In praise of politically active older voters
Political season is heating up, both locally and nationally. As usual, older Americans are front and center.
The reasons are tried and true. We vote, and we give money.
Younger people might do the first, and sometimes do the second. But so often, they are too busy and too cash-strapped to lean into campaigns the way their elders do.
So, we oldies-but-goodies will soon see and hear the familiar script: Door knockings, event invitations, mailed leaflets and fundraising phone calls.
Yes, it can all be tedious and annoying. But I, for one, will welcome it.
There’s no extra credit for casting a thoughtful vote. Either you vote or you don’t. Doing your homework doesn’t really matter in the end.
But among my agemates, as campaigns ramp up, I nevertheless sense a desire to vote smart.
We veterans of life won’t be easily swayed by snazzy TV ads, or candidates who pander to what they think we want to hear. We gravitate toward real-deal politicians who understand the Greek root of that word — “Polis,” or a city of people. People as in who it’s all about.
One friend, well into her 70s, turns political door knocking into a cross examination. She thanks the candidate for knocking, and then starts grilling.
Where do you stand on women’s rights? What are you going to do to safeguard the climate?
Ask candidates how they feel about such interrogations, and the more enlightened ones will tell you that they are welcome.
“So often, when I knock on a door, and a younger voter answers, the questions I get are teeny tiny,” says one candidate I know well. “What am I going to do about the busted streetlight on the corner? About teenagers speeding? About late trash pickup?
“It’s actually a relief to meet voters who are tuned into bigger issues. They are almost always older.”
Another candidate heaves a private sigh of relief when the door isn’t answered by a young parent.
“Schools are such a flash point these days,” that candidate told me. “But I’m not running for the school board. Whenever I explain that, the parent thinks I’m ducking and dodging. It’s very difficult.”
Yet older voters care about schools, too. And not only because their grandchildren attend them.
For two years, these older voters have heard about the educational fallout from COVID — how tough it has been on kids to stare at a computer screen for hours on end. Older voters know that any campaign has to be about education and the pandemic above all else.
But it’s also a mistake to underestimate the power of emotion. I will not soon forget a political debate I attended four years ago. The audience was 95 percent over the age of 65. One of the candidates fell in that age range. His opponent was in his 20s.
Back and forth they went, about problems great and small. Questions from the floor were sharp and savvy. The tone of the event was impressive — no personal attacks, just honest disagreements about how public money should be spent.
Right beside me, in the back, sat two women who were clearly pals. They were also clearly grandmothers.
How do I know? Because, throughout the debate, they stage-whispered to each other that the younger candidate reminded them of their grandsons.
Not a word about his policies. Just lots of words about his deep blue eyes.
Intrigued, I asked them later if they intended to vote for the younger candidate for that reason. They both said maybe.
Yet another reminder that politics can sometimes be uncomfortably close to show business. If you’ve got that ring-a-ding-ding, that may be enough.
Meanwhile, older people are right there for the blocking and tackling that every campaign needs.
No candidate has to have envelope-lickers any more — not in the digital era. But every campaign depends on phone bankers, fundraising cold callers and community organizers.
Ask most candidates who can do those jobs well and who volunteers to do them most often. The answer is almost always the same:
People who are retired, but still in possession of their marbles. People who seek purpose in their lives beyond the bygone days of chasing a career and a paycheck.
And when the next election day rolls around, you won’t have to guess which age group is manning the polls, or which will be right there in line once the polls open.
One of those oldie every-year voters will be me.
When I was very young, I walked with my father to our neighborhood polling place. Each year, he would deliver the same civics lesson along the way:
How voting is our voice. How voting is something you should always do. How a single vote does matter.
I think of that, and him, each November. And I will often say to the people in the waiting-to-vote line with me (especially if their hair is gray): “Good morning. Good to see you out here. Glad to see you care.”
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.