The Children’s Ballot

The Children’s Ballot

By Jacob M. Appel


I vote in the same suburban elementary school building where my parents cast their ballots during my childhood. Every November, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday, I make my civic pilgrimage past the tiny plastic desks where I once studied phonics and long division, joining dozens of neighbors to wait my turn in the gymnasium where, not so long ago, I displayed my ineptitude at dodgeball. Now we all feed our picks into soundless laser scanners. During my childhood, the county still used mechanical voting booths. When my parents pulled the colossal red lever that rendered their preferences irrevocable, you could hear the magic of democracy in the whir and jangle of the retractable drape.

Election Day was serious business in my house. We voted early, as a family, rising with the dawn to ensure that we didn’t miss our opportunity. After all, the ensuing day might bring a toothache or a fender bender or countless other minor yet pressing distractions hell-bent on keeping us from the polls. Could we take such a chance, my father asked, when Poles and Hungarians risked their lives for such opportunities? Needless to say, I strove to make my six-year-old self worthy of all the little boys behind the Iron Curtain who could not accompany their parents into voting booths. Much as each adult was permitted one vote, precinct rules allowed each child to escort only one parent through the process. Invariably, whether through deceit or plea or willful criminality—on at least one occasion, I crawled beneath the drape—I managed to accompany both my mother and my father.

By the late 1970s, I recall my mother permitting me to pull the mystical lever. To my chagrin, she did not let me select among the candidates. I distinctly remember feeling indignation that the nation did not offer a children’s ballot akin to the children’s menus in restaurants.

My father, in those days, was a registered Republican. He admired Nelson Rockefeller, believed in “good government,” and embraced the twin values of tolerance and hard work. If anyone seemed suited to chase a man like my father out of the GOP, it was Ronald Reagan, whose conservative Presidential campaign in 1980 ultimately pushed him off the party’s yacht. Of course, that didn’t make the inept and unctuous Jimmy Carter any more appealing.  By the morning of the election, my father had determined to cast his vote for Congressman John Anderson of Illinois, a good-government-Rockefeller-Republican-turned-independent with zero prospect of occupying the Oval Office. I approved of his decision. I’d seen a photograph of Anderson on the cover of Time Magazine—in a tiny bubble, below larger photos of Carter and Reagan—and he struck me as somebody I’d like to have as an uncle.

And then pandemonium broke loose.

“Are you out of your mind?” demanded my mother. We were riding to the polling station in her ’72 Dodge Dart, a vehicle perpetually belching out leaded exhaust. I rode in the passenger seat, a rare treat. My mother breastfed my brother in back. “You do realize you’re throwing your vote away, don’t you?”

“I’m voting my conscience,” replied my father. “I like Anderson.” You’d have thought he’d confessed to liking Attila the Hun.

“You like Anderson? You’re going to vote for him because you like him? And what are you going to do when Reagan wins the election by one vote and blows up the world?

My father said nothing:  Arguing with my mother was like pouring words into a sieve.

“Well?” she demanded again. “Please don’t do this. You don’t want your children to get blown up, do you?”

We pulled into the school parking lot. Each of my parents held one of my hands as we crossed the asphalt and entered the gymnasium. The matter had still not been decided.

“If Reagan wins by one vote,” my mother warned, “I’ll swear I’ll never forgive you.”

Instead of speaking, my father pointed at a paper sign taped to a nearby post: No politicking beyond this point.

“That doesn’t apply to me,” snapped my mother. “I’m your wife.”

And so they stood in line, waiting to vote, my puny body between them, and the future of the free world hanging in the balance.

Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novel, The Biology of Luck, and a physician in New York City.  More at:

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When My Teen Needs a Ride

When My Teen Needs a Ride


My boy and Alisa, the new City Councilor

My boy (on far left) and Alisa, the new City Councilor 

Tuesday was Election Day. In our little city, voter turnout wasn’t high. It’s an off year—no races outside the municipal ones. The Mayor ran unopposed for his second term. There were, however, a couple of heated races for seats on the City Council. One was in our ward; another was across town. My fifteen-year-old cared about the latter more.

He is a political guy, a newspaper reader, conversant in current events—and a rabid fan of The West Wing (and Allison Janney). His extracurricular activities demonstrate this, like Model U.N. and Student Senate. He’s volunteered for campaigns and he’s raised money to save rainforests, starting in third grade. When he was in eighth grade, he asked me to take him—we went on foot—to an anti-death penalty vigil.

The city’s public schools were closed for Election Day, because the elementary and middle schools serve as polling places. My fifteen-year-old woke up, watched some television, ate some breakfast, took a bath—in other words, a lazy, cozy morning and then asked to go to the polls to help out. He needed a little help to push beyond the first email inquiry—and being a teenager, he needed a ride. I would like to be clear to anyone reading this with toddlers in the house: prepare yourself for the shuttling, endless shuttling, ahead. The small creatures you wrestle into clunky harnesses will sit next to you one day and demand to go places. Sometimes, the rides will be chatty and sweet and you’ll like the same music. Other times, adolescent sullenness will rub off on you. Sometimes, it’ll feel convenient or at least easy to give the ride; other times, driving duty will be taxing or completely inconvenient and you’ll wish you were elsewhere.

Personally, I am not a terribly eager driver. Long road trips feel more like injuries to be accrued than places to conquer. Achy neck or back or arm or hips bother me more than the reward of arrival at the other end or the music and the ribbon of road and adventure and the snacks along the way. My sense of direction is shockingly terrible. This past weekend I drove my little gal and her pal to a birthday party and took the wrong road in the suburban outskirts of our town. I’ve lived here decades and I couldn’t trust myself to get from the wrong road to the right one so I turned back and rerouted myself from the erroneous turn rather than risk becoming lost. It was pathetic and a tad bit embarrassing. While I have some fond memories of time spent in cars, and don’t mind the annual trek to the grandparents’ for Thanksgiving—Massachusetts to Philadelphia—or to camp, Massachusetts to Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, I do not seek out the open road.

And I don’t seek out the drive to school or even karate or yoyo class (true story, yoyo class), although, obviously, I dole those rides out like so much Halloween candy on the big night.

Election morning, the ride was not a hardship, merely an inconvenience. I lost ten minutes to the drive, maybe twelve from my workday. He wasn’t grumpy and neither was I. We spent some of the drive time discussing who would pick him up from the polls (short answer: not me). My feelings changed instantly when we got to the middle school-slash-polling place, where I left my tall boy with his grey sweatshirt and big green Alisa Klein button (and sign) beside the candidate to wave at voters and drivers and walkers and bikers. I felt proud of him.

Later that evening, I went to Zumba class. This particular Tuesday night class is taught by our housemate Mim, age twenty-five, and has recently become populated with loads of younger (than me) dancers, including some high school seniors. Immediately after class, I called home for election results (class ends at 8:15 PM). Alisa had won, unseating a conservative incumbent (cheer with me, feel free; it was super exciting). I told the teens—two didn’t know who Alisa Klein was, one cheered along with me and explained to her friends how fantastic and improbable (in that ward) the victory was and mentioned instantly how delighted their friend, an eleventh grader, who’d kept track of date for the campaign, must have felt.

The thing about rides and teens (and kids) is often they are the way to help your kids become involved—in politics, in the community, sure, or whatever else. I find it very difficult to remember that when I feel reduced to taxi service provider. Tuesday, it was awfully nice to be reminded of the fact that these rides aren’t given for naught. The fifteen-year-old, he’d grabbed a ride to the candidate’s victory party, as well.

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