Earning the right to gripe
I cast my first presidential vote in 1952. It may have been illegal since I was only seven years old at the time, but the statute of limitations has probably run out by now. Besides, I didn’t actually mark the X on the paper ballot; I just dropped the folded slip through the slot in the collection box.
That was at the old Fourth Ward School on the corner of Foster and South Ryan streets in Lake Charles, which was our neighborhood polling place. My grandfather took me with him that election day (and others) as a civics lesson of sorts. He considered voting a moral obligation right up there with going to church on Sunday, and wanted his grandkids to do the same.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican) and Adlai Stevenson (Democrat) were the presidential contenders that year, and I am all but certain that Stevenson was my grandfather’s choice. He was a Democrat to the core and surely would have never admitted it publicly if he did vote for a Republican. In fact, he hardly spoke to his brother-in-law, Stewart Thomson, for years after he ran for governor as a Republican in 1920. It didn’t make any difference that Stewart lived in the next block and they bumped into each other regularly, or even that Stewart was trounced by Democrat John M. Parker by more than 50,000 votes.
Eisenhower won the 1952 election handily, but Stevenson carried Louisiana and the so-called “solid South.” Like most southern states, Louisiana voted Democratic from the 1860s through World War II. The state favored Franklin D. Roosevelt over Wendell Wilkie in 1940 and over Thomas Dewey in 1944, but broke ranks in 1948 to vote for the States’ Rights candidate Strom Thurmond over Harry Truman.
Louisiana returned to the Democratic fold with the vote for Stevenson in 1952, but supported a second term for Eisenhower in 1956. John Kennedy carried the state in 1960, but since then Louisiana has voted Democratic only three times. In each of those instances it was for a Southern governor _ Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.
Third-party candidate George Wallace won Louisiana’s electoral votes in 1968 when Richard Nixon won his first term, but otherwise Louisiana has been solidly in the Republican column, voting for Barry Goldwater (1964), Nixon (1972), Ronald Reagan (1980, 1984), George Bush (2004), John McCain (2008), Mitt Romney (2012) and Donald Trump (2016).
With only one exception, the Republican candidate has carried every south Louisiana parish west of the Atchafalaya for the last five presidential elections, usually by substantial margins. The exception is St. Landry Parish. Al Gore carried the parish in 2000; Republicans have held a majority in the last four elections, though not as big as in some other places.
I don’t know how my grandfather would vote today, but I do know that he would vote. I also know that his civics lessons stuck with me. I haven’t missed a major election since I became old enough to cast a vote of my own, and not many of the lesser ones.
That appears to put me in the minority these days. It seems that a lot of people have become too busy, too cynical, or just plain too lazy to vote. Some think their vote doesn’t count, and that’s a shame.
When I hear that argument, I’m reminded of how the narrow Bush-Gore election hung for a time on “hanging chads” — the little dots of paper that were supposed to have been punched cleanly through a ballot — and whether the ones that they still clung to the paper should be counted. I also think of the 1960 election in which Kennedy’s popular vote margin over Nixon amounted to just one vote per precinct. (Of course, he won some with more than that and lost some by bigger margins, but that was what it averaged when you counted the vote and the number of voting places nationwide.)
And I am also particularly reminded of an old adage that was often quoted by my dad: “If you don’t vote you have no right to gripe afterwards.” He voted in every election, too —and then took full advantage of his right to gripe and grumble about issues big and small.
That appears to be another of the political legacies that has been handed down to me.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.