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FIRST PERSON

Politics Makes for Strange Booth-Fellows

November 02, 1998|JANET EASTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standard cardboard voting booths are only 30 inches deep. There is barely room for indecision, let alone a struggle between two oversized people.

Let me explain.

Ever since my son, Eric, was a toddler, he has accompanied me into the voting booth. My thinking? I was teaching him an important lesson about the precious right of citizenship. And Eric? He liked playing with the voting machine. For more than a decade, it was a win-win situation.

Then Eric changed. He's now 15, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Throw in my height (5-foot-11), and on election days we resemble giraffes stuffed into a telephone booth.

But physical size isn't what cramps us. It's politics. I won't say who's the Republican and who's the Democrat--just that I know better.

What hurts more in that booth than his size-13 Vans on my suede flats is the knowledge that somehow, somewhere along the line, I messed up. Complicating this mother's guilt is the heavier question: Now that he's a passionate teenager who stubbornly defends his political party, can I trust him to cast my vote when I'm squeezed next to him Tuesday? Or must I enter that booth alone, leaving our family tradition outside the plastic curtain?

Sadly, I'm thinking I'll have to go it alone.

Eric was 13 for the last presidential election, and we practically knocked over the cardboard booth, wrestling for control of the chrome lever on the ballot punch. He was ratcheting the red pointer in one direction while I was reminding him that my vote was not up for grabs. It wasn't an altercation that would rock the World Wrestling Federation, but there was enough jostling of the little box to gather a small crowd when we exited.

Fortunately, the polling station people have known us for years; our size and strangeness don't intimidate them.

At home afterward, we watched the election results on TV, and one of us comforted the one whose candidate lost. I remember chocolate chips were involved.

I guess I should be grateful that Eric even cares about politics. The number of young voters has dropped over the years, from a high of 42% in 1972--when the right to vote was extended to 18-year-olds--to 29% in 1996.

But if he's going to be a dedicated participant in this process, can't he side with me? After all, most 18- to 30-year-olds are registered in the same political party as their parents, according to a survey conducted by Global Strategy Group in New York. And 70% say their parents encourage them to vote.

I really can't blame Eric for being an independent thinker. I was, once I left my parents' home. I grew up in Orange County in the 1960s and '70s where there was only one political party. Then I went away to college, took a political science class from a dynamic teacher who filled in the gaps about the other choices, and--fireworks! I have voted my party line ever since, even during the rough years. This gives me hope that once Eric goes to college, things might straighten out around here.

Until then, I'm haunted by the question: If not me, then who influenced Eric? He says talk radio. I think it was his eighth-grade social studies teacher. Mr. Sietz was a true orator who engaged his students in heavy discussions on politics, economics and the future. He fired them up with rousing lectures on civic duty and community activism. If only he were campaigning for my side.

At the end of the school year, Mr. Sietz invited his students to explain why they choose to support one political party over the others. Eric's speech made me cry because I realized that he wasn't just being rebellious. He was a true believer. And I was very proud of him.

Then Eric asked a favor of me: He will turn 18 a month after the next presidential election. But he wants to vote now. His plan? We would both enter the voting booth--like old times--but he would decide which candidate would receive the punch of approval.

I thought about the legal and ethical consequences. But more than that is involved here.

Eric is my child. I endured an irritating, drugless labor for him. I was deprived of sleep and dry shoulders for his first two years. I worked all night to construct a sheep costume out of cotton balls for his preschool Christmas pageant. I bailed him out of the principal's office in junior high. Who knows what other sacrifices I will have to make before he graduates from high school?

But give him my vote?

I can see the future. He's going to cancel me out in every election after 2000. Give him my vote now? No way. He's going to have to wait a little longer for that privilege.

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