Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–My First Vote

A voting machine like the one where I cast my first vote. Dsw4, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I write, over 75 million Americans have cast their vote in the upcoming elections. I plan to vote on Tuesday, November 3. It brings back memories of the first time I vote. Do you remember your first vote?

Mine was on November 7, 1972. Were it not for the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution in 1971, I would not have been able to vote until 1975. It was only the second year eighteen year-olds could vote and the first time eighteen year-olds could vote in a presidential election. The amendment read:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Twenty-sixth Amendment meant a great deal to our generation. Until the year I came up for the draft, you could be drafted and sent to Vietnam before you ever had a chance to vote for or against the people making those decisions. It seemed only just that those fighting the nation’s wars should be enfranchised to vote.

In 1972 Richard M. Nixon was running against George McGovern. After Kent State, Nixon began winding down the Vietnam war. That year’s draft lottery took place but no one was drafted. This was good news. My lottery number was 12. Nixon won in a landslide.

I don’t discuss how I vote and I won’t here. Both my wife and I grew up in families where we talked politics but believed in the privacy of the ballot box. We didn’t (and still don’t) think it is anyone’s business how we voted.

Earlier in the fall, I went down to the Board of Elections and filled out the form to vote. There were not a lot of different places where you could register to vote back then. It was the Board of Elections or nothing.

Washington School. Source unknown, reproduced from Old Ohio Schools

On voting day, I walked down the street to my former elementary school, Washington Elementary, to vote. I was a student at Youngstown State and came in after my classes. The entrance for voting was off of Oakwood Avenue in the school basement. Years before when I went to school there, I remember watching people go in to vote. Now I was one of them.

There was a bit of a community celebration when I walked in to vote. My mother was one of the poll workers in our Fourth Ward precinct. A few of the others were former customers on my paper route. It was a proud moment all around when I stepped up to sign the poll book and they matched my signature with the one on record. We didn’t have to provide identification back then. It felt like I had passed into adulthood. Our signature was our identification.

The voting machines were these big hulking gray monsters were you flipped levers beside the names of those you were voting for. When you were done, there was a big lever at waist level that you would pull which would register your vote and pull the curtains open. When you pulled that curtain, you knew that you had voted.

Since then I’ve voted numerous times in five different cities. In every presidential election. But also for local and state officials. For levies and ballot issues. It’s not a perfect system. But I’ve known people who either did not have a vote, or it was a formality in an authoritarian regime. I never forget what that first vote meant. In Youngstown.

What was it like for you to vote for the first time? Please, no comments about the current elections. Share your memories but not your political opinions.

How Then Shall I Vote?

Photo by Element5 Digital on

There are numerous discussions on how one should make decisions about for whom to vote. I approach this question as a Christian and the first thing I note is what an exceptional thing in Christian history it is to be able to vote for those who serve us in government. For much of history and even today in many parts of the world, Christians have no say over who leads their government and must figure out what Christian faithfulness looks like in these circumstances, sometimes under regimes openly hostile to Christians. The U.S. recognition of the right to vote for all our citizens (with certain exceptions) is a precious right that should be vigorously protected for all as a recognition of our common humanity in the image of God.

For many Christians, their primary criteria is where their candidate lines up on the issues. My difficulty is several-fold. One is which issues? My difficulty is that when I consider biblical teaching, I find no party whose platform conforms to biblical teaching across the board. Also, there are differences among Christians about how to achieve certain aims, or whether the aim of Christian political engagement is the conformity of a pluralistic country to biblical morality specific to followers of Christ. There are many issues, for example local issues, for which there may not be a clear biblical principle.

I would contend that the Bible prioritizes character and competence, that I might summarize in the phrase, “skillful shepherds.” Psalm 78:72 pays this tribute to David: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

First of all, the psalmist emphasizes the integrity of David’s heart. David wasn’t perfect, but when confronted with wrongdoing, he admitted his wrongdoing and the justice of God’s judgments. I grew up in Youngstown and saw the impact of a half century or more of political corruption, where political leaders would say they were serving the people when they were beholden to criminal elements and lining their own pockets. As a young voter, I saw how Richard Nixon betrayed the trust of the people in the Watergate cover-up, helping undermine confidence in those in public office.

Second, he describes his work as leading with skillful hands. I want to find not only a person of integrity, but one who has demonstrated skill in the requirements of the office to which that person aspires. I want to see that in their family life, their business affairs, or whatever prior office they have served in. Perhaps this reflects the experience of hiring people based not on their aspirations but on the basis of their deeds done. Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s skills in Team of Rivals in uniting and calling out the best from a cabinet made up of Lincoln’s political rivals.

Finally, David is described as a shepherd. Good shepherds do not drive sheep, they lead them, going ahead, interposing their own bodies between any threat and the sheep. In John 10, Jesus says that he knows sheep by name. Elsewhere, he says good shepherds care for all the sheep, going after the stray. A good shepherd does not have favorites or those they ignore. A good shepherd serves the sheep, not oneself.

One of the challenges of leadership is that one cannot know the future. No political leader in the world had a platform article or position on responding to a pandemic in 2019. The character and competence of leaders has played a significant role in the differences in outcomes in a virus that knew no distinctions of people, or state or national boundaries.

No political leader is perfect, nor are any of the rest of us for that matter. What I want to look at as best as I can determine is the basic trajectory of the person’s life up to now. Only then do I turn to issues, especially when the contest is between two people of integrity and skill, a choice to be wished for, but not always achieved. I also keep in mind the important but limited purpose of political leaders in God’s economy. At their best, they uphold justice and maintain order and pursue the flourishing of all our citizens, but they cannot bring in the new heaven and the new earth, nor can they effect the inner transformation of the gospel. They can create or abolish laws, establish programs, make policies and appoint judges. But so much of the fabric of society is sustained by how we “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” in our neighborhoods, businesses, and wider communities.

I neither think it is my place to tell you how I am voting, nor how you should (if you have not already!). But I know there are some of you, like me, who are conscientious about making these decisions and wrestle over the question of issues and campaign promises, and I hope my own discernment process is helpful. It is how I think about voting, whether for presidents or local officials. It is how I’ve made these decisions for much of my life. It’s how I will make these decisions this November. Stay well, friends.

[I have no time to respond to standard campaign slogans or tropes or gaslighting or trolls. I will just delete such comments. I’ve not advocated for or against any candidate. If you do, I will delete that. Serious questions and discussion are always welcome.]

Do Not Fear Poll Watchers

Voting Booths in Cleveland Heights” by Tim Evanson licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

During the presidential debate on September 29, the president called upon his supporters to show up at voting precincts as observers to make sure there is no fraud in the election.

In truth, there has been very little voting fraud in the United States. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative group, documents 1,298 proven cases of voter fraud in the United States over a twenty year period, or roughly 65 per year on average–for the country, or a little over one vote per year per state. The Brennan Center observes that one study showed only 31 cases of impersonation fraud out of one billion votes between 2000 and 2014. One Brennan Center study revealed only 30 instances of non-citizen voting out of 23.5 million votes in precincts with heavy immigrant populations.

One real concern about this call for observers is the intimidation of voters. Already, chanting supporters of the president showed up outside an early facility in Fairfax, Virginia. These people are not poll watchers and most states have regulations about how close to a polling place campaign supporters can demonstrate, and that they cannot impede voters from voting.

Poll watchers are permitted and regulated by law in each state. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a summary of the laws for each state. The full text of these laws for each state should be referenced because it includes information not in the summary. I also found one inaccuracy for Ohio–poll watchers must be registered to vote but do not need to be from the precinct they are observing. I will use Ohio’s law (Ohio Revised Code 3505.21) as an example. Here are some pertinent facts:

  • Poll watchers must be registered voters.
  • They must be appointed by their political party or a group of five candidates.
  • Only one person is permitted per precinct and may observe the casting and counting of ballots.
  • No candidate, no one in uniform (highway patrol, police, fire, military, militia, or any other uniformed person) may serve as a poll watcher.
  • No one carrying a firearm or other deadly weapon may be a poll watcher.
  • Appointments of observers must be received by local boards of elections at least eleven days before the election.
  • For those observing the counting of absentee ballots, observers must be appointed at least eleven days before the ballots are ready for use.
  • No one other than poll workers, election officials, representatives of the Secretary of State, police, and officially appointed observers may be present for the counting of votes.
  • They receive no compensation from public funds.
  • They swear the following oath: “You do solemnly swear that you will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties as an official observer, assigned by law; that you will not cause any delay to persons offering to vote; and that you will not disclose or communicate to any person how any elector has voted at such election.”

Each state’s laws are different. What should be noted at least about Ohio’s:

  • No one can just show up as a self-appointed observer. It is against the law! You must be appointed ahead of time meeting your state’s requirements. Voters not officially appointed may vote, but then they MUST leave.
  • There are a number of protections against voter intimidation or pressuring: only one per precinct, no uniforms (which can be intimidating), no guns or other weapons, no delaying of voters, and respecting the privacy of the ballot.

It is important that states, county boards of election and poll judges are all prepared to enforce the law for fair and free elections. States have declared that they are prepared for this whether you vote by absentee ballot, early voting, or on November 3 at your precinct.

The Democracy Project provides “how to vote” information for each state in both English and Spanish.

Some important things:

  • If you are not registered, register to vote by the registration deadline for your state. You can’t vote if you miss this deadline.
  • If you are voting absentee, request your ballot now, read the instructions carefully and follow them scrupulously, including the ID requirements to certify your identity. Mail this well ahead of election day.
  • If you vote in person, familiarize yourself with your local ballot. The League of Women Voters provides information for every part of the country of what is on your ballot. Also, make certain to be prepared to meet all the identification requirements for your state, follow all the instructions for properly voting and having your vote recorded. Poll workers are glad to help with questions.

Do not be afraid to vote by whatever means your state provides. Given the possibility of poll watchers, know the laws in your state, and if you see something out of order, or are in any way impeded in voting by someone other than an election official, report this to the precinct judge, and if not satisfied, your county board of elections.

Voting is one of the great rights of democracy, and one of the most solemn responsibilities of citizenship. Women and people of color had to fight for the right to vote. Some blacks died just trying to register. I was one of the first eighteen year-olds to vote. We fought for this right because in my day, we were old enough to die in military service, but not old enough to vote. A right not exercised may be taken away. We should not let poll observers or anyone else deter us from exercising these rights. I’ll be looking for lots of those “I Voted” stickers!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Voting


I voted on Thursday because I will be out of town during the Ohio primary election next Tuesday. I have nothing to say about who I voted for or what party I favor. One of the things both my wife and I grew up with was that these were private matters. Our parents thought the privacy of the ballot box was a good thing, and that it was nobody’s business but ours who we voted for. They certainly would not have gotten the social media frenzy of these days of endlessly talking about the candidates and criticizing each others’ views.

Voting took on a special meaning for those in our high school graduating class. In July of 1971, the twenty-sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving 18 year-olds the right to vote. Most of us in the Chaney High School Class of 1972 had birthdays in late 1971 or in 1972 and would be among the first 18 year-olds to vote under this new amendment. We had grown up in the Vietnam war era where you could be old enough to be drafted without being able to vote for or against those sending you to war. Getting the vote was not incidental to our lives.

Like this year, 1972 was a Presidential election year. I remember the seriousness with which we took this opportunity, not only in voting for a President, but also for the various other elective offices. We studied platforms, records, and the speeches people gave. I remember registering to vote at the Board of Elections, and voting for the first time at my precinct, in the basement of Washington Elementary School, just down the street from my house. Finally, instead of just learning about our government and what it means to be a citizenship, I got to exercise one of the fundamental rights of citizenship.

Our parents always took this seriously. Both my parents served as poll workers in their later years. Many of our families came from countries where there was no such thing as voting. At least in this country, you could have some say over those in positions of power. My impression back then was that high numbers of people in our neighborhood voted, either before or after shifts, or work hours.

I have to say that I find myself in sympathy with the high school seniors who will be 18 in the general election, who filed suit in Ohio to be able to vote in the presidential primary this next week, when told that they could not do so even though they could vote for other candidates and issues. It was encouraging to me to hear that they wanted to. And while writing this post, I learned that a judge has ruled against the Secretary of State, upholding these students right to vote. I’m glad for this example of the difference even a few who care can make. I remember what it meant for us to be able to make that difference in the voting booth. I hope many will exercise that right next Tuesday.

Without discussing politics, what were your memories of voting for the first time?

I Will Not Vote For Fear

By Elias Goldensky (1868-1943) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Elias Goldensky (1868-1943) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  -Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address

It seems we have come a long ways, and not for the better, from this inaugural address given by Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Depression. It was a time where fear was palpable as people wondered about how they would feed their families, where they would find work. Roosevelt realized something that we might consider for our day — nameless, unreasoning fear paralyzes.

There are times when fear is good — when we recognize real danger, like stopped traffic and take action like hitting the brakes. Nor does what I am saying mean we don’t reckon with real dangers that we may face as a nation and take appropriate action–and go on with our lives. But we often get this far out of proportion and focus on things that are more distant threats while ignoring common sense things in front of us. We fear Ebola outbreaks when more die every month of heart disease due to poor diet and exercise (roughly 50,000 per month) than all who died in last year’s epidemic in west Africa, bad as it was. That’s what nameless and unreasoning fear does.

It seems that the political rhetoric, as well as news media stories, foster a state of free-floating fear in the populace. Cancer, epidemic, terrorism, guns and those who use them, Wall Street, immigrants, gays, homophobes, health insurance, the “liberals”, the “conservatives” are all objects of fear. In politics, it seems the basic tactic is to focus on a fear, summons our worst nightmares about that fear, and argue that if you elect the other man or woman, that’s what you will get. Along the way, we demonize a whole group of people, because a few from their group have done something horrendous.

We’ve created a politics of gridlock and a politics that pits our citizenry against itself rather than summoning us to listen to each other, to work together to solve real problems like our national infrastructure, whether physical or digital, and the perennial challenge of how we will raise our children to be people of character who have the skills and industry to foster the common good. In Roosevelt’s words, it seems we choose retreat rather than advance. By protecting ourselves from what we fear, we may also wall ourselves off from opportunity.

What troubles me most is when I see people of faith succumb to the politics of fear. A friend of mine observed that often the very first thing God says in encounters with human beings is “be not afraid.” Many of the Psalms chronicle the spiritual journey of people from fear of their circumstances to faith in the God who cares not only for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, but also for the people made in God’s image. Somehow, living in a steady state of fear seems inconsistent with being a person who trusts in the care of God, and that the good, the true, and the beautiful will in the end endure.

Some time back I reviewed a book titled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear that explores the culture of fear we have increasingly surrounded ourselves with. One of the most moving chapters is one describing the response of the Taize’ community to the brutal murder of Brother Roger by a mentally deranged person in the midst of their worship. Most of us would install metal detectors and have armed security available. This community decided that this would be to give way to fear instead of remaining a community of welcome and shalom.

For these reasons, I’m putting our politicians, and the media wizards who surround them, on notice that I will not vote for those who try to win my vote through fear-mongering. We can do better than that. Life is inherently unsafe, and the only true safety, at least from my faith perspective, is in the God who holds me in life and death. I want those who will call us, not to fear, but to both courage and compassion as a people, who appeal to “the better angels of our nature”, of which Abraham Lincoln spoke in his first inaugural address.

Is that too much to ask?