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What I Really Know

My First Vote

Imagine what millions of us could do by exercising our new right to vote!

Sherri Gilbert in 1971, What I Really Know: About My First Vote

Sherri Gilbert in 1971 at age 18 prepares to register to vote after ratification of the 26th amendment. — Courtesy of Sherri Gilbert

When I turned 18 in March 1971, the Vietnam War and antiwar protests dominated the news. Young men 18 to 20 years old were being drafted to fight for their country yet had no voice in its policies, with the voting age set at 21.

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But nine days before my birthday, the U.S. Senate unanimously agreed to lower the voting age to 18, and by early July, the 26th Amendment had been ratified and signed by President Richard Nixon. I registered immediately and urged all my friends to do the same: Imagine what millions of us could do now just by exercising our new right to vote!

Have we lived up to that promise? I'm not sure where boomers rank, but the percentage of Americans overall who vote is pretty dismal. With people around the world literally dying for the opportunity we seem to dismiss so easily, I am baffled that we too often take this precious right for granted. So, just as in 1971, I still find myself urging friends to participate in the process — even those whose politics cancel out my own vote.

In the mid-1980s I discovered a possible genetic basis of my enthusiasm for voting. In an audiotape my paternal grandfather made about his early life, he recalled a formal debate in which he had taken the position in favor of women's suffrage. His passionate arguments struck a chord with a young woman in the audience who sought him out afterward — and eventually became his wife (and a voter).

I'm sure my grandmother felt the same pride and excitement registering to vote for the first time in 1920 as I did in 1971. And still do.

Sherri Gilbert is a reader from West Palm Beach, Fla.

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