I Drove 3,582 Miles to Vote for the President
Susan Straight on the Sacred Act of Casting a Vote
I just drove 3,582 miles, for eight days, with only my dog for company, to vote. I drove across the longest bridge over ocean waters, then across two Canadian provinces, and then across 15 states. Tuesday, I will walk three blocks to a church hall where I have voted for 28 years.
But in this crazy election season, what if Americans are so disgusted, and feel so disenfranchised, that they won’t even bother? We’re not the best at getting out the vote. People from other countries are appalled at our national apathy when it comes to marking a ballot.
I’ll be leaving Prince Edward Island—a place where people used to wait at the end of mile-long dirt lanes covered with snow for the designated drivers of their political parties to come pick them up with horses and sleds, because no one would ever miss voting. They take voting so seriously that everyone on long country roads knew exactly when you’d voted, and from the sled or car, how you’d voted. Jokes are told about elections: This one fella, a Conservative, hired his neighbor, a Liberal, to clean out his well on Election Day. Hell if he didn’t pull up the ladder and leave the Liberal down there in the well until the polls closed.
No one ever comes to get us in California, to transport us to the polling place. America has one of the lowest voting rates in the world; Prince Edward Island, Canada, has one of the highest.
Before I left, I went to bingo at the one-room schoolhouse in Selkirk, a tiny community on the eastern wing of the island. If you’re thinking Anne of Green Gables, some things are unchanged. Islanders love politics. Readers may forget how much Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the elderly brother and sister who adopt an orphan girl in the 1800s, talk about politics, and how much political life informs the novels written by L.M. Montgomery. The night Anne saves the life of her best friend’s baby sister, the adults had gone to Charlottetown to see the Prime Minister speak, and Marilla had proudly and personally questioned him on his views.
Bingo is also serious business on Prince Edward Island. There were 25 women (and one husband) at the Armadale schoolhouse, built in 1888, a white wooden building with the old well in the yard where we all parked on the grass. At the table behind me were Franny and Bernice, two women in their 80s who went to this school and then taught here. They were among nine children raised in the farmhouse, once the post office, adjacent to the brick house, once the store, at the crossroads of Bear River Road. Ten years ago, I bought the former store from the woman raised there with her sister, and my three daughters and I have spent time here every year.
“You’re here late this year!” some women called to me before play began. I told them my girls, grown now, were all working, and I’d nearly lost my sight before eye surgery in July. “Seen your rig in the yard last week! Good you’re home now!” another woman said.
Many people who’ve had to leave for work—to the “oil patch” of Alberta, to Toronto or Montreal, to Boston—come back in summer; home is said with a resonance stronger than anywhere I’ve ever heard. During each iteration of bingo—two lines, postage stamp, four corners, or kite—women would call at breaks: “Is he down home now, there?” or “He died out West but they just brought him home today, God love him.”
They know I live in California. They know my dad is from New Brunswick, just across the Northumberland Strait. Not a single woman has ever said anything to me about belonging except to welcome me “home” with food and King Cole tea.
I can barely keep track of one sheet, but the other two women at our table—both my age, from two other roads nearby—had four and six sheets going at a time. We were using daubers—inked markers like fat candles in our hands, which left bright circles on each number—and they marked their sheets quickly, talking the potato harvest which would start next week, the herring and mackerel fishery which was going on now, children who were back to college or off to work out West. I was dizzy. The soft thump of daubers was like pattering rain.
Entry was a lottery ticket and a prize; there were 24 prizes in the front, ranging from mystery bags containing candles, books, crocheted pot-scrubbers, and candy; home-baked shortbread in tins (mine); twelve-packs of Charmin or six-packs of paper towels (always welcome prizes); and five-dollar bills. I was nervous about the shortbread. Baked goods are no joke among these women, who put on a “benefit” in a social hall when someone is hospitalized or their house burns down, and where cakes are auctioned off for hundreds of dollars. Baking is a fundamental gauge of someone’s personhood—generosity, skill, and community.
Aside from me, everyone in the schoolhouse was descended from three groups of islanders: Mi’kmaq, the Native inhabitants of this place; Acadians who were driven from France in the 1700s; and Catholics who fled Scotland—the Hebrides and the Highlands—in 1773 when English landlords forbade them to practice their religion.
“How long are you home, then?” asked Franny and Bernice. (They’d already won multiple games. I won one game—my first in three years of playing.)
“I have to go back by November 1,” I said. “I have to vote on November 8.”
“Well, of course you do, eh?” they said, nodding. “But will everyone else take it seriously?”
“Yes, will they actually go out and vote? That doesn’t happen in America, eh? People don’t vote!”
Prince Edward Island, the smallest province in Canada, has for decades led Canada in voter turnout. In the October 2015 federal election—won by the Liberal Party, making Justin Trudeau Prime Minister—PEI had a 77 percent voting rate, of the island’s 113,000 registered voters. (Canada’s national turnout was 68 percent.) It’s not about numbers; it’s about pride of place, tradition, and power of choice, among islanders who survive harsh weather and hard work that would astonish outsiders. Historically, since the European-descended islanders were determined enough to come here for their religious and political beliefs, voting has remained their absolute passion. Daughters and sons of the women at bingo had told me, “Oh, they might even miss church if the lanes were snowed in, but they’d never miss voting. People would come get them. They came to get everyone.”
In 1970, when many roads were still clay and gravel, island turnout was 87 percent; in 1986, 88 percent; and in 2007 85 percent. During a baby shower, with 20 women (four generations of islanders in one room), Franny and Bernice and their sister Eileen all talked about how their parents voted, how even if the snow was deep “someone always came to drive you. They’d make sure you found a way there.” As in Anne of Green Gables, people had gone by sleigh and box sled to vote, wrapped in buffalo robes, then later by truck and car. This province doesn’t mess around. They can quote you those turnout numbers.
In our last Presidential election, 2012, US voter turnout was 54.9 percent. The last time our national turnout reached 70 percent was in 1900.
As of yesterday, California, my native state, has 19.4 million registered voters—more than the population of 46 other states. But America often jokes that it doesn’t matter if a single Californian goes to the polls, by the time we vote, hours after swing states and polling and projections on big screen televisions everywhere, concession speeches are being given. But in my birth family and my married family, everyone has always voted, no matter what. The rest of the country, though, has put up dismal percentages. Will this year actually be different, or will people be too tired and disgusted to show up or to mail in a ballot?
“It’s not even hard to get to the polls in America, is it?” the Prince Edward Island women said.
“Your bad weather hasn’t even set in yet.”
“She’s in California—they don’t have bad weather.”
“Holy jumpin, but you drove here,” Danita, another cousin, said.
“I did,” I replied. “I’ll drive home for seven days to vote.”
“Well, she has to drive,” Franny said. “She’s got the dog, eh?”
“Yes, you’d better allow enough time,” Bernice said. “You can’t miss voting. You all have been talking about it long enough.”
They all laughed again. Last summer, while I was here in August, Canadians were in an uproar because their election cycle, which by law normally lasted eight weeks, had been expanded by the Conservative party to eleven weeks, and Liberals were convinced that was because the Conservatives had more money and wanted to use the extra time for advertising. So many Canadians complained about how they didn’t want to hear about elections for that extra three weeks that I was the one laughing on our constant round of visits and tea and biscuits. “Your election cycle is two years, eh?” they laughed. Then they shook their heads.
“That’s a terrible thing,” people always say to me here on the island. Potato farmers, lobster fishermen, people who harvest blueberries, worked at senior care homes, teachers and contractors, men who cut firewood and deliver heating oil. “Politicians are supposed to do their own work. Not entertain people all year. They’re so busy arguing you don’t get anything done, eh?”
I heard Donald Trump’s voice during the first GOP debate, the day I re-entered America through Maine, having had rare internet on my rural road, and having not heard NPR for six weeks. That was August 7, 2015. Post-debate debate centered on aggressive mentions of blood and Megyn Kelly, which I heard just after I crossed the border.
* * * *
The actual moment of marking a ballot is the only true secret left in our lives. My friends here on the island wonder if Americans will actually get up and drive to their polling places, or walk there, or take the time to mail the ballot—whether they’ve remembered to register at all, if they hadn’t before. Will they wait in line? These islanders remember being cut off from the eastern mainland of Canada by ice and storms when the ferry couldn’t make it, when the food ran low and the snowdrifts high in winter. Driving for seven days to vote doesn’t seem that hard to them. Or to me and the dog.
I drive because of the dog. Really, I save about $500, but it’s the dog. She’s a black flat-coated retriever from the pound. She weighs 60 pounds. She can’t fly.
For several years, I’ve packed two boxes of books and clothes, and some sandwiches, and dogfood. My dog and I leave home in inland southern California, 52 miles from the Pacific Ocean. I turn north on Interstate 15 and drive about 800 miles to Salt Lake City, turn east onto Interstate 80, and drive for four days. In Boston, I turn north onto Interstate 95, and drive for three more days, until we reach the end of the road, figuratively. (95 goes for a few more miles into the Maine woods.) We have seen varieties of American beauty—desert to Rockies, the Continental divide and antelope on the prairies, the waterways of legend—Mississippi and Hudson—corn and wheat, trucks full of onions and pigs and cows, forests and coast and the birthplace of two Bush presidents and then the land of moose. I’ve never seen a moose but I always think I will.
Last week, I packed up my two boxes of clothes and food, along with maple syrup and maple butter for my dad, and we drove west. Across the Confederation Bridge, crossing into New Brunswick, Canada, birthplace of my stepfather, who left in 1952 for California, after his parents were told to go West by doctors who said their lungs might not survive another Maritime winter. In US citizenship class, in Riverside, California, my dad met my mother, who was born in Switzerland. I was three years old. She was getting divorced. They got married a year later. I grew up watching them talk passionate politics, and voting for different parties. It was hilarious and instructive. They loved each other. That had nothing to do with politics. My father-in-law was a black man who told his six children, “People died so you could vote.” They always vote. At 18, I was registered to vote, along with my future husband, while we stood in line for the movie premiere of the original Star Wars.
The next day, the dog and I crossed the border, hit Interstate 95 and drove south through Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. At Boston, I turned right on Interstate 90 that becomes 80, and drove for five days. I always think I’ll see a moose, but I never do. I see deer, and hunters, and the waterways of legend – Hudson and Mississippi. Then corn and stubble, trucks full of onions and piglets and cattle, forests and then prairie, antelope and loping coyotes, and the Continental divide. At Salt Lake City, I turn left on Interstate 15 and drive for two more days, through the desert and to my home in California.
I told my island friends that Tuesday, I will walk half a mile on palm-frond shaded sidewalks to vote in the Lutheran church where I’ve never missed voting for 28 years since I moved to my street. But last night, talking to someone in California about my arrival, he told me his friend is flying home from Beijing to vote. Now that’s impressive.