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Rawlins Gilliland: Voter Apathy

A record number of Texans have registered to vote in the November election. But commentator Rawlins Gilliland wonders why some who could or should take part remain disengaged.

History has always seemed alive to me, connecting present-day events to yesteryear’s irony and drama.  This fascination began as a boy speaking with my Dad’s father, Sam Houston Gilliland, who was 90 years old the day I was born.  Meaning he was in grade school in 1861 when Abraham Lincoln became president and the Civil War began.  Granddad, who lived to 106, was orphaned at eight after his father was drafted into the Texas Confederacy and died of starvation in Arkansas.  As retold in Ric Burns’s epic PBS American Experience film, "Death and the Civil War," 700,000 men died.  That’s where we were and who we are.

Granddad proudly cast his first presidential vote in 1876 for Samuel Tilden who lost to Rutherford Hayes in the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote.  His favorite ballot, however, was for John F. Kennedy at 105 in 1960. Our generational plan, as I came of age, was to vote together to re-elect President Kennedy and honor his inauguration in 1965, the hallowed 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s tragic assassination.  Sadly, both Granddad and Kennedy were dead before that was possible.

Today, as we approach the 57th time our re-United States holds a presidential election, I see a bipolar attitude toward the entire political process.  While, nationwide, new voter identification laws are being challenged in the courts, many of those whose opportunity to vote is effortless are yawning in dismissive apathy; not merely regarding the candidates but to the act of voting itself in which an average one third to 40 percent of eligible voters don’t.  While some are merely too lazy to care, others express overall contempt for either major political party.

My paternal grandfather’s historic American childhood alone cannot explain why I question anyone who shrugs when we’re again at war in a presidential year.  I also spent pre-teen summers with my maternal grandmother who marched for women’s suffrage before World War I. I have black friends whose Jim Crow legacy was crafted to exclude them from civil equity.  I know neighbor immigrants whose children’s dream act is to vote as American citizens.

Hearing those who sneer that our system is skewed to the worthless poor or the ruthless rich, I wonder: How can we denigrate a nation whose tarnished flaws cannot dull its burnished virtue?  We lost thousands of enlisted lives before Iraqis held their first free election. Egypt, also among the world’s oldest civilizations, recently held its first.  The history of our country and theirs demonstrates; the right to vote cost lives.  

Discouraged by today’s unsocialized media messaging, I find unlikely comfort listening to my neighbor Marion who has rarely voted and, at 86, is slipping into early onset dementia.  Beaming like a joyous child she said: "Rawlins, I believe Misters Romney and Obama are good men who love this country.  So I registered to vote and I’ve made my decision.  I’m voting for both of them!"   Ah, at least at last: a civil-minded patriot’s bipartisan compromise.   

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.