By MARC MELTZER
Gretchen Falk remembers well her first time voting in Chicago after moving here from California 50 years ago.
“I was a little taken aback because when I asked how these voting machines worked, the judge there got in the booth with me and tried to do my voting for me,” she said with a smile. “Now I know I’m in Chicago, I thought. I said, ‘No I can take care of this myself.‘ Then he said just pull that lever.”
Gretchen and her husband Walter were among about a half-dozen residents of the Montgomery Place retirement community in Hyde Park who reminisced about voting and elections through the years and offered plenty of suggestions for ways to improve how it’s done.
Walter Falk jested that “In Cook County, it used to be a joke that just having an Irish name gave you an extra 10 percent of votes. And being first on the ballot and having an Irish name, then wow.”
Maria Neighbors said that her most fun experience as a voter came when she and her son voted for President Obama. “The (polling place) was packed and both of us were just so excited that it didn’t matter how long we had to wait because we were just so convinced that it was something we had to do. It was one of the best times I had voting that I can ever remember.”
On the other hand, when Paul Bruce lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the 1940s, he didn’t bother to vote. “I didn’t even want to find out where my polling place was because I just didn’t want to get into that kind of hassle, and I didn’t know what might happen to me if I showed up saying I want to vote. I didn’t ask about anything because I knew I would just make a lot of trouble for myself and I knew in a small Mississippi town that could be fatal.”
When asked about his experiences related to voting in Florida where he spent much of his life, Astrid Mack said: ”Everything imaginable that was related to segregation took place in Florida.”
Gretchen Falk said her grandmother voted in every election from the time women were given the right to vote until she died at age 94.
Dorothy Scheff, a long-time advocate for voter participation and leader of the League of Women Voters, mused about Mayor Richard J. Daley’s admonishment to “vote early and vote often.”
Neighbors said voting should be viewed as a privilege. “And I don’t think we take advantage of that privilege considering how many young people didn’t vote in the last election.
“I think especially for us, us being African American of which I am, I think it’s very important for us to vote. We should make our choices and hopefully make the right choices . . I think it’s very important for us as a group to vote and I think sometimes we’re a little lax in doing that. I’m not sure what can be done about that.”
Scheff added that “people shouldn’t complain about what the government does on taxes or about anything else unless they vote . . . I mean it’s a crime that so many people don’t exercise their right to vote.”
Bruce added, “I have very little sympathy for those who say the wrong guy was elected and I ask did you vote and then I say well shut your mouth. You didn’t vote then you have no right to complain. You should ask them why they didn’t do it. If they say they’re all a bunch of crooks then they deserve rotten government.”
Gretchen Falk said, “That’s how we got to our present situation nationally. A ot of people who would have voted differently did not vote. And this is the way democracies turn into something else like a dictatorship . . . So I just feel that election was unfortunate. And we’re still suffering. For the next 10 years at least we’ll be suffering from that election.”
She noted that “One thing that could be done to encourage voting would be to return civics and that type of instruction into high schools. When we went to high school you learned about the importance of voting and about government and as I understand it many times they do not teach this anymore, so education could be improved greatly.”
Scheff said when she was a child, “you couldn’t graduate from school until you had taken the civics class and knew about the government and the rules and the Constitution. During a cutback they cut civics out of all of Chicago schools.”
Walter Falk has another suggestion. Reduce the number of candidates running for a particular position. “Here in Cook County we had an incredible number of candidates on the ballot.
“And as far as judges being elected that’s an atrocious thing because people don’t know who they voting for.”
Dr. Donald Williams said, “No matter who gets into office you really don’t feel that your issues are going to be dealt with by anybody. That’s how I see it. That’s how I think most African Americans feel.”
Scheff lamented the outcome of elections. “We have candidate forums here at Montgomery Place, and we all come away excIted about two or three candidates. When the results come, they always lose. And we wonder who’s counting the ballots. We get really disappointed when the candidates you admired and who had many qualities just gets dropped.”
Neighbors said, “I am just more determined to vote whether it makes any difference or not.”
Walter Falk said the electoral college should be abolished partly to encourage voting. “Every vote should count,” he said.
Gretchen Falk said gerrymandering also discourages voting. Walter Falk added that the “politicians who are going to benefit from the results of the election should not be the people drawing the district lines.” He advocated an independent commission should do that.
Scheff noted the choices people now have to vote, like early voting, by mail and absentee – choices that she said people take advantage of in greater numbers.