For the last several months, as is always the case in years that are multiples of four, much of the news media here in the United States had been dominated by the upcoming Presidential election. This was the first year that I was old enough to vote for President, and I had been waiting for this moment for the last four years, so I could vote for whomever ran against President Bill Clinton.
This was not the first time I had voted. I turned eighteen a couple months before the 1994 midterm elections, when federal and state representatives were up for elections, as well as some senators and the governor of my state. The governor I voted for that year won; the election was projected to be close, but it ended up considerably more decisive.
I had never really thought about my political views until I was in high school, when I discovered that I leaned mostly conservative. I believed that, in most cases, people should work and were not entitled to free stuff from the government. I believed that lower taxes spurred economic growth by providing incentives for investment and the creation of jobs. And I believed that abortion was a barbaric practice that took an innocent human life, a belief stemming not only from my Catholic background and my newfound evangelical Christian faith, but also from the fact that I was not having sex with anyone, so I was not getting anyone pregnant, and I believed that this method of birth control needed to be used more often and not ridiculed. Or maybe I was just jealous of people who actually were having sex. But, regardless, President Bill Clinton stood against all of those positions, not to mention he was a womanizer and involved in some very shady business dealings before he became President.
Political commentator Rush Limbaugh reached the peak of his popularity when I was in high school. On mornings when school was out during my junior and senior years, I listened to parts of his three-hour radio show while I sat in my room playing Mario and Zelda games. Limbaugh wrote two books outlining his views in light of the present political climate, which I had read multiple times. He also, for a few years, starred in a half-hour television show, recounting some of the points he made in his radio show in front of a studio audience. The establishment hated Limbaugh, but with so many liberal-leaning teachers at school, it felt good to hear someone saying things I mostly agreed with.
When I arrived at the University of Jeromeville, I made a conscious choice to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh’s show and not get involved in any political groups. I wanted to think for myself and not have some other entity making those decisions for me. Had I done more research on what Jeromeville was like before moving there, I probably would have gone somewhere else. Like many university towns, Jeromeville was quirky, a bit on the snooty side, and overall much more liberal than me. The Jeromeville City Council was known for making some unusual far-left decisions, grounded in a combination of aging hippie idealism, environmentalism, and opposition to anything that would make Jeromeville outgrow its small-town roots, despite the fact that over fifty thousand people already lived in Jeromeville. It was hardly a small town anymore. The proposals from this year’s candidates included closing all of downtown to automobile traffic except for people who lived downtown; making curves in long straight roads, to discourage people from driving; and banning street lights on certain quiet, dark residential streets, because bright streets encourage growth, which encourages crime. I was not sure what reality these people lived in; where I came from, dark streets encourage crime.
But the longer I was in Jeromeville, the more it was growing on me, mostly because of the new friends I made through connections like Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that were not directly political. I hoped that my Christian friends would have views similar to mine, but I also shied away from talking about politics, because I did not want to be disappointed in my new friends if they supported something I opposed, or vice versa.
President Clinton’s opponent in the 1996 election was Bob Dole, a longtime Senator from Kansas who had served in World War II as a young man. Jack Kemp, a former congressman and cabinet secretary who also once played professional football, was Dole’s running mate for Vice President. At age seventy-three, Dole would become the oldest President to begin his term if he won the election. The media often used Dole’s age to draw a sharp contrast between him and Clinton. Four years ago, Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, both in their forties at the time, had the youngest combined ages of any President and Vice President at the beginning of their terms. I had recently seen a Bob Dole campaign sign that had been defaced to say Bob Old. Despite the fact that I most likely disagreed with the person who made that sign, I had to admire the creativity. I had done the same kind of thing two years ago with a campaign sticker for a gubernatorial candidate I did not vote for
I walked across the Quad on the way to class the morning of the election. A group handing out Dole-Kemp bumper stickers and buttons had a table on the Quad that day. I did a double take to make sure they were real. The other day I excited to see what I thought was a kindred spirit walking across the Quad in a Dole-Kemp T-shirt, but just as I was about to compliment his shirt, I noticed that it was actually a parody, written in the same font as the Dole-Kemp campaign stickers, but it actually said “Dope-Hemp.” Yeah, I did not want to compliment him and get mistaken for a stoner.
I walked up to the table and pointed to the very real Dole-Kemp stickers. “Can I have one?” I asked.
“Sure,” the guy behind the table said. “Take a few. Put them up. We need everyone to vote today.”
“I will be,” I said. “First time I’m old enough to vote for President.”
“Nice! We’re glad to have your vote.”
I took three stickers and walked across the Quad toward Wellington Hall. I noticed a garbage can with a Clinton-Gore sticker on the side; I walked up to the garbage can, quickly covered the sticker with one of my Dole-Kemp stickers, and continued walking. I overheard someone say, “Did he just cover up that sticker?” Yes, I did, I thought, not replying or acknowledging the other person’s existence. Inside Wellington, on the way to class, I put a second sticker on a bulletin board, on top of a flyer advertising an event that had already happened last weekend. I saved the third sticker, to remember this election, the first Presidential election I voted in, a memory of the time that I, along with millions of other people, voted Bill Clinton out of office.
I stayed on campus until five o’clock that night, because I had tutoring groups to lead. Tuesday was a light day of classes, so I had scheduled many of my work hours that quarter on Tuesdays. After my last tutoring group, I caught a bus home, finally arriving around 5:30 in the rapidly darkening twilight.
“Hey,” Shawn said as I walked in the door. He was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher. “How’s it goin’?”
“Good,” I said. I went upstairs and put my backpack away, then checked my email. I had nothing too exciting; something from Mom, and from an Internet friend I had been talking to. After about ten minutes, I went downstairs; Shawn had moved to the couch. I went to the kitchen and began boiling water to make spaghetti.
After I finished eating, around 6:30, I walked out of the apartment to find my neighborhood polling place. Every voter got a sample ballot in the mail; printed on this booklet, next to my name and mailing address, was the location of my polling place, specific to my neighborhood. Polls stayed open until eight o’clock here, so I had plenty of time to vote. The polling place was easy to find; it was the lobby of my apartment complex. Outside, temporary signs saying “VOTE HERE” and warning people not to distribute campaign material within 100 feet had appeared today. A line of people extended out the door; I could not tell how far the line extended inside.
The line moved relatively quickly; it took a little over five minutes for me to get to the front of the line. I handed my sample ballot to the volunteer sitting at the table, who checked my name and address against the list of voters who would be voting here. “Sign here,” she said, handing me a clipboard and pointing to a line next to my name. About twenty names were on that page, alphabetical by last name. I scanned the list out of curiosity, which was probably some kind of violation of privacy rights; I did not see any familiar names, but I did notice only one other person registered with the same political party as me. Typical for Jeromeville.
“Here you go,” the volunteer said, handing me a ballot and directing me to an empty booth. The voting booth felt flimsy, made of metal poles holding a plastic table with curtains around it so that others could not see my vote. I had my sample ballot marked already, so I just had to carefully mark the actual ballot the same way. This only took about two minutes.
This was a long ballot, with many other elections on it besides the President of the United States. I also voted for a member of the United States House of Representatives, state legislators, city council members, a county supervisor, and a number of ballot initiatives. My state allowed ballot initiatives to be proposed either by the Legislature or by citizens signing petitions. In each case, the proposal was brought to the people for a direct vote, bypassing the usual legislative process. This process had grown to become a complete mess by the 1990s, with dozens of initiatives to vote on each year, many of them poorly written laws with unintended consequences.
A long list of twelve people were running for three open seats on the Jeromeville City Council. I had looked carefully over the campaign materials and chosen three candidates who seemed the most normal and least objectionable of the twelve. I filled in their bubbles, hoping that they would bring some sense to this quirky city.
Two initiatives this year were getting a large amount of attention. One of them, Initiative 119, would eliminate affirmative action in government employment and public education, prohibiting positions to be granted based on race and sex. I believed in treating people equally; applicants to a university, or for a job, should be considered based on their merit and qualifications, not on characteristics like race and sex. It blew my mind that so many considered those of us who wanted to treat everyone equally as the real racists and sexists. Treating people equally is the opposite of racism and sexism. Recently, I walked past a bit of graffiti on campus that read “INITIATIVE 119 = GENOCIDE.” The artist probably thought that this message was helpful to persons of color, but to me it just seemed sad to see persons of color as so lowly that taking away special treatment for them would result in their extinction. I voted yes on Initiative 119.
The other initiative in the news that year, Initiative 124, proposed to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. Federal law in the United States still prohibited marijuana use for any reason, so this law would conflict with federal law and probably just result in a long court battle. I had been hearing decades of Just Say No messages in school and during commercials of children’s TV shows telling me why drugs were bad, and it seemed hypocritical to turn around and legalize marijuana, even if just for medicinal use. I voted no on Initiative 124.
When I finished voting, I walked back to my apartment, confident that I had made a difference in the world. No one liked President Clinton. His party had suffered historic losses in the Senate and House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm elections, and he was on the way to becoming another mediocre one-term president. And I was a part of history for voting for our next President, Bob Dole.
No one else was in the living room when I got home. I turned on the television to hear official election results. On the screen was a map of the fifty states, with some of them colored in, indicating that polls had already closed with enough votes counted to project a likely winner. “As we see,” the announcer said, “President Clinton has won reelection. Polls are still open in some states in the West, but returns in the rest of the country show that the President will win enough of the electoral vote.”
All that for nothing, I thought. My vote did not end up counting after all. Apparently enough people were convinced that Bill Clinton’s ideas for the country were actually good, somehow. It was a pretty impressive turnaround for a President who had been so unpopular just a couple years ago, but my first vote for President still felt like a wasted opportunity.
As if reading my mind, the other reporter on the television said, “But if the polls are still open in your state, still, get out and vote. There are lots of state and local races yet to be decided, as well as important ballot initiatives in some states.” That reporter was correct. Just because the election for President was not close and had already been decided, I voted for many other things that day.
Initiative 119 passed. As I expected, the media and left-wing activists, of which there were many in a town like Jeromeville, howled about how racism was alive and well in the United States. These people defined racism very differently from me. Initiative 124 also passed; I found that surprising. I spent so many years learning that drugs were bad, and here were the majority of voters in my state wanting more drugs. Of course, they were not forcing their drugs on me; I could, and did, still choose to stay away from drugs. I just did not like the message it sent.
The three candidates I voted for in the City Council election finished eighth, ninth, and eleventh. I was not exactly surprised, but I was a bit disappointed to find out just how far out of step I was with other voters in Jeromeville. This would become a recurring theme in local elections in Jeromeville for all the time I lived there. But, as I said, there is more to life than politics, and despite having views out of touch with the City Council and many of the locals, Jeromeville was growing on me.
In the United States, voters do not vote directly for President. Each state is assigned a certain number of electoral votes, based on the total number of Senators and Representatives from that state, and typically states assign their electoral votes to the candidate with the most votes in that state. This system, and the formula for assigning the number of electoral votes to each state, grew out of one of the many compromises made between small and large states in the writing of the Constitution. The original states of the United States had very different cultures and populations, and while the Constitution is not perfect, I believe it to be the best possible compromise to balance the needs of the different states that would be part of the new government. This nation has been responsible for some horrible things in the past, but as times change, we can look to the ideals of our founding and apply them to new situations.
I have voted in every single election since that year that Bob Dole lost. It is important to exercise one’s right to vote; but it is also important to learn about the issues, the candidate’s positions, and how government works in the first place. I have seen too many incompetent candidates get elected, and poorly written ballot initiatives pass into law, because people will vote for anything that sounds good. These days, both political parties seem to be running incompetent candidates from the extreme wings of their parties, resulting in extremely close elections and extremely controversial figures being elected to office. For many, sadly, the kind of compromise that founded this nation, balancing the needs of multiple populations, is seen as a weakness. I hope and pray that the United States can rediscover the ideals of our founding and find enough compromise and common ground to truly become united again.