AD Main Menu

Citizenship and voting must be ingrained from family tradition

Michael Carey

Turnout in the primary election was less than 25 percent. There are several obvious reasons why Alaskans didn't show up. There was neither a gubernatorial nor Senate race on the ballot. Many primary races were uncontested. Numerous incumbents were prohibitive favorites.

Learned tomes and scholarly papers have been written on why Americans don't vote. Their authors usually focus on alienation or indifference to the political process, the impediments created by state and local government (polling places far from where voters live, for example), the non-voter's rational calculation that there's a better way to spend his time, the transitoriness common to American life, and religious-philosophical objections to the state, political authority, and the act of voting.

On election day, I decided to focus on those who do vote, not those who don't.

How are voters different than their non-voting neighbors? Why do they go to the polls when those around them stay home?

In the bright sunshine of a spectacular late-August morning, I walked from my house in City View to Precinct No. 2 in House District 17 -- the Boys and Girls Club in North Mountain View. This precinct has historically had a turnout of less than 10 percent in primaries, among the lowest of any precinct in the state. Still, I hoped to meet some voters.

When I arrived at 8:45 a.m., five people had voted. When I departed an hour later, nine people had voted. The four who voted while I was there cast their ballots while I took two cellphone calls. In an hour, I never spoke to a single voter. When the polls closed in the evening, the turnout was 9.16 percent -- fewer than 175 people.

You don't need a political science degree to recognize the absurdity of my premise: Mr. Smart Guy went to a precinct where people don't vote to ask people why they vote.

If there is an explanation of why people vote, it must begin with this: Voting is learned behavior. Those who vote are not only taught how to vote but why voting matters.

Citizens are not born, they are made. And it is ridiculous to expect people who are residents of a community but unwilling or unable to assume the responsibilities of citizenship to wake up election day and shout "I'm gonna vote!"

I am in Mountain View from time to time, and before the primary, I sat on the No. 45 bus out of Mountain View next to a young woman with two small children. She was talking to her mother on a cellphone, explaining what she had to do that day. (1) Go to the court house for a domestic violence hearing involving her boy friend ; (2) Visit her husband in jail; (3) Appear at a state welfare office to fill out some papers. A woman playing this hand is rarely a voter. She has too many burdens to add the burden of citizenship. This is not to romp on the downtrodden -- it's to point out when you have a hard life, the hard life takes up most of your day.

I suspect voters learn to vote from parents who either talk to them about voting or serve as example. Some parents have their children accompany them to the polling place and bring them into the voting booth. Others -- and I have seen this -- are politically active and have their children dropping campaign fliers on doorsteps from the time the kids are old enough to walk a neighborhood without heavy supervision. When the kids I knew turned 18, their mother told them "You don't vote today, you don't get any dinner."

These children don't grow up to become the man a friend of mine met while going door-to-door for a candidate. The man stopped my friend to ask him what he was doing. The friend replied "There's an election going on." "An election?" "Yep, happens in the even-numbered years." The man looked totally perplexed while muttering "Even-numbered years, even-numbered years...," as if he were listening to distant music and struggling to recall the name of the song.

There are people right now with fatal illnesses determined to live long enough to vote in the presidential election. Someone taught them the importance of even-numbered years, and although they may die in an even-numbered year, they will cast their ballot one last time because, in sickness and in health, they are voters.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at