Editor’s Note: Alexandra Styron is the author of a book for teen readers, “Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing (Almost) Everything.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Will millennials vote on Tuesday?
For anyone who has reached for the Lunesta in the anxious run up to November 6, it’s a question that hangs with almost unbearable gravity. Will young people overcome their (alleged) disaffection to exercise the most essential American privilege? Will they put their broad minds and shoulders to the wheel? Will they please please save us from the Apocalypse? As a sleepless citizen, I’ve had lots of time to worry about this. And, with the last of my optimism, to count on them. But, then, I cannot actually imagine sitting the election out. Because I’m a voting freak.
My first time in a voting booth, I was 6 years old.
At our town hall, I fiddled around by the front door while my mother exchanged pleasantries with Mrs. Hurlbut, the town clerk. It was 1972 and only about 1,200 people lived in Roxbury, Connecticut. One booth – part pinball machine, part shower stall – waited for customers across the small room. While my mother signed in, I wandered away to look out the window. When I turned around, she was gone. Catching sight of her familiar ankles beneath the closed curtains of the machine, I scurried past Mrs. Hurlbut and through the flaps. With my mother’s free hand in mine, I watched while she worked the mysterious contraption.
Twelve years later, I came home from college to cast my first vote for president. Mrs. Hurlbut remained functioning beneath a corona of white hair, but the machine that year was broken. On a paper ballot, I filled in the bubble beside the names of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, and walked out puffed with pride at my role as a grown-up American citizen, pride that survived their defeat.
Fully engaged in politics
By 1988, I’d become a fully engaged political animal. Fresh from graduation and living in New York, I volunteered for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ primary campaign. Then I stayed on through the general election. The experience was exhausting and exhilarating. I loved being part of something important, though I was often stunned by the trust invested in me.
In Ohio, I was a surrogate scheduler, planning stops for VIPs who came to campaign for the candidate. One day, for a heart-stopping hour, I lost the president of the Boston Bricklayers Union. While the field operator seethed at a packed VFW hall outside Columbus, I sweated it out, a phone on each ear, before hearing from the designated driver, a kid no older than me. He and Mr. McIntyre had gotten lost and were taking a break at a diner. I could have offered them my head. On a platter.
I was young, and in the Iran Contra ’80s, aggrieved by both the system and the old folks who created it. But instead of skepticism, I coursed with idealism, and an almost stupid sense of commitment. In the months when Dukakis was running ahead of George H.W. Bush, I thrived on junk food and adrenaline-charged optimism. As the polls tightened, I fretted and doubled down on my duties. And when things looked dire, I carried on, a soldier devoted to the mission and the man.
By Election Day, the outcome of the race was painfully obvious. New York would go blue, as usual, but in most of the country the tide had turned definitively red. I woke on November 8 and headed up to East Harlem to knock on doors. After that, I planned to go to Boston to be present for the inevitable concession cry-fest.
But in between I had to vote.
‘I was a professional!’
It was around 3 in the afternoon when I made it to my polling place. During the last hours of campaigning, a co-worker had slapped a Dukakis bumper sticker on the back of my sweatshirt. As I ran up the stairs inside PS 87, I suddenly remembered the sticker was there and stopped to peel it off. I didn’t want to be accused of electioneering. I didn’t want anything to disqualify me from casting my second, and personally most significant, presidential vote. The disappointment I felt about my candidate’s impending loss was riding a totally different track than the zeal I had for the democratic process. A familiar spark of civic spirit fired in my chest.
Inside the gym, I found a scene nothing like I knew from Roxbury. So many tables! So many machines! Not wanting to appear untutored, I pulled out my voting card and puzzled my way to the appropriate table. Two women – pleasant, indifferent – matched my name on the card to the one in the polling book. I work for one of the candidates, I wanted to say, signing my name with a flourish. I wasn’t just some amateur off the street. I was a professional!
But still, I’d never actually operated a voting machine. Stepping between the curtains, I eyed the red handle. A couple summers earlier, my friend Laura and I had taken a trip out West. Somewhere in Nevada we passed an evening at a run-down casino drinking free liquor and feeding quarters to the slot machines. Inside the voting booth, I grabbed the handle and worked it like a one-armed bandit. With a pull to the right, the curtain closed around me. Pulling left, the space opened up again. As soon as I’d done it, I knew it was a mistake. When I tried to move the levers to vote for individual candidates, they wouldn’t turn.
“Excuse me,” I said approaching the ladies at the table. “I pulled the lever thingie but I haven’t voted yet.”
“What do you mean?” one of the them replied, dry as toast.
“I pulled the curtain closed but then I pulled it open again before I voted. I need to do it again.”
“You can’t,” she said.
Trying to contain my alarm, I asked for clarification.
“You’re done,” she answered flatly. “You can’t vote again.”
Even now, I don’t fully understand my behavior that afternoon. One of the most common tropes about millennial nonvoters is a sense of deficiency. They don’t think their votes matter, so they don’t vote. Here I was backing a candidate certain to win by a healthy margin in my state, and just as certain to lose nationwide. My vote literally did not matter. Which did not slow me down a whit. If I were hitching a ride out of Zombieland, I could not have been more panicked or adamant.
“I have to vote,” I told the ladies.
“You have. You’re done,” they insisted.
Where was Mrs. Hurlbut?
Poll workers from other precincts were drawn over by the debate, but each concurred with the existing verdict. I’d pulled the handle back. My vote, empty as it was, had been cast. I couldn’t vote again. Where was Mrs. Hurlbut when I needed her? Finally, one kindly worker, moved by my mania, left to consult with a supervisor. Returning, she handed me a piece of paper with a number.
“Call the Board of Elections,” she said, looking warmly into my eyes.
Following her directions, I raced upstairs to a pay phone. Not surprisingly on Election Day, the number was busy. For 15 minutes I fed my quarter into the phone and fruitlessly pressed the same buttons. The clock was ticking on my Boston trip. It was time to consider another plan. I left PS 87 and ran the four blocks to my apartment. At home I had a phone with a long cord and a redial button. By the time I got through to the Board of Elections, I’d packed my bag and was positioned by the door.
“Yes, Miss, I understand,” said the woman on the other end of the receiver, “but the only thing you can do is go before a judge.”
Where, I wanted to know, was that judge? Moments later, I was on the 1 train to 200 Varick Street and the headquarters of the New York County Board of Elections. Even I thought I was bananas. But like the train itself, once I’d set the thing in motion it was just too late to stop.
My motives that day were fairly simple, and not particularly patriotic. By my lights, it seemed fraudulent to have spent so much time exhorting people to vote and then not managing to vote myself. What sort of pinhead doesn’t know how to operate a voting machine? What would I tell my parents? What would I tell my friends? But under the thicket of guilt and self-recrimination, I’d glimpsed something of true adulthood. It wasn’t a game played for quarters. And you didn’t walk away when the trend was not in your favor. The aim was to be counted, for oneself. But the meaning and the deeper pleasure came from being counted on, by others.
At Varick Street, I raised my right hand and stepped to the bench. As I told my story to the elderly judge, he shook his head and a smile slowly creased his face. When I busted back into PS 87 with my overnight bag in one hand and the judge’s decision in the other, the poll workers applauded.
I cast my vote and headed north, my freak flag flying high.