My name is Lea Wait and, I could measure my life by elections.
My family bought their first television set to watch the 1956 political conventions. I remember lying on my stomach on the floor of our family room in New Jersey, fascinated by the banners and voting. In early 1960 my grandmother took me to Washington. She was trying to get a passport so she could return to Scotland, where she’d spent time as a child, but all proofs of where she’d been born had been destroyed in a Boston fire. She was unsuccessful, but I fell in love with Washington. I remember every minute of that trip, but two places stand out. First, the National Archives. Seeing the actual documents I’d read about in history classes, with the real signatures. Not just the Declaration and the Constitution, but (OK, I was a geek,) but I remember standing in awe in front of the actual Gadsden Purchase.
But the highlight of the trip was sitting above the Senate Chamber, seeing it in action. Senators Bartlett and Gruening from the then new state of Alaska were presenting a bill. No; I don’t remember what it was for. But I decided at that moment that some day I wanted to work in Washington; maybe even be a Senator.
That summer I watched the 1960 convention sitting on the floor in front of a TV in the house we owned by then in Maine — the same home I live in today. I begged to stay up as late as it was on. The Democratic convention was one of the most exciting conventions ever — votes and more votes. Compromises and negotiations. I loved the roll calls and kept my own talleys. My parents and grandparents were Republicans, but that didn’t matter. I loved the theatre of it all.
It was after that convention that I began collecting political memorabilia — buttons, tickets to conventions and inaugurations and impeachments, signatures, and other campaign miscellanea from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (I sold my collection a couple of years ago, but somehow the inaugural ball ticket pictured, escaped.)
I wasn’t as active in politics as many Baby Boomers were — but the Civil Rights, Peace, and Women’s Rights movements of the sixties and early seventies were the background of my life, as they were for many people my age. As I think back, I wish I’d done more. In high school, I had a friend whose family actively supported south and central American revolutionaries, and I met many of them. (I often wonder exactly who they were. I was trusted to know where they were, and in some cases what they were doing, but was never told their names.)
I was involved in a lot of late-night discussions. I took part in some demonstrations for the causes I believed in. I handed out leaflets at a steel mill in Pittsburgh, where I went to college. I registered to vote as soon as I was 21 so I could vote for George McGovern in the Democratic primary and after college joined the Village Independent Democrats in New York City, passed out more leaflets, and stuffed envelopes. Many of my friends were Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but most of them wore suits to work.
One of my high school friends’ sister was on the FBI’s “most wanted list” (for actions related to Civil Rights issues) for a while and neighbors in Greenwich Village told me I was being investigated by the FBI. I considered that an honor. It was that kind of time.
But I believed in working within the system. Sometimes it worked. A speech I wrote started Bell System retirees’ reaching out to poor, predominantly African-American, areas, and tutoring in schools. More often, the system didn’t work. Or worked too slowly to make a real difference. But I never missed voting in a presidential or mid-term election.
When I had children I took them with me to the polls, to show them how important it was. Now that I work at home, my husband (who has an interest in politics similar to mine,) jokes that CNN is our best friend; we watch it for a couple of hours each day. Sometimes (yes, I’m confessing) more.
When I moved to Maine full-time, one of my first steps was to go to our Town Hall to register to vote. The town clerk, who I already knew, informed me, with a smile, that I didn’t need to worry about that — I could register on election day. “Just come on in. We’ll get you registered, Lea,” she said. “No problem.”
Used to states where you had to register at least six weeks in advance of an election, I insisted on registering early anyway. When I went to vote in Maine for the first time I was secretly delighted to find that, as usual, Maine did it their way. For the first time in my life I was handed a paper ballot and a pencil. After I’d marked the paper I was instructed to fold it, and put it in the large wooden box on the table in the center of the room. The same box they’d used for over a hundred years. After the polls closed, the box would be opened, and the votes counted by hand and the totals called in.
Four years ago my husband was one of those who counted the ballots. Tonight our next door neighbor will be taking a turn. Then he’ll be joining his wife and daughter and another couple at our house to await the returns from the rest of the country. On CNN,of course.
Here in Maine we’re voting for a senator, with an independent candidate a strong contender with the Republican and Democratic candidates to replace Olympia Snowe. We have a ballot issue on approving same sex marriage. We have local elections. And, above all, there’s the presidency. Of course, I have strong opinions about each of those decisions.
Not all of us waiting in my living room tonight will have voted the same way. But we’ll talk, and nosh, and have a few drinks. I predict more than a few, if the night grows long. Some of us will no doubt end the evening happier than others. But we’ll still be friends tomorrow. And the world — and the United States – and the State of Maine – will continue.
After all. There’s a mid-term election in only two years. Another presidential election in four. We always have another chance. That’s the wonderful thing about our country.
So — no matter who you’re voting for, if you haven’t cast your ballot already, now’s the time. Of course, I hope your preferences are the same as mine. I could tell you why. A lot of reasons why. But you have your own reasons. Now’s the time for all of us to stop talking, and let our ballots speak for us.