Thank goodness for The Washington Post. Where else would a tired mama go to learn about the candidates in a local election? It is tough to rally for these in-between years – not a Congressional Rep or Governor on the ballot. All the obscure offices are up for grabs. These may have a greater impact on Bug’s and my immediate existence than the presidency, but I am still oblivious to who is running the community show. I am not alone. Yesterday’s paper forecast low turnout at today’s Virginia polls. I refuse to be among the missing.
Lucky for us, The Post also slips candidate profiles into its “Local Living” section. Bug and I sit at the dinner table, flipping through page after page of County Supervisors and School Board candidates.
“What’s an election?”
“It’s a. . . well, when a bunch of people are running to see who is going to be in charge of the government. . . and, um, a time when people vote for who is going to run the government.” Right. Crystal clear. Lots of people out jogging.
I cast about for a response. The paper in my hands is a flimsy thing, failing to provide guidance on most fundamental questions. I guess these answers have to be up to me. Frightening responsibility.
“Well, it’s the people in charge of the other people, sort of, but they are also, um, kind of responsible to do what the people want when they are in charge. . .” It’s a good thing my five-year-old has the attention of a sand flea. I flip the page, leave it vague. He eats. After I have jotted down the names of the candidates who will get my vote, I tell him he will go with me to the polling place on election day.
“What’s a polling place?”
Gads. “It’s where we go to choose between all these people.”
In the morning, Bug is up with the sun. Because November 8th falls after we turn the clocks back, this means he is on full volume before I’ve even rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I hear his feet on the stairs, hurrying, bump bump bump. In his pirate jammies, face bright. “Mommy! I am so excited to go vote!”
He does not even want his breakfast. We bundle up and walk through the crisp air to the neighborhood elementary school. He is thoughtful on the way. “How will we know which door to go in? Are there kids in the school?” And, “What is an election, Mommy?”
I have had a chance to think about this.
“This election is when people in our neighborhood and town decide who will make some of the big decisions about how things work around here. The people who get the most votes will decide about building schools or fixing roads or making sure the parks stay clean.”
Outside the school, we see two of the folks whose pictures were in the paper. Bug ducks into my leg when they try to smile and shake his hand. Inside, we take our paper ballot to a booth. Bug sits on my lap and grips the pen, filling in ovals next to the letters I indicate. His voice is loud. “Next to that E? I see two Es. What does it stand for?”
I remind him that the booth is for privacy, and we should speak softly because no one needs to know who we are voting for, just like no one has to tell us who they vote for. Once we are done, he feeds the ballot into a slot in a box. He jumps as the machine grabs and eats the page. An election officer gives us each a sticker, and Bug bounds out into the chilly morning.
“That machine surprised me,” he tells me on the walk home.
“It was counting every ballot,” I tell him. “Do you remember when we came in? How the man at the table gave us the number 49? At the end of the day, they count all the ballots in the machine, and all the numbers on that guy’s chart, and they make sure there are no mistakes.”
“Because it’s important that every vote is counted just right.”
“So the right person gets elected.” This explanation sticks in my craw. I swallow back what I really want to say, because I’m not ready to turn my son into a cynic. Yet. The great democratic project needs a steady infusion of faith, and I know of no source beside the wide open curiosity of our kiddos. It matters that he believe, at least for a while, that the best people are running, running hard, and the ones who cross the finish line are the fittest for the job.
He wears his sticker all the way to school, announcing to his teacher, “I voted this morning!” She tells him how proud she is of him.
Civic education may begin perched on a parent’s knee, coloring in ovals. We all know how much more it involves. This weekend, we will take a trip to Freedom Plaza. Stickers will give way to signs, to shouts, to occupation. I will ready myself for the next barrage of questions, each one falling in a place without a zip code, without a clear column of names and explanations.
I’m glad The Washington Post lands on my driveway every morning. Having a paper around is like having a mommy nearby. It provides information and expands our take on the world but can’t be a proxy for our own minds. Bug has a while before his vote counts the same as mine. Even so, we still bob along in the same boat. We have to give voice to our questions. When we find the answers unsatisfying, we have to ask the next, then the next after that, and like the gadfly, keep asking. Against the resistance of the ones who would prefer us silent, who try to shut us up, we have to keep asking.
Frightening responsibility, indeed. But in this unflagging inquiry, democracy resides.