I went down to the county office building on the 20th of October to vote early, not realizing that it was the last day of motor-votor registration. The parking lot was jammed, but with an ambiance of good spirits. The county officials had organized a drive-thru registration line, and I saw one worker carrying in literally thousands of new voter registration forms. Democracy in action. It took me longer to park than to vote, and I gladly gave my parking space to the next voter.
The impression of all those new voters stuck with me, and at the end of the day, I signed up to lend a hand today. I will be stationed at a poll in West Valley City. They tell me to plan for a 16 hour day, and to bring all my meals and snacks. My job is to help everyone exercise their vote.
I grew up in sunny southern California, in one of the state’s most right-wing congressional districts. It was the heyday of Tom Delay, in a time and place that allowed the symbols of patriotism to become confused with conservative ideology, at least in the eyes of one red-headed little girl. Flag-waving somehow became a partisan statement, and my side lost the flag, or so it seemed to a flack-jacket wearing red-headed teenager trying to find her way.
I have a degree in Political Science (I even had Condi Rice as a professor) from a prestigious university, but I found my models for personal patriotism on Highway 89. Tucson elementary students playing a bilingual mariachi version of the national anthem; the Boy Scout parade of American flags in Mt. Pleasant, Utah; the veterans leading the pledge of allegiance and the out-of-tune nine year-old singing “God Bless America” to celebrate the Special Forces soldiers training in Choteau, Montana: not a speck of partisanship in these expressions of patriotism.
One bright summer day, I went down to Mt. Pleasant to make some photographs. As I usually do, I bought the local weekly paper. The headline story told how the local National Guard unit was returning to Iraq, dozens of men (and women) deployed again in a war I strongly opposed. After the photo shoot, I talked a while with my subjects, one clearly very conservative, the other hard to read. I got my paper out of the car, and said, “I don’t want to talk about politics, just tell me what this deployment will do to this region.” And they told me: the strain on families with brothers or fathers and sons in the same unit, the stress of major breadwinners leaving families behind to cope with the finances, the loneliness, and the devastating losses. The unit had already spent a year in Iraq, and they were going again because they believed in their patriotic duty. We got into the politics anyway, and while we shared more views than I expected, what I took away was a different perspective on patriotism.
I had already photographed the Mt. Pleasant cemetery decorated for Memorial Day, and seen the appreciation the community showed its servicemen and -women and veterans. It wasn’t about politics at all; I saw in a new way how they were simply expressing a heart-felt love of country without any cynicism or embarrassment at all.
Way too late in life, I have taken back my American birthright: the patriotic symbols of the greatest country on earth. And today, I will be proud to help someone with opinions I violently oppose to cast his ballot. I will be thinking of a young African-American soldier I saw last week. He was wearing desert fatigues and a black beret, filling out his voter registration form on the steps of the county building. I wanted to speak a word of thanks for his service, but I didn’t; the whole voting process (even a registration form) seems inviolably private. So instead, I am serving my country’s democracy for a day. See you at the polls.