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My Time by Abigail Trafford

Voting in a Vacuum

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 9, 2004; Page HE04

Every election I walk down to the elementary school at end of the street to cast my vote. Not that my vote counts for much. As a District resident, I am a wallflower in the dance of national politics. Still, I vote.

Mid-morning, it's not too crowded. This is the time for the elderly, the retired, the unemployed and the self-employed to come to the polls. A row of chairs has been set up on the grass for those who can't stand in line. Mostly it's older women who wait in the chairs; there are so many older women who live in apartment houses along Connecticut Avenue.

The election officials help people along, checking the name, handing out the ballot. Most of them are older women, too, with gray hair and easy smiles. How could an election take place without these older Americans? The average age of a U.S. poll worker is 72.

Elections are a priority for older Americans. The older you are, the more likely you are to vote. People over 65 register and vote in higher percentages than any other age group. Nearly 70 percent of men and women 65 to 74 vote in national elections. In contrast, less than a third of 18-to-24-year-olds go to the polls.

The atmosphere at the school is relaxed, quiet and orderly. No poll challengers are standing by. What's to challenge? Truth is that it doesn't really matter much whom I vote for. The District always votes Democratic in the presidential election, reliably delivering three electoral votes. And we have hardly any say in congressional races.

Washington is a campaign wasteland. The candidates wouldn't stump for votes in the District even though they both live here. Politicians running for national office try to distance themselves from the nation's capital to win votes -- even though, if elected, they will come here to govern.

They will eat in our restaurants, send their children to our schools, go to our emergency rooms and tie up our traffic. They even brag about our museums, calling them national treasures. Where do they think people who work at the National Gallery of Art actually live and vote?

The District voter is the unknown soldier of democracy -- faceless, nameless, invisible and irrelevant to party strategists. Yet we are the loyal lemmings in presidential elections and head for the polls.

The man standing behind me in the line is a physician. He wears a gray T-shirt with the words: "Gramps -- U Da Man!" He retired six months ago. He tells me he has a plan to revolutionize health care. He has the time, now, to think about these things. I tell him I have a plan to revolutionize the culture of aging. We talk about what needs to be done to build a better future. We talk about our grandchildren. He's been voting in the District for 20 years. More than 30 years for me, I tell him.

We are the veterans in this parade. Never mind that we never made a difference in a national election. And as we stand in the warm sun of this Indian summer day, we know our vote won't matter much this time, either.

An election official brings a ballot to a white-haired woman in a wheelchair. An older man slips on the steps and is helped up. A friend comes out with her "I voted" sticker, and rolls her eyes: "Yea, I voted!" Not that it will influence the course of history.

We inch down the line. A young woman in jeans pulls out her cell phone, which prompts an intergenerational discussion. The physician asks her how many minutes she uses a month. She smiles -- more than a thousand, she replies; she doesn't have a phone at home. The physician smiles. Aha, this new generation of young voters with cell phones that we keep hearing about in the battleground states.

She calls her boyfriend. "I'm standing in line to vote," she says. "Get your butt over here. It's your civic duty."

"Yes," all of us in the line around her cry out. "Get your butt over here!"

"See -- everyone here says you have to vote," giggles the young woman.

That's the legacy the veteran District voter passes on to the next generation. Go to the polls and vote. Even though you know your vote won't matter very much on the national political scene.

Administrations come and go in Washington. Voting endures. The citizens of the District take the long view. We see these elected officials up close and personal. We understand it's the process that's precious. •

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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