I must confess. I knowingly once committed voter fraud.
And my co-conspirator was the lunch lady.
In June of 1976 I was 17 years old and had just graduated from high school in a small town in Central Ohio. On primary day, June 8, I looked forward to exercising my right to vote for the first time. Although at 17 I was not yet voting age, anyone who would turn 18 by Election Day in November was eligible to vote in the presidential primary. The rest of the ballot was off limits. To vote for anything else was strictly illegal.
For a 17 year old, I was reasonably politically aware. The presidential race that year was the first post-Watergate, and President Gerald Ford was facing a strong challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Yet much to the consternation of my father and most other relatives, I considered myself a Democrat, a rarity in our community, and had followed the Democratic primary closely.
No fewer than fifteen Democratic candidates vied for the nomination that year, ranging from the eventual winner, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, to California Governor Jerry Brown, a half a dozen Senators including West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, Indiana’s Birch Bayh, Henry Jackson of Washington, Frank Church of Iowa, Texan Lloyd Bentsen and Oklahoma’s Fred Harris, plus former ambassador and Kennedy crony Sargent Shriver, Utah Representative Mo Udall and Alabama Governor and noted segregationist George Wallace.
I considered myself a Harris supporter, intrigued by his call for “economic democracy,” his early opposition to the Vietnam War and his populist approach – he stayed in voter’s homes during his campaign. But in a primary season that began in January, Carter surprised by taking command early. Harris dropped out in March and many others soon after. By June 8, the last date of the primary season, Carter’s nomination was a foregone conclusion.
Still, I was determined to exercise my right to vote. By then, I liked Jerry Brown, but he’d been a late entry and wasn’t on the ballot in Ohio. I grudgingly decided to back Mo Udall.
On the day of the primary I dutifully drove to the polls in the township building at my old elementary school, a small rural school that catered to farm families and where the fall harvest was a legitimate excuse to miss class. Everyone knew each other, and I remember that when I walked into the polls that day, the first face I saw was that of matronly Mrs. Huggett. She came from a farming family and was a local institution. She was everybody’s grandmother, the smiling “lunch lady” at our school, responsible for doling out the tater tots, pizza burgers, canned peas and morning milk.
She greeted me warmly. “Hi Gary, let me check you in. Nice to see you back from school.” The other women and men working the poll smiled their What-a-nice-young man smiles.
Gary? I was Glenn. Gary was my brother, older than me by four years and who I vaguely resembled. I think he’d just finished college in Minnesota and was celebrating by hitch-hiking all over Europe.
Before I had a chance to respond, she crossed Gary’s name off the rolls and steered me toward a bank of voting machines that contained the full ballot rather than the single machine reserved for 17 year olds.
I said nothing. Who was I to question Mrs. Huggett, who had fed me every school day for six long years?
The automatic Rockwell voting machine was a self-contained steel contraption on wheels with a built-in curtain that closed when you entered. Before me were lists of names, separated by office, each with a tiny black lever that registered the vote.
I was thrilled. Maybe now I’d get to vote against our local congressman, the one with a name right out of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” That was Chalmers Pangburn Wylie (pictured above), a longtime, ultra-conservative, do-nothing rubber stamp of a Republican. His lone moment in the national spotlight would come a decade later when he attached an amendment to a bill that cut funding for the Library of Congress in the precise amount the Library spent producing the braille version of Playboy. True story.
Alas, he wasn’t on the ballot. I then realized that, this being a primary, I was only allowed to vote for candidate of a single party. I dutifully pulled the lever that activated the Democratic slate.
There wasn’t much to choose from. As far as I can determine the only primaries other than that for presidency was for the U.S. Senate and the state supreme court.
Still, the my lot was cast and there was no turning back. After some hesitation and a sentimental moment considering whether to write in either Fred Harris or Jerry Brown, I skipped over Carter and Jackson and Church and George Wallace and pulled the lever, first for Udall and then for the slate of delegates and alternates that supported him. Then I committed, that’s right, voter fraud, pulling the lever for Howard Metzenbaum for U.S. Senate, and some name for each of two openings for the state Supreme Court.
Barely a minute after in entered the booth, I pulled back the curtain. My co-conspirator, Mrs. Huggett, waved a cheerful goodbye.
Fortunately, the statute of limitations for my offense has long since expired and democracy survived my moral transgression.
Still, I apologize. Especially to Mrs. Huggett.