As the post-election drama drags on, senior voters in Florida have stepped onto the center stage. Much of the re-count debate has focused on elders’ ability to figure out the ballot – and less on how they feel about the issues.
Tuesday, some older Berkeley residents said the ballots are not the problem. They placed the blame on the American political system. Although both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have promised to make seniors a priority if elected president, these older voters said that it is just the usual lip service.
“In Florida, instead of kissing babies, they were symbolically kissing us,” said Harry Siitonen, a resident at the Strawberry Creek Lodge. He is one of more than 170 residents at this west Berkeley senior housing facility, where a voting booth was stationed during the election.
Siitonen, who worked the polls Nov. 7, said turnout in the precinct was high. “We were given 650 ballots and I would say more than 500 were used,” he said. The few people that reported having difficulties voting, he said, were told to rip up their ballots and vote again.
Their votes were counted, but the recent hullabaloo in Florida over the vote re-count appears worrisome to some older voters, who said the neck-to-neck elections this year shed light on serious flaws in the political system.
“I’m 92 and I was born and raised in this country. I’ve never seen any thing like this in all my years,” said Edna Breckenridge about Bush’s narrow hold over the electoral vote.
Some people said they were disturbed by allegations that minority groups in Florida were intimidated from voting.
“I look at the Congress and the Senate and I say, this country is still under white control,” said Frances Catlett of Strawberry Creek, who is African American. “I vote, but now I’m thinking, what’s the use? This country is a white country.”
Maudie Pringle agreed. “I’m from the South and I remember when my grandfather was the only black man to vote in Mississippi.” Pringle said she has volunteered to register voters for many years. “A lot of folks think it don’t pay you to vote anymore. I say let the votes be counted,” she said.
But other seniors said that they were heartened by the growing participation of minorities in American politics. Joanna On-Yong Selby, chairperson of the Alameda County Commission on Aging, said that older minorities are voting as they never have before.
“In the past, minorities were ignored,” Selby said. But thanks to increased immigration and naturalization, she said, aging Asians and Latinos are becoming a force to be reckoned with in politics. “There is much more inclusion now. We are becoming a key vote, so things have really changed,” said Selby, a native of Korea who became a U.S. citizen in 1963.
There will soon be even more older Americans at the polls. In Alameda county, the most recent census estimates report that the 65-and-older population makes up more than 10 percent of a population of more than 33 million. Nationwide, that group is expected to rise from 34.7 million to 70 million, a rise from 13 to 20 percent of the population in the next 30 years.
More senior voters should translate to more political clout. And judging by the number of times both Gore and Bush campaigns brought up “senior” concerns, such as social security and prescription drug plans, that clout is already on the rise.
But Helen Lima, also a Strawberry Creek resident, is not so sure.
“The candidates defined the issues. They didn’t ask us what the issues were,” Lima said.
“They certainly didn’t ask poor people what was important to them.”
Several seniors interviewed at Strawberry Creek and the North Berkeley Senior Center said they have seen more than eight decades of elections, and that the political process has gotten weaker over the years.
“All of us grew up during the New Deal. Our parents were great supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” said Siitonen. “We had faith in the Democrats being friends of the poor. But when they started losing votes, the party shifted to the right.” He was echoed by many other seniors who said that they were angry at Gore for abandoning the basic principles of Roosevelt’s commitment to welfare and public works programs.
Bari Wolfe, a volunteer at the North Berkeley Senior Center, said that she can’t tell the difference between the two major parties any more.
“The sides used to be more clearly defined,” Wolfe said. “We were never even aware of the electoral system back then. It all seemed much simpler.”
But despite their disillusionment with the state of modern politics, Henry Brady, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley, said that older voters are generally more politically active than any other age group. He called them the “civic generation,” and said that their history leads seniors to the voting booths in big numbers.
“Folks of that generation were profoundly affected by the Great Depression and World War II. They were socialized at a time when democracy was an extremely important ideal,” Brady said.
Not everyone is as hopeful as Selby. Charlie Betcher, the Chair of Berkeley’s Commission on Aging, said that he saw many older voters registering for the Green Party because they were disenchanted with bipartisan politics.
“Most people feel that democracy is less now because so much money is involved,” Betcher said, referring to the exorbitant cost of running a campaign these days. “They have become rather cynical.”
But not all seniors agree that the democratic tradition is on the decline. Sheila Kennedy said that she has been avidly watching the election developments on television and feels better informed than in the past.
“Come on, we’re beginning to sound like a bunch of old people,” she warned a small group of residents a discussing the election at Strawberry Creek Lodge. “Not everyone thinks that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.”