Elections as a Portlander

Pretty much the only time I really miss living on the East Coast, and specifically, in the Washington, DC area is during election season. I know that living through an election in that part of the country is exhausting—the never-ending robocalls, the constant stream of Republican this, Democrat that, the hype that crescendoes into a fever-pitch in the weeks leading up to the big day—but being in Portland, the political dialogue is strangely silent. Most of my friends here in this famously liberal-leaning town have fairly strong political views, but they often do not fall down the lines of Republican vs. Democrat, but rather Mainstream Politics vs. Radical Change and Revolution. When I lived on the East Coast, it was normal for me to talk to my friends about Senate races, presidential politics, what was happening in Congress, but now many of my friends reject all of those institutions outright, believing true change through those avenues is laughable.

Politics in Portland are more personal. They are about whether you compost or how much you ride your bike vs. drive your car or where you buy your food. When it comes to local issues, Portlanders have a fairly strong track record of ponying up for services they deem important, like schools and libraries, as seen in this election, but the amount of conversation I hear about the national political dialogue in the People’s Republic of Portland is almost nil. Perhaps I am not hanging out with the right people. Or perhaps it is the sheer distance between Portland and Washington that makes what’s happening there seem so far away.  And 99 percent of the time, that distance from the political fervor is part of what I love about Portland. But during national elections, I find myself feeling as though I am missing out on part of a broader national debate, something that is supposed to bring our country together to decide on the best path forward.

This feeling is exacerbated by the mail-in ballot system that Oregon has instituted. Instead of driving to a school you’ve never been in, following construction paper arrow signs to the cafeteria or gym or wherever the polls are set up, then standing in line with your fellow citizens, and eventually entering into a voting booth to perform your civic duty, Oregonians simply receive a ballot in the mail a few weeks before the election and spend a few minutes in an afternoon leading up to the election reading about the issues and filling out their vote. Ballots can be dropped in the mail if it’s not too close to the election day cut off time, or at various ballot dropping stations around town. There are no stickers. There is no feeling of comradery as you wait to cast your ballot or pride to share as you leave the polls that you have done your part, spoken your voice. There are also no lines, no waiting times, no having to rearrange your schedule on a specific day in order to vote. It is convenient, sure, but also makes voting feel like an individualized activity rather than a collective action that we as a nation are taking part in.

I remember the night in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected president very clearly. I had moved to Portland just a few months before, and after years of feeling completely opposed to and disgusted by almost everything that was happening in the White House under the Bush administration, seeing Obama become the President was incredibly emotional and freeing. I felt like I could finally relax, set down the anxious worry I was carrying around about the impending apocalypse for a moment. I felt like I had finally been heard, which was the opposite of how I felt during my first presidential election in 2004, which left me feeling despondent and hopeless.

Chelsea and I were at home watching the results roll in on that fateful day in 2008 on a TV we had bought at a yard sale for 50 cents. It wasn’t the best reception, but it didn’t stop us from exploding into tears and hugs and joyful sobs when the election was called for Obama. We ran out onto the balcony of our second story apartment with pots and pans, banging on them with wooden spoons in the chilly night air. We yelled into the darkness, unable to contain our enthusiasm. But we were met with silence, pure and cold as any other November evening. No one else was celebrating, running onto their porches and yelling or making noise.

At the time, my euphoria was so blinding that it made no difference to me whether my neighbors were as enthusiastic about this historic change in our country’s leadership as I was, but hearing about the people streaming into the streets in celebration in Washington from my friends who still lived there made me miss home in a way that I rarely feel. This year felt similar, with me and Eric sitting in my apartment, listening to OPB and refreshing our laptops every few minutes for the latest results. Chelsea and I texted back and forth from her home in Philadelphia throughout the night, waiting to hear. When the election was finally called, Eric and I reached across my kitchen table to give each other high fives.

But the celebration didn’t feel complete until the next day when I called my dad, who had been going door-to-door in Virginia to get people to vote for Obama over the past few months. I congratulated him on his hard work, truly thankful to not only have liberal parents in a largely conservative area of Virginia, but also to experience the election through the eyes of an East Coaster, which, perhaps, I will always be.

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One response to “Elections as a Portlander

  1. I’m always up for a debate! But yes, in Portland, all politics are local. That is where you can have the most direct effect on transformation.

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