Cambridge Seniors Recall Their First Elections

By Renay Sinay
Boston University News Service

CAMBRIDGE – As Election Day dawned on Cambridge, residents gathered early at the polling station at the Cambridge Rehabilitation and Nursing Center near Central Square. Many of them were elderly, and voters like them are playing a prominent role in Presidential politics this year.

In fact, between 75-80 percent of people over the age of 65 voted in the last two elections in Massachusetts, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. That is twice the rate of voters under 35.

Despite many years of voting, the commitment of many senior citizens to performing this basic civic duty appears to remain strong.

Theresa Jarosiewicz, 84, has fuzzy memories of her first presidential election in 1948, when Harry Truman ran against Thomas E. Dewey, his Republican challenger.

“My first time voting was better than getting my driver’s license,” she says.

Voting has only become more important to her over the years, she notes.

“As you get old, you realize that you need to get out there, no matter what the weather,” she says. “They should have compulsory voting here like in Brazil.”

While she remembers the Truman-Dewey election as “very patriotic,” Jarosiewicz says today’s election is the most important one she’s voted in so far. She cites the ballot question on physician-assisted suicide as the issue that irks her the most.

“I voted no on the mercy killing,” as she calls the assisted-suicide option. “If you really wanted to die, you would just refuse all medications. My husband did that.”

Her only complaint about the changes time has wrought is that the new voting-machine technology has had no effect on the long lines at polling stations.

“There’s too much material on the ballot that you have to read,” she says. “That’s why the lines are so long now. It used to move more quickly.”

Another senior Cambridge resident has much greater reservations about voting.

Although Mark Smith, 61, has always been politically engaged, he has become somewhat jaded over the years, he says. Originally from Berkeley, California, he remembers his first Presidential election, the Nixon-McGovern contest in 1972.

He describes himself at the time as a “diehard Democrat, to the left of Democrats,” and says he sorely misses his days as a hippie in Haight-Ashbury. At the time of the election, he says, he was chiefly concerned with not getting drafted, since he had pulled a high number in the lottery in which future draftees were selected.

“I remember that election distinctly, because my [political] number was 54, and I would have gone [to Vietnam],” he says. “The election set up the pieces that then played out.” He says that if he had been called up, “I probably would have left the country, which would have made a big difference in my life.”

But since his days of protesting the war, Smith has shifted his party registration, changing his designation from Democratic to independent.

As he looks back on that fraught time now, he admits he has become a cynic.

“There was a time when I believed a lot of the political stuff. I cared a lot,” he says. “I don’t believe it anymore.”

Smith voted for the Libertarian ticket on Tuesday because he is dissatisfied with both Obama and Romney, he says.

“I really think they’re all the same. Anyone who has a lot of integrity never makes it because you have to be part of the system,” he says, adding that, “This is the closest I’ve ever come to not voting.”

He says he has become increasingly pessimistic about the utility of voting.

“I remember the first wave of counter-culture stuff, and you really believed that you were going to change the world,” he says. “But guess what, it didn’t happen and it’s not going to.”

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