feel unheard and unheeded, displaced and disrespected. But despite the disagreements and distrust, I do not believe most of us want to invalidate our democratic bedrock. If we are willing to work at it, we can find common ground.

Nov. 8, 2016. Two weeks to go. So now is the time for choosing. Here, my friends on the other side, we agree to disagree. You vote your choice, I vote mine. That is the American way.

And I -- in my nineteenth (but I hope not last) presidential election -- choose to be a "nasty woman." Yes. She and I are both flawed; we're human.

But like her or not, trust her or not, she is well-informed, hardworking and capable. She can organize, legislate and, with some cooperation, govern. And he patently is not and cannot.

Now is the time to demonstrate that the state of our elective democracy remains healthy, not rigged. We can do this together by turning out across the country in enormous numbers to vote for her and her supporters down ballot (as I already have because we can walk-in early-vote in Virginia) and defeat him. Hugely.