A coworker recently informed me that her 89-year old mother was going to vote for the very first time this November. Knowing that I dabble in election law, she asked for help with the new rules for the 2020 election. As we talked, she told her mother’s amazing story, and gave me permission to share. For privacy, I will use her mother’s nickname: Okaasan.
Okaasan is a Japanese-American immigrant who, in 1951, married an Alabama soldier stationed near her Okinawa home. After moving to the states, she became an American citizen in 1956. Okaasan has four kids, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Today, she lives in Las Vegas. One of her grandsons is a police officer with Las Vegas Metro.
By all accounts, Okaasan has lived an excellent life. She loves her country — the country her husband spent much of his life in uniform serving. And yet she has never voted. Not once. Not in any election. Not even when close, personal friends were running for office, or major issues she cared deeply about were on the ballot. Not for candidates she liked, or against candidates she didn’t.
Why did this otherwise model citizen not exercise citizenship’s most fundamental right? Was she too busy, too distracted or detached? Was she making a point or taking a stand? Did she take her vote for granted?
No. Voting was not beneath Okaasan; she believed it above her. She was unsure about her command of English, her level of education, and her knowledge of the issues and candidates. She felt unworthy of the obligation, and inclined to let those who were “better informed” decide. She was so intimidated at the thought of making a bad choice that she preferred no choice at all. Worst of all, she was too embarrassed to even ask questions, fearing it would expose her as someone not smart enough to vote in the first place.
My heart broke for Okaasan. Politics are everywhere. Imagine listening to a lifetime of political ads, rhetoric, and debates silently resigned to your own perceived unfitness to participate. But if anyone earned an electoral say, it was her.
As a child, Okaasan saw war up close. The Battle of Okinawa was one of World War II’s bloodiest Pacific conflicts. More than one-third of her fellow Okinawans died in the fighting. Okaasan’s husband fought in Vietnam and Korea. Her daughter and three of her grandsons all served their country too. On the homefront, Okaasan was raising her Japanese-American children less than a decade removed from America’s Japanese internment camps. Her lived experience more than qualified Okaasan to vote.
The easy lesson from Okaasan’s tale is that we must never shirk our responsibility to expand voting opportunities and outreach however and wherever we can. No one should be afraid to vote. But as tempting as it may be to simply self-flagellate ourselves for fostering certain de facto forms of voting self-suppression, there’s more to Okaasan’s broader message than rebuke. There is wisdom too.
Perhaps Okaasan actually understands, and always has, the real value of a vote in ways that many of us don’t. Maybe it is not only the non-voters who take voting for granted, but the every-time voters, too. The active participants, hardcore partisans, and political junkies like me.
As politics seep into every corner of our lives, does voting become less special? Depending on its use, even the priceless is banal. Take for instance the classic Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Who appreciated it more: Cameron’s dad who never drove it, or Ferris who stole it for his morning commute, then parked it and took in week’s worth of other adventures? Shoot, the rogue parking attendants had more real use for the Ferrari than Ferris did.
To be sure, elections are still the most important political questions we answer. But nowadays we make political choices all the time — in the God(s) we worship, the truth we accept, the places we live, the people we love, the friends we have, the jobs we take, the information we absorb, the entertainment we consume, the teams we root for, the products we buy, and even the food we eat. By the time we actually cast our ballots, is it a crowning democratic moment, or just the last few yards of a grueling partisan marathon we run every two years? Let’s be honest. If we could legally market our votes in America, what would disappoint us most: the number of sellers or the price they would fetch?
President Lyndon Johnson said that the “vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.” It is easy (and not entirely unfair) to cynically dismiss Johnson’s sentiment as the type of hyperbolic silliness one clings to when governing in poetry rather than prose. But President Johnson spoke the truth, too; one that Okaasan surmised all too well.
Democracy is not just something we practice in America; it is who we are. We literally declared our independence and formed our new nation on the idea that just governments derive their power from the “consent of the governed.” Founding parents and documents may have framed our house of government, but it stands on the foundation of our consent alone. If enough people desired it and were allowed to vote, there is nothing in this country—the Constitution included—we could not change completely. To mistake American history or law for America is to mistake the art for the artist. We are America.
Everything the government does or the law touches rests atop our combined consent. And the ballot box is the one real place we have to put our consent (or lack thereof) into action. Votes are more than points on a partisan scorecard; they are also a collective affirmation of our entire American experiment.
When we remember that heroes like the late Congressman John Lewis fought and died battling for voting rights, maybe Okaasan’s nearly overpowering awe of voting makes sense. It is sad that anyone like her felt scared or unworthy to vote. We need her voice, and every other eligible voter’s voice too. We still have work to do. But her story is, in part, also one to celebrate and absorb. Real blood purchased the right to vote in America. In her own way, Okaasan fully appreciated that fact. So should we.
Daniel H. Stewart is a fifth-generation Nevadan and a partner with Hutchison & Steffen. He was Gov. Brian Sandoval’s general counsel and has represented various GOP elected officials and groups. He recently switched his registration to nonpartisan.