California and National Elections

Once Young Voters, They Never Gave Up The Habit

By Marton Dunai and Laila Weir
November 4, 2002 11:29 AM

BERKELEY - Sitting in the North Berkeley Senior Center's tiny gift shop, reading the Economist and fiddling with her earrings, 92-year-old Ruth Moser Chesboro discussed why people of her generation are more than twice as likely to vote as students.

"I've voted in practically every election," she said, putting down the magazine.

Even in a place like Berkeley, home to 32,000 university students who shape the city in many ways, it is the elderly who do the voting on Election Day.

Seniors said the voting age gap is not a matter of the elderly having more time or being more dependent on such government services as health care.

It's a matter of habit - and principle.

Chesboro's contemporaries agreed, saying they, too, have rarely missed an election since they first came of age.

Numbers support the claim that their generation voted more in their youth than young people today. Four decades ago, one in two young people voted, but in the last presidential race, only one in three, according to U.S. census records.

To many seniors, voting is a right and a duty. They grew up closer to the time when women gained the vote, nations were being turned upside down by communism and fascism and the Great Depression was causing upheaval at home. Those events helped to form an early belief that voting is a precious - and hard-won - freedom.

Clara West and her family learned the value of that freedom the hard way. The 65 year-old African American high school treasurer voted as soon as she was 21. But she remembers when her grandfather voted for the whole family, because they couldn't afford the poll tax that some states charged to discourage African American voters.

As a reminder, West still treasures a few poll tax receipt slips. "I want to get them framed," she said. "I have to vote for all of these people who did not vote, could not vote."

She also votes for those who could vote, but don't. In the predominantly African American Oakland Technical High School, West gets mad when she sees how ignorant some of the students and their families are about voting.

"My generation is the last generation that takes this seriously," she said.

"It's a duty; it's a responsibility," said Helen, a frequenter of the city-run senior center, who declined to give her last name. "If we're not responsible, everything that's been gained could just vanish. There's always that. That's why it's essential to go out and vote."

Seniors suggested that young people today may feel apathetic, cynically believing their votes don't matter. Have they ever felt that way?

"Never," said Hyshka Stross, 74. In a maroon turtleneck and matching beret, she refreshed her pink lipstick, as she recalled political engagement in a different time. "It was felt America was somewhere you could do something with your life."

Stross and others said they believed that each vote is important. Jim Moore, 98 and a life-long communist, said he believes the world - even a socialist revolution - is shaped one vote at a time. "By voting you get ideas, an opportunity to express those ideas, and they become part of life," he said.

At 64, Harv Niemela is a year shy of senior citizenship - but he echoed the sentiments of his older friends.

"I thought that voting's one of the main rights we have in this country," he said, recalling his excitement on reaching voting age. He first voted in a Berkeley garage, where he marked his choices with a rubber "X" stamp. "There were a few things I wanted to do when I turned 21 and registering to vote was the main one."

Seniors said it was from their parents and at school that they learned to value voting.

"My father said, 'If you don't like something, the ballot box is first,'" said Niemela.

Ann Cook, 92, a retired third-grade teacher, said she always saw instilling a sense of citizenship in her students as part of the job. Her teachers had done the same for her, she said.

So why don't young people today have the same sense? "I don't think young people have been turned on to voting; they haven't been inculcated," said Hoss Rauh, 71. "They don't think their vote counts."

Cook, the teacher, was less charitable. It's "because they're stupid," she said. "They're stupid because they should appreciate it."