I was at college in November, 2008– in the middle of my junior year. Being there made it difficult to do any sort of research on the candidates, because we didn’t have good access to news sources— there were no newspapers available anywhere on campus, there was only one television in my dorm and we could only watch Fox News from 7 to 8, and we also didn’t have open access to the internet. The college very deliberately locked down any sort of liberal media outlet of any kind, and I’d already learned to ignore the political opinions of Fox News– or any of the other conservative media outlets the school let us access.
The only thing I really heard about the political campaigns in pop culture was something about Sarah Palin and Russia– I never heard the full “I can see Russia from my house!” parody, and it took me a few years before I found out exactly what she had said that caused all of the hubub. The only thing that happened was that it was rare for a girl on campus not to have a Sarah Palin pin on her canvas messenger bag.
But, I managed to do my own research. I sat in Barnes & Noble and read Rolling Stone and Time and Newsweek and The New York Times and tried to get a balanced perspective on who Barack Obama and John McCain were, and what they would try to do as President– for realsies, not what they promised they’d do.
My absentee ballot arrived in the mail just in the nick of time for me to send it back before the deadline. I had my stamp book in my own canvas-and-faux-suede messenger bag, and I just wanted to turn around immediately and put it back in outgoing mail without ever leaving the campus post office.
So, I sat down at a table in the student commons, checked off everything in the local and state-level boxes, and left the President of the United States for last.
When it came time to decide who I wanted to vote for President, I hesitated.
I sat there, staring at all of the possible choices. Obama, McCain, Baldwin, Nader, Barr . . . I’d already decided I disliked the Constitution Party, and at the time, the Libertarian Party represented too much anarchy, and running “Independent” just seemed like a ploy to me.
I stared at the oval next to each of their names, my pen floating above the paper.
I was torn– it was like my brain was trying to rip itself to pieces.
In late November of 1996, I sat in abrupt surprise at my best friend’s sudden admission. We were getting ready for the hay ride out at The Farm, owned by one of the church members. I had been raving about how amazing it was to be out here, and how incredible the family was for offering to let us all come out here, and how incredible Aunt May’s chili was going to be.
“Well, I don’t know how amazing they are. They voted for Clinton.”
Initially, my first thought was how does this have anything to do with hay rides and chili?
My second thought was wait, how come they voted for someone who cheated on his wife? And isn’t Clinton a Democrat?
I had just turned ten years old, and I was already aware that, somehow, being a Christian meant voting Republican. Being a Republican would become a badge of pride for me in the next twelve years. I was staunchly pro-life, against gun-control, limited government . . . the whole bit. I knew that the Democrats were Evil and Wanted to Destroy Christianity and Oh How We were Being Persecuted by Those Liberals. I went to Republican political rallies, wrote letters, idolized Republican politicians, and took anything Fox News said as gold. I demonized those liberal newspapers like the Wall Street Journal.
But, in 2008, as I could feel my insides churning, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what I wanted to do.
McCain terrified me. Everything he’d built his campaign around horrified me. I was positive that if he became president, he would do something insane, something more damaging to my freedoms than the Patriot Act.
But . . . Obama was a Democrat. And there was a part of me so convinced that I’d never forgive myself if I voted for a Democrat. That I’d be responsible for ruining my country, or bringing judgment down on it.
As I sat there in that hideously uncomfortable metal chair, I could feel the seconds hammering away at me. Time slowed, sound faded, and the only thing I could see was that ballot and those two monumentally tiny ovals. I didn’t feel prepared for this. For a while, I considered putting it in the envelope without making a decision, or writing in Mickey Mouse, or maybe Jean Luc Picard. In that space, everything anyone had ever said about “my vote doesn’t matter” felt true. I didn’t want to vote for the “lesser of two evils”– I wanted to vote in something I believed in.
Slowly, I began filling in one of the ovals, trying hard to ignore the feeling that I was betraying a core part of me– that I was turning my back on who I was, and who I expected myself to be.
After I’d finally made the decision, I couldn’t get the ballot away from me fast enough. I stuffed it inside the envelope and practically ran to the outgoing mail slot and slid it in. For the rest of the day I tried to forget about it– a few weeks later, when people asked me who I’d voted for, I lied and told them I hadn’t gotten my ballot in time.
Two years later, in grad school, and when I was over at a friend’s playing Parcheesi, we stared talking about politics, and who we’d voted for the in the last election came up. The room was pretty split between Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Libertarians. And no argument erupted, no one blamed anyone else for being responsible for some horrible atrocity befalling this country. Someone very naturally, and non-invasively, asked who I’d voted for, and for the first time, I was honest. She even asked me why, genuinely curious, and surprised, because it’s not what she’d expected to hear.
When I began dating Handsome, one of the things we knew we eventually needed to talk about was politics– how important politics was to us (important, but not overly so), if having the same political beliefs was important (it’s not), and how we’d gotten to where we were politically. For him, growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, politics was a much different conversation than it was for me, who’d grown up in Literally the Most Republican County in Florida (not a joke. 80% of the population is Republican).
Part of that conversation was asking me who I voted for. I hesitated, even already knowing what his answer was, already knowing he wasn’t going to judge me for it. I sat across from him on my living room floor, next to the remains of an upside-down-red-bell-pepper spiced pound cake, and decided I was going to tell him.
“I voted for Obama.”
His reaction astounded me– he threw his arms around me and pulled me into his chest, where he held me close and tight. He kissed the top of my head and thanked me.
“What in the world are you thanking me for?”
“Because you were honest. Because you decided to break with what you’d been raised in. Because you are brave.”
At the time, his reaction amused me somewhat. It was just a single vote for a president– it’s not like it’s a really big deal. Since, then, though, I’ve thought about these moments– initially doing something I’d been taught was radical to the point of being dangerous, and then having the audacity to tell people what I’d done… and it is a really big deal. Our political identities are a part of who we are– what we believe about the role of government affects our lives in huge ways. A single vote may not be much in the way of statistics– but it matters, because it’s a part of who we are.
Voting for Obama changed my life, and not because of what Obama would go on to do. And it wasn’t even really that I’d dared to vote for a Democrat, although that was part of it. I’d decided to vote for Obama because of what I’d decided I thought was important– our military, medical industry reforms, and education. Whether or not he actually went on to do any of those things the way I wanted him to, to me, became irrelevant. I’d voted for something besides the ideologies I’d been taught were the all-consuming elements of our political process.
I’d voted for the hope I had that things could get better.
I’d voted for the possibility of changing things things that mattered to me, and not what I’d been taught should matter to a “Christian.”