My child was in a car-seat carrier the first time he witnessed the inside of a voting booth.
It was April 24, 2012, and he was 8 months old. I had been back to work for two months since maternity leave, and everything seemed hard then: coordinating a morning nap with a morning train, and all the breastfeeding. I generally felt I was failing life.
On this day, though, I felt I was doing motherhood like a boss. I was introducing my child to a habit that would make him a contributing member of society. I was starting early. And I was making it a ritual we would do together. I think these are things that parenthood books would say were good.
After casting my ballot, I placed the “I voted today” sticker on his onesie.
Eventually, he could walk, and eventually, with instruction, he was able to push the names for me. (I do this with the ATM, too, so isn’t that teaching him good financial habits?)
His favorite part was always owning the final button – the red one that tallies your choices and signals, with a gratifying ding, that your vote is official.
My favorite part was being together behind the curtain. It signified something secret and important, but also held an experience that only we could share, absent anyone’s gaze. And then, when the secret was complete, we would reenter the world, hopefully having changed it a little.
Come 2016 Election Day, we already had watched the Pantsuit Flash Mob video a thousand times. We had tried to learn some of the dance moves. And we had dressed in white to do our duty – this time, historic.
On our three-block journey to the polls, he in his helmet and on his neon-green scooter, I told him women weren’t allowed to vote almost 100 years ago. He responded: “I don’t even believe that. I want to kill the person who made up that rule.”
I didn’t know how the day would pan out, but I do remember feeling smug that my 5-year-old son would probably only know a black president and a woman president. This was a worldview I wanted for him.
We know how that turned out.
These days, my 7-year-old and I have a new tradition. First thing out of bed, we run a few blocks together, with the eventual goal of running a small race. So Tuesday, we had planned to run to the polls. You can imagine how smug I felt about this, but he was uncharacteristically sleeping when I was ready to leave. I figured he needed to rest. I headed out feeling disappointed.
And then even more so, when I encountered Montgomery County’s new paper ballot system.
I was told to take my sheet behind the cardboard privacy walls and fill in the circles like an SAT test. Then, I was instructed to return to the tables and insert the form into the machine. In broad daylight. With no fanfare. After the machine reported I skipped some circles, and I approved it nonetheless, there was a flat button to push. No gratifying ding. It was as anticlimactic a vote as I’ve ever made.
“Is this new machine thing forever?” I asked one of the poll workers.
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“Forever, until forever ends,” she said.
An era was over. I knew that the next time my son came with me to vote, it would almost certainly lose its luster. Nothing would be done behind a curtain. There would be no lights or hefty buttons to push. We would fill out a form like the tests they make him take at school, a decidedly unthrilling affair.
How long before he would forget how he used to go with his mom to vote?
I grabbed my sticker and ran home.
Cathy Rubin is the deputy editor of news features at The Inquirer.