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September 21, 2012

Has the Time Come for Compulsory Voting?

Harry M. Covert

The serious business of voting always has a happy side. Candidates are special and can make the races fun as they go for the gold, another word for hard work.


The campaigning life is hard, up early and late to bed. There’s always a wag out there who likes to figuratively throw rotten tomatoes or intentionally use verbal miscues to embarrass. This includes experts in the Fourth Estate who make it their business to mix fact and fiction. The latter can be fun, too.


Heading into the November elections, it’s time to hope and pray for beautiful weather to entice registered voters. The idea that Frederick citizens would miss this opportunity is anathema. Time has come to consider compulsory voting for those 18-t070 years of age. Why not?


Not that it matters, but 32 countries around the globe require voting. Those who don’t vote pay a fine. Correct. They’re fined. A 20-year-old Australian sailor, aboard ship in the South Pacific, missed. No escape. He was fined, paid it and disciplined by his captain.


Frederick County’s population is 236,745, if census figures are accurate, slightly fewer than 150,000 are voters.


Just as licenses are required to drive on public and private roadways, citizen voting should be required. Politicians more often than not get a bad rap but it takes lots of courage, time and thick skins if they dare to stand up and be counted. Those who don’t vote shouldn’t complain.


Imagine the amount of fines the county’s treasury could collect. Balloting is expensive. Perhaps voting should be done by using snail mail. This method could help save taxpayer dollars and maybe rescue to the U.S. Postal Service. Objections are obvious.


On the day I reached 21 years of age in the Old Dominion, I proudly and innocently marched down to the voter registration office. There in the courthouse the registrar had a few questions for me. Was I a property owner? Had I paid my taxes? How long had I lived in the city? I also produced a copy of my birth certificate and even my draft card, which I still have, all brown with age and showing 1-A. I never burned it and was never called up.


The registrar’s questioning seemed akin to being interrogated by the city police. All I wanted to do was vote. I did what I was told and signed the form. I was excited and ready for the next election. Then I heard, “You gotta pay the poll tax.” No one had alerted me about more taxes. But a tax to vote? I put up a small argument but she didn’t crack a smile. Firmly as a prison matron, she said, “If you want to vote you have to pay the $1.50 poll tax.” I had a dollar bill and at least 50 cents in assorted change. I just made it.


In today’s world it’s incredible to hear about people who have trouble pulling the right lever or punching out the right holes. In my early days you just marked the ballot with a pencil, paid the poll tax and kept the receipt just in case you were challenged. You couldn’t pay the tax the day before the election or on voting day.


I started working the polls. In those days Virginia allowed 15-year-olds to drive if you could pass written driving and then parking tests. That was intimidation for a 15-year-old. The examiner was a stern-faced uniformed and armed Division of Motor Vehicles agent, dressed similar to state policemen. You had to drive around the block, give hand signals out of the window and park between two imaginary cars without bumping the curb. Fortunately I passed.


In the spring, there came the primary elections. A friend offered me an Election Day job. I couldn’t vote, but I could drive people to the polls. I loved it. The pay was five bucks and a lot of tips. We managed to get many people safely to the voting booths and no one complained.


Precincts were fun to be around. We’d pick up the voters, drive to the proper voting place and wait. While waiting we enjoyed all kinds of homemade cakes and pies and sandwiches. I liked the chocolate meringue pies and political talk.


Sometimes, we had to make late rides because it was getting near to closing time and the candidate or candidates needed an extra bit of help.


I didn’t know the difference between the parties in those days.


It was a joy to attend the Great Frederick Fair last weekend with all of the tractor and horse pulls, demolition derbies, farm displays, food and entertainment. It was fun to see politicians at work. I saw Sheriff Chuck Jenkins busy shaking hands, smiling and enjoying himself. “You’re not running this time are you? You’re not campaigning?”


Without missing a beat, he said, “I’m always campaigning.” Makes sense.


I ran into Delegate Kelly M. Schulz, District 4A, Frederick County, a warm smile and greeting all comers and a hug. That’s real campaigning.


These days, there are new voting rules, mainly no $1.50 poll tax and 18 year olds are franchised. But, times have changed. Fifteen-year-olds don’t drive.


I may just be available as a poll driver and help out Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.


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