First-Time Voter

A “new Austrian” goes to the polls

Dardis McNameeI voted for the first time in 1972, when Richard Nixon ran for re-election and trounced George McGovern with one of the largest election margins in U.S. history – 60.7% of the popular vote and every state in the Union except Massachusetts.

He ran as “President Nixon – Now, More than Ever!”

I had waited a long time to get to be 21 so I could vote, and then, to mollify the student protesters (“Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!”) Congress had passed the 26th amendment the year before, and the voting age was suddenly dropped to 18.

A victory, of course, for all of us in the Peace Movement, although personally, I couldn’t help feeling cheated: I, like many others, would have loved to have voted in 1968. Maybe Gene McCarthy would have stayed in the race. Maybe Bobby Kennedy would have stayed out – and lived.

But in 1972, Nixon had history on his side:  The economy was booming, average Americans were better paid than they would ever be again; the Vietnam War was winding down at last, and relations with China reopened.

Even the embarrassment of the Pentagon Papers – leaked the year before to The New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, that revealed a pattern of government deception  – followed by the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in June, were not enough to turn the election.

It took the two legendary Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Special Council Archibald Cox and a Senate Committee, to make impeachment virtually assured. Nixon resigned on 24 Aug., 1974, after 18 months in office.

So as I said, my first vote was a big deal.  It had absolutely no effect on the election, of course. But it felt important. In 1972, politics felt important.

Today, 29 Sept., I voted for the first time in a national election in Austria. It seemed important, not because of the issues, exactly, or at least not directly. In spite of Europe’s troubles, Austria is prosperous and stable, ordinary people live well and the country is not embroiled in any foreign wars.

In other words, today’s Austria is on the short list of contented countries, for reasons that no one seems to completely understand. And this can make it hard to motivate people to go to the polls. This year’s turn-out was only 66% on election night. And while it jumped to 74% with the mailed ballots, it was well down from 78.8% in 2008, and far below the 84% in 2002.

Still, there are issues: People worry about the low birth rate and the underfunded social welfare system, but also about immigration, about paralysis in the school system and severe over-crowding in the universities.

I was concerned about the coalition, that is, that we need a new one, as the current Red-Black “Grand Coalition” of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP) is, shall we say, out of ideas.

So I looked up my polling place online and headed off to the public school on Kleine Sperlgasse in the 2nd District. This one is very hard to find, hidden down a dingy side alley, giving the whole undertaking the furtive charm of a speakeasy, or revolutionary cell.

Inside, though, all was lightness and good cheer.  My address was checked and a room assigned. At the long registration table, I handed over my Personalausweis (identity card) while they searched the lists for my unlikely Irish name. I was handed a teal-blue envelope containing my ballot, and sent to the third booth from the left – a light-weight folding affair – to fill it out.

It all seemed very simple: No voting machines, no national candidates listed, just a circle under the party to X in, and at the bottom, for those who wished, a list of parliamentary candidates. This is party politics; it’s about ideology, not personalities.

I stood in the booth for quite a while, reading over the ballot and the instructions. The parties were clear; many of the candidates unknown to me. I made my choices. Then I refolded my ballot, put it back in the envelope, exited the booth, and headed back to the long registration table and the large wooden ballot box, with a mailbox-sized slot in the top. I dropped my ballot inside…

Ihr Ausweis, gnädige Frau,” interrupted the poll watcher, handing me my card.  I had nearly forgotten.  I thanked him and turned toward the door, where my friend was waiting. I beamed; he grinned back, and gave a thumbs up. Suddenly, a feeling of joy swept through me, completely unexpected, a rush of pleasure.

I could feel my smile stretching from ear to ear. I had voted, and it had mattered.

At least to me.

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