A unforgettable election experience haunts me— and motivates me.
During spring of my sophomore year in college I worked on Bella Abzug’s unexpected congressional primary victory (look her up). All summer, through a case of campaign-induced mono, I volunteered in the general election. She won, and I got hooked on electoral politics, joined a political club, and was active in state, local and national campaigns. (Thank you, college schedule flexibility.)
But one night, when our club was voting whether to endorse our friend Tony, a rising star, in his assembly race, I had a big paper to write. I didn’t feel like taking two buses, across and downtown, in an icy downpour to cast my vote. And anyway Tony was a shoe-in in his home club, right?
At 10 that night Mark, my political mentor aka boyfriend, called. He was dejected: Tony had lost by two votes.
My stomach lurched. I’ll never forget how rotten, and disloyal, and responsible I felt.
Frantically I asked Mark how it could happen, what we could do, how Tony was feeling – when it hit me that this was impossible. “You’re joking, right?” I said to Mark.
He was dejected: Tony had lost by two votes.
“Yes, I am,” he replied, slowly and sternly. “But I want you to remember forever how terrible you felt that you didn’t get here through the rain to vote.” After I got over my relief at the real result and my irritation at Mark, I asked why he said two votes, not one. His response: “Because you felt just as rotten at two, and if I’d said one you’d have known right away I was kidding.”
Mark’s trick worked. I’ve never forgotten that rainy night in Manhattan, or sat out another election.
Since then I’ve campaigned door-to-door and done voter protection in Reno and Providence, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Fresno, Sacramento, and San Francisco, Albuquerque and Harrisburg.
In 2008 the line of voters snaked around the library for early voting in Broward County. The heat was brutal, but every voter vowed to stay to vote. I went back to Florida this month (still hot and steamy), visited my mom, and registered 10 voters. That felt good. Hurricane Matthew cut into my time, but I still got in some good stretches outside the DMV and Walmart. My favorite was the guy driving through the strip mall who saw “Register to Vote Here” on my clipboard, slammed to a stop, and left the car running as he jumped out to be sure he’d be able to vote.
This weekend I went door-to-door in North Carolina, explaining how people could register and vote early. I knocked on 120 doors (our team did 2000) and met a lot of good people who promised to vote after their night shift or on the way home from school. They know their votes matter. Yours do, too.
On Election Day I’ll be in Ohio doing voter protection. It’s important to our democracy that we all vote, and that the election results are fair and perceived to be fair.
Remember the lesson of that rainy night. Vote. Our democracy and our future are in your hands.
Jamienne S. Studley was president of Skidmore College and CEO of Public Advocates Inc. She is now national policy advisor for Beyond 12.