I voted today. I leisurely completed my ballot at home while researching nagging questions online about referendum items and checking out judicial performance ratings at coloradojudicialperformance.gov. Then I drove to the Denver Police Station on South University, deposited my envelope in the drive-up ballot box and rewarded myself with brunch at The Universal.
I like voting this way. It’s easy, convenient and stress-free. But I still vote in person every four years in presidential elections. I do it because I enjoy watching everyone who’s standing in line with me. It’s usually a diverse group — young and old, racially mixed, students and professionals, privileged and poor. We rarely speak to each other and aren’t likely to hang out together anytime soon. But what we all have in common is the willingness to stand and wait anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours to exercise our right to vote. I’m always impressed by that.
It may surprise you, then, that my most memorable voting experience didn’t take place on Election Day. It happened at a Democratic state convention on May 21, 1988. We were there to choose between Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson to be the party’s presidential nominee. Dukakis had long been considered a shoe-in for the nomination. In Colorado, he had received key endorsements from Gov. Roy Romer and Democratic Party Chairman Buie Seawell. But in the final months leading up to state primaries and caucuses, Jesse Jackson’s campaign had gained considerable momentum. For the first time in American history, an African American male had a fighting chance to be the nominee of a major political party for President of the United States.
Colorado voters were not yet on the national radar, so it was indicative of how close the race had become that both Dukakis and Jackson rigorously campaigned in the state in the days leading up to the April 4 Democratic caucuses. Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times reported that while there had been no official polling of caucus voters, “internal campaign telephoning suggests the race between Dukakis and Jackson remains close, with a large number of undecided voters” (“Colorado Important Democratic Battleground,”, April 4, 1988).
Dukakis won the Colorado Democratic caucuses with initial results giving him 45.09% of the vote versus 34.57% for Jackson. The remaining votes were split between Al Gore and Paul Simon or were uncommitted. In Colorado, caucus voting results are a major factor in determining delegate breakdowns for the state conventions, where final voting for party presidential nominees takes place (barring an upset at the national conventions, which rarely happens). So the Democratic state convention vote was basically going to be just a formality after the caucuses, meaning Dukakis would carry Colorado. (The final Colorado delegate breakdown for the national convention was 61.82% for Dukakis and 29.09% for Jackson, with 9.09% still uncommitted.)
I attended the 1988 Democratic state convention as a Jackson delegate. It was a typical convention filled with lots of political speeches and no doubt some behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing by Jackson supporters who still held out hope they could change the final result by convincing some Dukakis delegates to defect. (They weren’t successful.)
When the voting finally began, I started walking down the hallway to be one of the first to cast my vote for Jesse Jackson. I was thinking mostly of myself, feeling proud to be a white southern liberal voting for an African American to be the Democratic nominee. I was pretty oblivious to my surroundings until there was a quick and noticeable change in the air. It was the kind of feeling you get when someone important walks into a room and everyone gets nervous and excited, but you can’t yet see who it is. I looked up and saw that I was surrounded by a group of African American men and women ranging in age from about 60 to 90 years old. The looks on their faces caused me to slow down and move over to the side to let them pass. Then I sat on a nearby window sill and watched as they walked to the voting tables.
That was when I realized our state convention vote wasn’t just a formality. I was watching a group of people who likely believed they would never live long enough to see one of their own be a viable candidate for the presidency, and with good reason. Although African American men were granted the right to vote in 1869 and women got the vote in 1920, by 1940, only 3% of African Americans in the South were registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act banning racial voting barriers wasn’t passed until 1965, only 23 years prior.
This group’s grandparents may have been slaves. They had lived with their parents through quasi-slavery, mass lynchings, poll taxes and Jim Crow anti-voting violence. They had probably marched against racial discrimination and police violence, and were no doubt proud of the political progress that had been made. But the presidency? Hardly anyone believed at the time that it was within their grasp.
I could see the pride and determination on their faces as they waited in line to vote. They knew Jesse Jackson wasn’t going to be the next president. He wasn’t even going to be the Democratic nominee. And it didn’t matter. What mattered was that after all they and their parents and grandparents had been through, they had won a major victory. Their votes for Jesse Jackson were solemn affirmations of something they no longer just hoped but knew was going to happen. And 20 years later, it did.
I waited until almost everyone had cast their votes before I walked up and added mine. I have a fairly strong ego and humility isn’t my strong suit, but this was one of the proudest and most humbling experiences of my life. It was also a major turning point in American political history, and I am grateful just to have been there to witness it.
There have certainly been times when I’ve thought it was futile to vote. I didn’t like the choices or I felt like there was really no choice at all, especially when it came to candidates for national office who so often seemed to end up as cogs in a political machine that serves only the wealthy.
Maybe being a southerner has something to do with how much I value voting. I’m more aware than most of the extreme tactics some groups have used to keep people away from the polls. First it was violence, literacy tests and poll taxes; now it’s confusing voter ID laws, last-minute polling site changes and limited voting hours. But above all else, the most successful tactic has been to convince people that their vote doesn’t count, that it won’t make a difference. So there’s really no reason to vote at all. Why bother?
I never fell for that crap. I figured out pretty quickly that if my vote meant nothing, Republicans wouldn’t be spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars making it harder for me to cast it. There could be only one reason. They are afraid of what I might do with it. And well they should be.
Jassa Skott ~ 10/26/15