The first time I voted in a political election, I was only 8 years old.
I was with my father and he was the official registered voter, but Dad took me along to show me the process. In our home of Cleveland, we voted at my elementary school which had been set up as a polling place for Election Day. It was after the regular school hours, I returned to the school with Dad. After I pointed to my classroom, proudly showing some of my scholastic accomplishments which my teacher had displayed on the wall, we went into the gymnasium where our county had established a polling place.
It was crowded that day. There was a long line of voters waiting for a booth for voters, so Dad took his paper ballot and sat down on one of the benches on the edge of the gym. It was private enough for him. He had been given a pencil to make his mark. Dad, taking the role of teacher to his son, placed the pencil in my hand and told me I would help him make his political selections. I was surprised, but I would later reflect back on that time as a teaching moment.
"Put an X by that man's name," said Dad, watching me curl my fingers around the pencil. "No, not that name," said Dad correcting my move away from the candidate Dad did not want. "Put the X in the box next to this name," said Dad, adding a little giggle in his correction. I moved the pencil at Dad's directions, made an X and the vote was made.
Dad made most of the X's on the paper ballot that day, but as he did, he talked to me about the importance of the vote. I did not fully understand the idea of government, candidates, and citizens' rights and privileges as voters in the American structure of government. But a few years later, I better understood it.
Every time I vote today, my memory surges to that day and the lessons my father taught me in my elementary school gymnasium where an American flag and Election Day signs had been placed specifically to mark it as a polling place. I have never missed voting in an election since I became of voting age. Even when I served in the U.S. military in the war in Vietnam, I voted. In the jungle of that country, I sat on the stump of a tree and marked the absentee ballot I had requested from the county board of elections in my hometown of Cleveland, the seat of Cuyahoga County.
I sealed the envelope accompanying the ballot, dropped it into a mailbag which was put on a military aircraft headed to the States. My ballot would be opened on Election Day and counted with the rest of the ballots in Cuyahoga County.
On March 15, Ohioans will go to the polls for the state primary election. On the ballot will be the names of candidates running for president, U.S. Senate, and other offices. As well, there will be local issues which will be decided by how the citizens have voted.
Years after that day my father and I voted together, he told me how his parents -- my grandparents and our other ancestors -- had been deprived of their rights to vote as citizens in the American South because they were black in a racially-segregated society. It was not until 1965 that blacks and other minority groups were assured of their rights. Dad often spoke of his own youth in the South when he could not go to many public places simply because he was black.
Voting had never been on his agenda because segregation and illegal laws kept blacks from voting or even registering to vote.
That was one of the main reasons he had left the South to find a new life in Cleveland. Although all his rights were not in the North either, but he did have the vote. When he made his mark on the paper ballot, and later pulled the lever on a voting machine, and even cast his vote with a punch card stylus, he said he always thought of his ancestors who had been deprived all their lives of that right even through they were citizens of the United States.
Dad is gone now, but every Election Day when I cast my ballot, I recall that special day when I was 8 years old and I learned how to vote and of its importance. As did Dad, I think about our ancestors and how they and millions of other people in the Civil Rights years struggled to ensure all citizens of the nation had the opportunities to cast ballots in a process basic to the foundations of Democracy.
It was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who spoke of the importance of the everyday citizen of America. "The most important political office is that of the private citizen, " said Justice Brandeis. "It is the voter ultimately in charge."
It is something to think about in the polling place. The voting booth is the most valuable piece of real estate in this country because of what it represents.