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Civic duty

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The most powerful lesson I ever learned about voting came from a college classmate, one of several young women I shared a house with in Georgia during the summer of 1980.

A group of us recent graduates of Antioch College had moved to Atlanta to work on a radio documentary for a listener-supported station in the Five Points neighborhood. We were splitting the grant money and supplementing our meager income with restaurant work. Our days were a blur of cigarette smoke, countertop meals, late-night studio sessions and endless planning meetings where our documentary took shape on reams of butcher-block paper.

Ronald Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter for the presidency that year--a contest that struck us as verging on ridiculous (who would ever vote for that silly ex-governor of California?!). We understood that something was at stake that November, but it was hard to make out from our sleep-deprived, self-involved vantage point. We looked at the election as if from a far shore, where the rocks and shoals closest to us blocked a clear view of the wider horizon.

One night, we were sitting around the kitchen table talking about voting--or rather, why most of us would not be casting ballots that fall. (The only reason I was planning on doing so was because my mom, a longtime League of Women Voters member and good-government activist, had, as usual, sent me an absentee ballot carefully marked with the correct choices, and I was loathe to let her down.) There were plenty of high-minded opinions voiced about the shortcomings of the candidates and the electoral process. The bottom line: Voting was a waste of time for anyone who cared about real social change; it just wasn't cool.

When the boastful tumult had died down a bit, one of our quieter number finally spoke up from her seat at the table. Ginger was a dark-haired, blue-eyed poet who'd grown up in a migrant farmworker family in Florida. She didn't wear her passions as flamboyantly or share her views as quickly as the rest of us. With Ginger, taking a stand went deeper--it was about the way you lived, not just the way you talked.

"You know," she said, "if Ronald Reagan wins this election, some welfare mother somewhere is going to wake up the next month and find her check is slashed to pieces, or just isn't there anymore. You think voting doesn't make a difference. But it does if you're counting on that check to buy bread and milk."

Nobody had anything to say after that.

Ronald Reagan did win the presidency, and as it turns out, Ginger was right about everything. The 1980 election ushered in a new era of conservative advance and liberal retreat that continues to this day. And many a mother has suffered the consequences.

I don't know what became of Ginger, whether she published her poetry or went back to Florida or ended up as a soccer mom with social justice in her heart. But I do know that whenever election season rolls around and I hear people talk about not voting, I think about that evening in Atlanta and what Ginger taught us about privilege, about civic duty, and about making a difference.

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