My First Vote: On Social Responsibility,
Vampirism, and Voting at Age Eight

by Paul Martone

Voting machine lever

t was a cold yet pleasantly rainless night in December, and I was seated inside my classroom in Portland, Oregon, listening to a teenage student field difficult questions from an adult audience. Jake, a high school senior and talented writer, had finished reading an excerpt from his fall thesis, “The Evolution of the Vampire: From Blood Thirsty Fiend to Sparkly Sex Icon,” and after ten minutes of Q&A, someone in the audience asked if his analysis of Mormonism had anything to do with Mitt Romney and the 2012 Republican primary.

Jake shook his head, a bit flustered, and explained that Stephenie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series, is a Mormon. He hadn’t anticipated the political question, because it had nothing to do with his thesis.

I intervened: “Jake did conduct extensive database research,” I informed the audience, “to determine whether or not Mitt Romney is a vampire.”

Only after I spoke did I consider my surroundings. It was a Friday night, but I wasn’t at home with my wife and dog or at a dinner party with intimate friends. I was the Chair of the Humanities Department at Northwest Academy, and I was at work. My audience consisted of students, parents, alumni, and faculty. It was too late for regret: the pin had been pulled, the joke released.

What do we know about the politics of a teacher who makes such a joke? Is he a Democrat? A Liberal? Maybe he’s a Conservative, a supporter of candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, a voter for whom Romney doesn’t seem conservative enough.

Another possibility: the teacher supports Mitt Romney, but he appreciates small moments of levity. After all, one must admit—regardless of political identity and by virtue of the human imagination—if you stripped Mitt of his navy blue suit and silk tie, dressed him in a white satin shirt with a vest, medallion, black pants, lipstick, and a cape, he’d make a better Dracula than Bela Lugosi.  

Generally speaking, modern-day Democrats say promising, hopeful things about social equality, and Republicans embrace positions that appeal to devout Christians, libertarians, and CEOs. Mainstream politicians in both parties claim to represent the middle class, but how do we locate the middle in the twenty-first century when fewer people own property, fewer people possess health insurance and retirement benefits, and an unprecedented number of Americans are unemployed? At what point do we, as conscientious citizens, demand an effective political process?

he first time I voted in a presidential election was 1984. I was eight years old. It was that year that my grandfather taught me a valuable lesson about civic responsibility.

We lived in Albany, New York, and my grandfather didn’t own a car. He was seventy-three years old and hadn’t driven a motorized vehicle in nearly half a century.

He was a flâneur.

Flâneur: noun. “A person who walks the city in order to experience it.” – Charles Baudelaire.

If the city was a dark, expansive room to my childhood self, my grandfather was the grownup who stood beside me at the entrance and flipped on the light.

People in Albany loved my grandfather. Even at the age of eight, I understood this. His peripatetic lifestyle resulted in a slender figure and fine-tuned awareness that complemented his determined-to-be-calm approach to every situation. He was an actor who dreamed of pursuing his art professionally in Hollywood, but he was also the son of immigrants. He worked as a welder with American Locomotive, which made diesel engines for trains and tanks for the US Army. In his mid-thirties, he was hospitalized. The cause: severe depression. Upon his release, he completed a civil service test and received work as a public employee, the kind of position that’s no longer available to someone with a high school diploma, or even a college degree.

My grandfather was an unassuming man, but he was good-looking with dark hair and olive skin. He had a beguiling smile. As a grandfather, he condoned and occasionally instigated mischievous behavior.  

On November 6th, 1984, he took me with him to vote. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany provided polling places in many voting districts, including my grandfather’s. He knew the volunteers: fellow parishioners at St. Patrick’s Church, neighbors, and friends.

I’ll never forget what he said to the woman at the registration desk: “I want to show my grandson how democracy works.”

It was a good thing my grandmother wasn’t with us, because the woman’s face beamed. “Oh, Vince,” she said, as if she dreamed of being his sweetheart.

Holding my grandfather’s hand, I stepped inside the arcane and dusty voting booth. He closed the curtain and the outside world disappeared. “Who are we voting for?” he asked.

A registered Democrat, my grandfather liked Ronald Reagan. Reagan was once the Hollywood actor my grandfather had dreamed of becoming. The two men were the same age. Anthony Vincent Martone and Ronald Wilson Reagan were born within the same month of the same year.

My grandfather didn’t discuss politics publicly, though, and it was my father who shaped my ideas. Like any good son, I parroted my father’s viewpoints. At my grandparents’ apartment I shared freely every thought my father had of Ronald Reagan, as if his thoughts were my own. My grandfather scolded me: “That’s no way to talk about the President of the United States.” I had never seen him angry before.

Inside the election booth, after he asked me who we were voting for, I peered up at my grandfather with wide eyes, a swell of excitement billowing inside me: “Vote for Mondale,” I said.

He did. My grandfather cast my vote. Walter Mondale for President. Together, we voted for every Democrat on the ballot—just as I wished.

ducation: noun. An art in which the teacher cultivates the student’s ability to demonstrate his own knowledge and skill.

Sometimes I share my biases with my students, and last December I suggested that Mitt Romney resembles a vampire. Teachers are entertainers, yes, but not primarily. Ralph Emerson once wrote, “He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings and afloat.”

Like my grandfather, I am a flâneur. My perception of the political landscape changes as I stumble forward and absorb the cultural sights.

On November 6th, 1984, Ronald Reagan was re-elected President of the United States. His margin of victory was double-digit in some regions, but in New York the election was close. For my grandfather, it didn’t matter. In 1988 and 1992, he invited me to return to the polling center. By then I was too old to hold his hand, and worried we’d make a scene. A self-conscious adolescent, I declined his offer.

In 1997, my grandfather died. I was twenty-one and had voted independently a year earlier, at the same polling center where my grandfather cast my first vote in ’84. But it wasn’t until last December, listening to Jake defend his thesis, that I realized the radical effect of my grandfather’s action. He had transformed a mundane civic duty into an educational experience.

As Election Day approaches, I consider this memory. The act of voting is about more than determining who becomes the next president. It’s designed to distribute power equally among the masses. The burden falls upon us, as citizens—not the politicians, or the parties they represent—to ensure this actually happens. With this in mind, I brood over my options: Should I vote for the Democratic candidate, who might actually win, or a third party candidate who champions a growing number of disadvantaged Americans and demands systemic change?

As Romney gained momentum this fall, I felt less eager to support a third-party candidate. Barack Obama is our first African-American president, our most inspiring president, and arguably the best president in my lifetime. In 2008, Howard Zinn, the populist historian and social activist, supported Candidate Obama: “Yes, I will vote for Obama,” he wrote in The Progressive. “Because the corrupt political system offers me no choice, but only for the moment I pull down the lever in the voting booth . . . before and after that moment I want to use whatever energy I have to push him toward a recognition that he must defy the traditional thinkers and corporate interests surrounding him, and pay homage to the millions of Americans who want real change.” 

Howard Zinn died in 2010, but I wonder how he’d respond to the Obama administration’s domestic and foreign policies; I wonder if he’d vote for President Obama again.

The act of voting weighs heavy on my mind, because I agree with Zinn. The political system is indefensibly corrupt, and every American should demand that politicians “defy the traditional thinkers and corporate interests.” I intend to vote in the November 6th election, and I intend to participate in the discourse that follows, no matter who wins. Active participation results from my upbringing. In 1984, my grandfather didn’t throw away his vote. He utilized it, as a privilege, to engage a child.

Paul Martone is the Director of Late Night Library. His writing has appeared in The Saranac Review, The Fiddlehead, Water~Stone Review, The Stickman Review, and Reed Magazine (2010 John Steinbeck Award Finalist). Most recently, an excerpt from Martone’s novel-in-progress was selected as a finalist for Glimmer Train’s June short story award.