Team Clemmons Volunteers Get Well-Deserved Nod in NY Times


New York Times, 10/18/14

By Ann Patchett

NASHVILLE — OF all the rights associated with adulthood — the ability to purchase alcohol, rent cars, have sex — the one I most looked forward to when I was a child was voting. Voting was your own business, a government-sanctioned secret. I was told that no one would ever ask me whom I voted for, and if for some reason of ignorance or terrible manners they did ask, I didn’t have to tell. The notion that I got to choose the person who ran the country (a minor misconception of how voting worked) without admitting that I was the one who had done it appealed to me greatly.

Say so long to secrets. Now we wear our voting intentions across our chests and on our bumpers. We assert our political selves in every aspect of social media. I know who everybody — my friends, my neighbors, my movie stars — is voting for. Life would be so much more peaceful if I didn’t. Eventually, what I considered to be a better part of my character was worn down by this barrage of self-expression. In 2008, I had a pin on my book bag that read, “My Mama Votes Obama,” thus outing both my mother and myself. Not that I needed the button; I drive a Prius.

If you feel it’s presumptuous to guess people’s voting record by looking at their cars, go straight to the irrefutable evidence and look in their yards. Where I live, the lawns bristle with campaign signs. People on corner lots often opt for oversize signs on wooden bases that must be delivered by flatbed truck, while those who live midblock content themselves with three or four identical signs so that you will not only know whom they’re voting for but also the strength of their convictions.

So convinced are some in the power of their message that they campaign not only to undecided voters, but also to undecided candidates. Perhaps they imagine Jeb Bush or Elizabeth Warren will walk down their street, see their own name in the shrubbery, and think, “Well, if it’s important enough for that person to put up a yard sign then maybe I should just go for it!”

Those signs remain through the seasons, pelted by sprinklers, baked by the sun, buried beneath leaves, encrusted in ice, until finally the boys from the prep school down the street jump up and down on them in the middle of the night after a football game. Trust me, I’ve seen it.

Tennessee has voted for Republican presidential candidates since Bill Clinton left office. Nashville, the state’s capital, leans slightly Democratic, not that it does anybody any good. Our next-door neighbor bucked this trend in 2008 with a profusion of Sarah Palin signs, the ones with the big smack of red lipstick. Our houses are close together, and our neighbor owns a foot of grass on our side of his driveway. We water that strip of grass and mow it and aerate the soil, but he owns it, which is why he could put one of those lipstick signs on it, making it look for all the world like his affection for Governor Palin was our affection for Governor Palin.

“We’re voting for McCain now?” my husband asked, after coming home from work.

Like the prep school boys, I waited until the middle of the night and then moved the sign to the other side of my neighbor’s driveway. There it stayed, never mentioned, while the neighbor and I continued to nod to each other politely on evening walks. I looked forward to the end of that particular political season for a million different reasons, but especially because I wanted never to have to look at those red lips again.

I don’t know who relies on yard signs to choose their president, but I will admit I sometimes rely on them for less consequential elections. Our recent primary for the 2014 midterm was such small potatoes I was feeling too lazy to bother voting. My neighbors, involved citizens every one, had signs declaring their intentions in State Senate races, State House races, the office of county clerk and a school board seat. I looked at the names in befuddlement. A barrage of robocalls came in from morning until night, and on the weekends the candidates themselves knocked on our doors.

FRANKLY the Democrats all sounded more or less alike. I was more interested in the Republican primary. Our two-term senior United States senator, Lamar Alexander, whose moderate nature I often admire, was being hounded by a Tea Party candidate. But because I am a registered Democrat, I would have had to request a separate ballot to vote for him. There was also a hot Republican primary race in the Fourth Congressional District (not mine). The incumbent, Scott DesJarlais, a physician who had vocally opposed abortion rights and same-sex marriage, was found to have supported his ex-wife’s two abortions and tried to pressure his mistress into having one as well. (He still ended up winning the primary with a margin of 38 votes out of nearly 70,000 cast.)

So I decided not to vote in the primary. I would show up for the midterm election in November; surely that would be enough. I tried not to think about the fact that I was giving up a privilege others had fought for — a privilege that black men didn’t have in this country until 1870, nor women until 1920, nor the very poor until the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax in 1964.

Thankfully, an article in the newspaper changed my mind. Three sitting State Supreme Court justices, appointed by Tennessee’s former Democratic governor, could be ousted in part as a result of an initiative funded by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. Just when I thought it was safe to nap through a little local primary election, I was reminded that enjoying democracy meant getting off the sofa.

After dinner, my husband and I walked the three blocks to our polling place at the fire station in a light summer rain. I knew how to vote for the justices, but the school board still stumped me. I will admit I was leaning heavily on my neighbors’ yard signs. Up and down the street, the signs were divided equally between Becky Sharpe and Mary Pierce. I had read the handouts each candidate left at our door and they both seemed like good choices.

Outside the fire station, three people holding signs stood the prescribed 500 feet from the door. Among them was our most politically active neighbor, with a sign for John Ray Clemmons, a candidate for state representative. I have enough civic passion to go and vote in the rain, but I doubt I’ll ever have enough civic passion to hold a sign outside a voting precinct in the rain. Another man also had a Clemmons sign, and beside him was a man with a sign that said Becky Sharpe. Since I so easily could have been swayed in one direction or the other where the school board was concerned, I decided to cast my vote for the woman who so nearly shared her name with Thackeray’s antihero in “Vanity Fair.” I believe that more important votes have been cast on less rationale than that.

The fire station was empty except for a few dedicated poll workers. They explained that the ballot was long and complicated and that we should take our time. Standing not too far from my husband, I went to work. There was one group of names that were completely unfamiliar me, and since there was no curtain between us, and no one else there voting, I asked him for help.

“No,” he whispered sharply. “Vote for yourself.” I realized then if we had gone to high school together he never would have let me cheat off his test.

I skipped that question, but I did O.K. on the rest. I voted to keep the justices, and the justices, I am pleased to report, remain in their jobs. I put my “I voted” sticker on my shirt and thanked the poll workers for their help. We would all be back for the November election. I experienced a familiar rush of good civic feeling.

Voting is like brickwork — the trick is to keep at it every election season, laying brick after brick. Not just the presidential elections. The midterms. The primaries. Because if you miss one, the whole thing starts to slide.

I said good night to my neighbor who was still standing outside in the drizzle. My husband stopped to ask the man with the Becky Sharpe sign if he actually knew Becky Sharpe, though I figured he must. No one would stand in the rain with a sign for a school board candidate unless he knew that person.

“She’s my wife,” the man said.

Becky Sharpe lost.