Today marks the latest Election Day in which my mother, Katherine K. Neuberger, will not participate.
She will not enter Thompson Elementary School in Lincroft to cast her vote just after the polls open, her Election Day routine, because she died on October 15, 1982. In her life, she never missed the opportunity to vote in a quadrennial election, gubernatorial election, midterm election, special election or school-board election.
My mother voted for the first time at age 21, in the 1928 presidential race between Alfred E. Smith and Herbert Hoover. Her last vote in a presidential contest was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan challenged Jimmy Carter. Between these events, she voted 12 times to confer the awesome powers of the presidency on a single individual — and she relished the activity, waiting expectantly to cast her ballot on paper or by machine.
Her name has now been removed from the voting rolls. Even the old-timers gathering at the polls on Election Day won’t remember her, though her portrait hangs in Lincroft’s small public library.
After exercising what she perceived as her highest civic duty, my mother would remain to serve as a poll watcher or return in the evening to supervise the ritual of counting paper ballots. The ceremony of recording the people’s decisions on tally sheets, which were then relayed to party headquarters, was as precious to her as that of presenting medals to Olympic athletes.
My mother must still hold the state record for distributing applications for absentee ballots. Months before an election, she would ask me about my whereabouts on Election Day. If there were any clues that I would be absent from the state, a ballot application would magically appear in my mailbox. Not content with trusting me to read instructions, she would carefully outline them in a handwritten note.
As I grew older, her passion for voting did not diminish. For many years, I lived in Washington, D. C., when its citizens did not have the franchise. Appalled at this state of affairs, my mother insisted that I leave some of my property in her home, so I could continue to vote (by absentee ballot, naturally) in New Jersey. She held that a citizen’s right to vote in a democracy superseded the technicalities of residency regulations.
My mother gathered voters as swiftly as a lawn sweeper sucks up autumn leaves — and always in a bipartisan spirit. She was dedicated to process rather than party, for even her household held moles who’d be voting for candidates she opposed.
I found my mother’s flexibility admirable given her considerable success in politics. She rose from the proverbial envelope-stuffer at local headquarters to a power on the state and national scene. She served as president of the New Jersey Federation of Republican Women for two terms and as the Republican national committeewoman from New Jersey for 15 years.
She was often a delegate or an alternate to the Republican National Convention. She served on the prestigious Platform Committee at one convention and gave a seconding speech for the vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, at another.
I keep a picture of that moment — she is smiling broadly on the podium with her arm upraised — on the wall of my study. It is my mother at one of the happiest moments of her life, and it makes me happy too.
My mother associated Election Day with these hallowed words from the Declaration of Independence: “All men (and women) are created equal.” A student of political science, she believed that we are all equal at the moment we cast out ballots despite social and economic inequities.
If my mother had lived to see this Election Day, she would be pleased with the concept of early voting. Yet, she would be angered by voter-suppression laws which threaten the minority voters’ right to participate.
Well, Mother — I will vote today and I will be in New Jersey, and so will have no need for an absentee ballot. I will study the public question on the ballot carefully, as you always counseled me to do, and try to accept with equanimity your dictum to “trust the people” when the results are reported.
Finally, when I walk in the voting booth and close the curtain, I will be thinking of you.
When I touch the screen, I will be voting for both of us.