aging in a democracy

It seems (knock wood) that we’ve made it through to the other side of our week of illness. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am!

And now, to my odd question from the last post:

As my regular readers know, in 2008 I will be working on matters electoral. One of the things that I’ll be working on this year is a project to encourage seniors (as in the elderly, not those about to graduate) to vote in what are typically called “down ballot” races–i.e. state elections in a presidential election year.

You may be surprised to learn (and indeed, may not care at all) that lots of folks go to the polls and only vote in the race at the top of the ticket. That’s a common occurrence, and is not just limited to the presidential election–if a mayor is at the top of the ticket, you can bet a bunch of city council races will have fewer votes, if a governor is at the top of the ticket, the attorney general’s race will have fewer votes, etc. I should say, I speak from my experience running elections in the U.S.–I have no idea if this is a behavior that is limited to my countryfolk. Perhaps all Canadians vote in every race, diligently researching the ins and outs of the candidates for City Council, perhaps all Australians seek out and interrogate the many candidates for local government before deciding who to vote for, perhaps there are actually places in the world where dogcatcher really is an elected office.

As part of my program, I have access to an unbelievable online voter file. It’s really kind of amazing, what you can get online these days. When I first starting doing election work in the early ’90s, the search technology that existed was pretty limited. I remember one field campaign I ran where I literally spent two hours a day on the phone with the data vendor setting up the lists for the next day’s precinct walking.

We’d do things like take out all the Republican women over 50 one day, and then the next, add them back in and take out independent irregular voters from 18-35. Every search had to be created by some programmer, and if you left out one variable, you’d end up with a list of 2 voters. Or 20,000.

Targeting in campaigns has always been a fairly specific matter. You may think that the mail that you’re getting from Joe INeedUrVote is generic, but more likely than not, you’re getting that specific mail because you are in a certain age range, are a certain gender, buy certain magazines, have a specific voting history. The voting data is public information–campaigns or parties may have to buy it from your secretary of state (or whoever in your state is in charge of keeping the voter rolls), and the other stuff is commercially available.

These days, I can write my own searches, create my own criteria, and spit out a report in a matter of seconds (minutes, if it’s a statewide list). I can decide to target gun-owning, super-voting Democrats who live in a household with a Republican, women aged 40-55, men from 30-55. I can mail to non-registered African Americans who live in a precincts that have a 70% or higher Democratic Performance Index. I check a bunch of boxes, and I’m good to go.

And I can find seniors who have moved, to try to re-register them to vote. Which leads me to the question I asked the other day.

It’s hard to imagine that I might someday not care about voting anymore. Yet my experience with talking to seniors on the phone about elections over the past 16-odd years lets me know that, yes, for some people, this becomes just another annoyance–or worse. I IM’d a friend of mine the same question yesterday, and she reminded me of a phone conversation she’d had with a senior during the 2006 election where the woman said, “Everyone I know is dead. I just don’t care anymore.” (The same friend’s answer to my ‘how old will you be’ question? “33”)

Is it fair for me to push that woman to vote, one more time? At some point, should your super-voter status get you an end-of-life pass, instead of a constant stream of phone calls urging you to vote for one candidate or another?  Am I being ageist in assuming that the very old just don’t care as much as those of us still in the scrum of getting by, and raising kids, and hanging out on DailyKos, and all that other, public sphere kind of stuff?

It’s a question that I’ll struggle with this year, as I look at lists of senior high-rises and nursing homes with polling places in the lobbies, and voters over the age of 95.


January 10, 2008. politically motivated, work.


  1. Carrie replied:

    I can’t imagine a day will ever come when I don’t want to vote. I would think the economy, Social Security and Medicare will be very important to me in 40 years!

    That said, my 81 year old grandma proudly tells everyone that she’s never voted. Proudly! *horror* She’s also proud that she hasn’t read a book since she left high school. I don’t understand.

  2. chichimama replied:

    Wow. Now I want to see what the databases look like these days.

  3. alala replied:

    Could it be that a significant percentage of those older people never cared all that much about voting to begin with? Or become disillusioned over time? I’m only 37, and I can see things coming around again.

    Then, too, some might have physical challenges to deal with – would you still want to vote if just getting to the polling place took up most of your afternoon, or if you had to endure physical pain for it? Everyone has to set their own limits, I guess.

  4. penguinunearthed replied:

    Glad to hear the family is better. I’m afraid I can’t answer your question for our (Australian) voters – we don’t vote for nearly as many positions as you do, and our local, state and federal elections are at different times, and elections are compulsory!

    But for your original question, most of the older people I know have continued with the level of political interests as their younger days – perhaps exaggerated a bit. So my mother-in-law has never much cared, and cares even less. But my friend’s 90 something grandmother really suffered from being the only left winger in her nursing home during our recent election, because she wanted some like minded people to talk politics with.

  5. guerson replied:

    speaking of elections… this was on a newsfeed today:

    “Canadians so “massively favour” the U.S. Democratic Party that they’d vote for any of its leading candidates in order to trump a Republican opponent, according to a new Harris-Decima poll. The survey conducted for the Canadian press says that 49 percent of Canadians would vote for a Democrat, as compared to 12 percent in favor of a Republican. If Canadians could vote, the Democrats would defeat the Republicans by a four-to-one margin.”

    And yet, we managed to elect a conservative government of our own… go figure…

  6. Jennifer (ponderosa) replied:

    This is completely anecdotal, but for what it’s worth: My 65-year-old father, who was active politically and socially for many years, told me, “I don’t have to care any more. Now it’s your turn to run the country.”

  7. Comfort Addict replied:

    My Dad, although now 91 and blind, is still very interested in politics. However, every person, no matter what age, is free to decide whether or not to vote or participate in the political process to any degree. This frustrated me a lot more when I was a young, dedicated campaign worked in 1976 than it does today. As long as people have carefully considered their decisions, I would support them.

    I vote in down-ticket races. However, I wish I could get more information about each candidate than the few terse responses I see in the newspaper. I know that the local races are very important to my daily life and that I could probably find out what I want to know if I worked harder at it. I guess that I’ve drawn my own line and, for now, am living with it.

  8. Marie-Anne replied:

    Guerson, that’s because the Conservatives in Canada are basically the American Democrats. For an equivalent to the Republicans here in Canada, you’d be looking at something like the Wildrose Alliance Party in Alberta.

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